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Dementia (aka Daughter of Horror)(1955)

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Dementia (aka Daughter of Horror) (1955)

Let's start by meeting our cast of characters. First we have Mr. John J. Parker, an aspiring filmmaker. He hasn't made a film, but that's of small consequence, since Hollywood in the early 1950s is full of such inexperienced hopefuls. Of more significance is his secretary, Ms. Adrienne Barrett. Her fitful night's sleep will help bequeath to the world one of the most notorious examples of American Expressionism. She came into work one day, still troubled by her nightmare from the night before. Most people forget their dreams on waking, or shake them off quickly. But Adrienne is still haunted, and can't shake it off. She needs to share her vision with someone--so she tells her boss. Now he's haunted, and decides to share it on a far grander scale. "Wouldn't this make a swell movie?" he wonders.

And so John turned to his friends. People like actor Bruno VeSota, who was becoming a familiar face in Roger Corman's stock company. Or cinematographer William C. Thompson, a quick-n-dirty DP who had filmed such exploitation fare as Dwain Esper's Maniac (1934) and Ed Wood's Glen or Glenda (1953). Adrienne played herself, recreating her own dream on the streets of Venice, California--the same dark alleys that Orson Welles would use for Touch of Evil (1958). Ben Roseman pulled double duty, as actor and set designer. Angelo Rossitto appears as a news vendor -- his own real-life job, by the way. Rossitto was as much an old hand at cult movies as anyone else on the team, having appeared in Tod Browning's Freaks (1932), a slew of Monogram cheapies, and continued to appear in nutty movies all the way until 1985's Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.

Together, this motley crew set out to make a 10 minute short film, something Parker could maybe use as a resume piece. By the time they were done improvising new material on the spot and allowing their imaginations to run riot, they had turned the ruminants of Barrett's half-remembered dream into a feature film full of mad details entitled Dementia (1955). They filmed the thing without dialogue, and added a soundtrack later. Composer George Antheil provided a wall-to-wall score, supervised by musical director Ernest Gold and supported by eerie Theremin-like vocals by Gold's then-wife Marni Nixon.

Barrett, whose character is never identified by name but is referred to as "the Gamine" in production documentation, awakes in a dingy hotel room, the steady blinking of neon lights outside painting cruel shadows across her wall. She opens her dresser drawer to contemplate its contents--a knife. Taking the blade with her, she sets out into the night to wander through the city's ugliest truths: men beating women, drunks in the street, attempted rapes, police beating criminals, drug abuse, bribery, the casual mistreatment of menial workers. It is a cold, harsh world. And it always has been: she is personally haunted by her own past, in which her father's abuse of her mother ended in the death of both parents. Dad killed mom, and she then killed her dad. Stuck a knife in his back, literally. Now she lurks the city streets with that same knife, ready to do it all over again. She meets a man, both rich and fat, played by VeSoto. He picks her up and takes her back to his penthouse, but opts to stuff his face with greasy fried chicken before forcing his attentions on her. She waits, patiently, until he decides to reorient his appetites from his face to his groin. But as he approaches her, she flicks that secret blade. The man tumbles from his penthouse window to the street below, blood and cash raining from his plummeting body. She flees the scene of the crime, then realizes the corpse is clutching an incriminating necklace in its hand. She retrieves her jewelry by severing the hand along with it. She is pursued by a cop with the face of her dead father (Roseman). Even after depositing the severed hand in a basket of flowers and taking refuge in an all-night jazz club, the Gamine still cannot outrun her guilt. It will follow her yet, out of her fever dream. She wakes up and wonders what was real and what parts will follow her into waking life; the movie ends, and we too must wonder just how much will follow us back into the world outside...

Dementia's trace-like journey through the underbelly of America, mixing real-world visions of everyday horror with surrealistic imagery, follows a line of influence from Maya Deren's little-known avant-garde film Meshes of the Afternoon. That 1943 production featured Deren herself as both a dreamer and her own nightmare doppelganger (prefiguring Adrienne Barrett's transformation from real life dreamer into a cinematic duplicate), confronting a faceless man and a recurring knife (the fundamental images haunting Barrett's vision). Other films that followed in Dementia's wake would similarly find characters wandering through dreamscapes they cannot recognize as fantasies: Herk Harvey's 1962 Carnival of Souls and Roman Polanski's Repulsion (1965) are among the most often cited. Yet those later works operated in more realistic style than does Parker's film. Dementia looks like a dream, and its Expressionist aesthetics tie it more closely to the silent era classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) than to those other, more contemporary, analogues.

Parker started showing the finished Dementia in 1953 in a handful of theaters around New York City, using his own limited resources and connections to make the bookings. The New York State Censor Board was none too happy about this state of affairs, though, noting that nearly every aspect of the film violated their sensibilities. Declaring Dementia "inhuman, indecent, and the quintessence of gruesomeness," they forced Parker to withdraw it. Years of negotiations ensued. Eventually in 1955, Parker won a reprieve. He sold the film to Jack H. Harris' Exploitation Pictures, and made some essential alterations to adapt the movie to their needs. First, he trimmed it down to 55 minutes by removing the elements that bothered the censors most acutely. Then, he wrote narration to accompany Antheil's score that would unambiguously identify the film as a horror movie, now entitled Daughter of Horror. Recorded by a young Ed McMahon, the narration is as feverish as the imagery, and prone to such outbursts as "Go ahead! The Ghouls won't hurt you!"

Trimming back objectionable scenes was the least important trick Parker pulled in order to get this past the censors--simply by adding the narration and coding this as a horror movie, Parker muted its most disturbing features. As critic Gary Don Rhodes notes: "The real horror in Daughter of Horror is the threat of women's resistance to their own objectification and abuse. Such resistance could be figured for audiences in the 1950s perhaps most vividly within the generic space of the horror film and encoded in the language of mental disease because these provided conceptual frameworks that could limit and contain the implications of the film." A woman who takes up arms against the cruelty of her father or the sexual exploitation of predatory men is a direct threat to the accepted sex roles of the 1950s. Thanks to a little mayonnaise in the form of McMahon's narration, such subversion became palatable.

Exploitation Pictures succeeded in nestling this avant-garde oddity into the commercial marketplace and finding appreciative teenage audiences. The film joined any number of loony low-budget horror films of the era at drive-ins and midnight screenings, passed into cult movie lore, fell into the public domain, and became a ubiquity in the home video age. It even managed to squirrel itself deeper into the B-movie psyche than most of its ilk, because Jack H. Harris, ever the penny-pinching entrepreneur, clipped footage from it into a key scene in The Blob (1958): when the gelatinous monster invades a movie theater, the film being shown is Daughter of Horror. As the terrified patrons flee the theater, they run past the actual movie posters for Daughter of Horror.

The craziest aspect of Dementia or Daughter of Horror, by whatever name or version you wish to consider it, is not its dreamlike plot or any sight of a woman running through alleyways clutching a bloody hand to her breast, it is the idea that the 1950s film industry would even consider this one of their own. The censors attacked this strange little handmade movie as if the scattershot screenings its makers could rope up on their own could somehow threaten public morals. Jack Harris showed up with a checkbook to give the movie a wider release, an actual movie poster, and a legitimate stage. Variety even bothered to review it! This is an outsider film, a work of the underground, but it emerged at a time when such independent venues were unknown. Since no other model existed by which to categorize this cuckoo's egg, Hollywood had no alternative but to accept it as a commercial product and treat it as such.

Producers: John Parker
Director: John Parker
Screenplay: John Parker
Cinematography: William C. Thompson
Music: George Antheil
Film Editing: Joseph Gluck
Cast: Adrienne Barrett (The Gamine), Bruno VeSota (Rich Man), Ben Roseman (Gamine's Father/Plainclothes Cop), Richard Barron (Evil One), Ed Hinkle (Butler), Lucille Rowland (Gamine's Mother), Jebbie VeSota (Flower Girl), Faith Parker (Nightclub Dancer), Gayne Sullivan (Wino), Shorty Rogers (Jazz Musician).
BW-56m.

by David Kalat

Sources:
Stephen R. Bissette, "Curtis Harrington and the Underground Roots of the Modern Horror Film," Underground USA: Filmmaking Beyond the Hollywood Canon
Jack Hunter, Inside Teradome: An Illustrated History of Freak Film
Stefan Jaworzyn, Shock! The Essential Guide to Exploitation Cinema
Gary Don Rhodes, Horror at the Drive-In: Essays on Popular Americana
Jonathan Rigby, American Gothic: Sixty Years of Horror Cinema

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teaser Dementia (aka Daughter of Horror) (1955)

Let's start by meeting our cast of characters. First we have Mr. John J. Parker, an aspiring filmmaker. He hasn't made a film, but that's of small consequence, since Hollywood in the early 1950s is full of such inexperienced hopefuls. Of more significance is his secretary, Ms. Adrienne Barrett. Her fitful night's sleep will help bequeath to the world one of the most notorious examples of American Expressionism. She came into work one day, still troubled by her nightmare from the night before. Most people forget their dreams on waking, or shake them off quickly. But Adrienne is still haunted, and can't shake it off. She needs to share her vision with someone--so she tells her boss. Now he's haunted, and decides to share it on a far grander scale. "Wouldn't this make a swell movie?" he wonders.

And so John turned to his friends. People like actor Bruno VeSota, who was becoming a familiar face in Roger Corman's stock company. Or cinematographer William C. Thompson, a quick-n-dirty DP who had filmed such exploitation fare as Dwain Esper's Maniac (1934) and Ed Wood's Glen or Glenda (1953). Adrienne played herself, recreating her own dream on the streets of Venice, California--the same dark alleys that Orson Welles would use for Touch of Evil (1958). Ben Roseman pulled double duty, as actor and set designer. Angelo Rossitto appears as a news vendor -- his own real-life job, by the way. Rossitto was as much an old hand at cult movies as anyone else on the team, having appeared in Tod Browning's Freaks (1932), a slew of Monogram cheapies, and continued to appear in nutty movies all the way until 1985's Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.

Together, this motley crew set out to make a 10 minute short film, something Parker could maybe use as a resume piece. By the time they were done improvising new material on the spot and allowing their imaginations to run riot, they had turned the ruminants of Barrett's half-remembered dream into a feature film full of mad details entitled Dementia (1955). They filmed the thing without dialogue, and added a soundtrack later. Composer George Antheil provided a wall-to-wall score, supervised by musical director Ernest Gold and supported by eerie Theremin-like vocals by Gold's then-wife Marni Nixon.

Barrett, whose character is never identified by name but is referred to as "the Gamine" in production documentation, awakes in a dingy hotel room, the steady blinking of neon lights outside painting cruel shadows across her wall. She opens her dresser drawer to contemplate its contents--a knife. Taking the blade with her, she sets out into the night to wander through the city's ugliest truths: men beating women, drunks in the street, attempted rapes, police beating criminals, drug abuse, bribery, the casual mistreatment of menial workers. It is a cold, harsh world. And it always has been: she is personally haunted by her own past, in which her father's abuse of her mother ended in the death of both parents. Dad killed mom, and she then killed her dad. Stuck a knife in his back, literally. Now she lurks the city streets with that same knife, ready to do it all over again. She meets a man, both rich and fat, played by VeSoto. He picks her up and takes her back to his penthouse, but opts to stuff his face with greasy fried chicken before forcing his attentions on her. She waits, patiently, until he decides to reorient his appetites from his face to his groin. But as he approaches her, she flicks that secret blade. The man tumbles from his penthouse window to the street below, blood and cash raining from his plummeting body. She flees the scene of the crime, then realizes the corpse is clutching an incriminating necklace in its hand. She retrieves her jewelry by severing the hand along with it. She is pursued by a cop with the face of her dead father (Roseman). Even after depositing the severed hand in a basket of flowers and taking refuge in an all-night jazz club, the Gamine still cannot outrun her guilt. It will follow her yet, out of her fever dream. She wakes up and wonders what was real and what parts will follow her into waking life; the movie ends, and we too must wonder just how much will follow us back into the world outside...

Dementia's trace-like journey through the underbelly of America, mixing real-world visions of everyday horror with surrealistic imagery, follows a line of influence from Maya Deren's little-known avant-garde film Meshes of the Afternoon. That 1943 production featured Deren herself as both a dreamer and her own nightmare doppelganger (prefiguring Adrienne Barrett's transformation from real life dreamer into a cinematic duplicate), confronting a faceless man and a recurring knife (the fundamental images haunting Barrett's vision). Other films that followed in Dementia's wake would similarly find characters wandering through dreamscapes they cannot recognize as fantasies: Herk Harvey's 1962 Carnival of Souls and Roman Polanski's Repulsion (1965) are among the most often cited. Yet those later works operated in more realistic style than does Parker's film. Dementia looks like a dream, and its Expressionist aesthetics tie it more closely to the silent era classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) than to those other, more contemporary, analogues.

Parker started showing the finished Dementia in 1953 in a handful of theaters around New York City, using his own limited resources and connections to make the bookings. The New York State Censor Board was none too happy about this state of affairs, though, noting that nearly every aspect of the film violated their sensibilities. Declaring Dementia "inhuman, indecent, and the quintessence of gruesomeness," they forced Parker to withdraw it. Years of negotiations ensued. Eventually in 1955, Parker won a reprieve. He sold the film to Jack H. Harris' Exploitation Pictures, and made some essential alterations to adapt the movie to their needs. First, he trimmed it down to 55 minutes by removing the elements that bothered the censors most acutely. Then, he wrote narration to accompany Antheil's score that would unambiguously identify the film as a horror movie, now entitled Daughter of Horror. Recorded by a young Ed McMahon, the narration is as feverish as the imagery, and prone to such outbursts as "Go ahead! The Ghouls won't hurt you!"

Trimming back objectionable scenes was the least important trick Parker pulled in order to get this past the censors--simply by adding the narration and coding this as a horror movie, Parker muted its most disturbing features. As critic Gary Don Rhodes notes: "The real horror in Daughter of Horror is the threat of women's resistance to their own objectification and abuse. Such resistance could be figured for audiences in the 1950s perhaps most vividly within the generic space of the horror film and encoded in the language of mental disease because these provided conceptual frameworks that could limit and contain the implications of the film." A woman who takes up arms against the cruelty of her father or the sexual exploitation of predatory men is a direct threat to the accepted sex roles of the 1950s. Thanks to a little mayonnaise in the form of McMahon's narration, such subversion became palatable.

Exploitation Pictures succeeded in nestling this avant-garde oddity into the commercial marketplace and finding appreciative teenage audiences. The film joined any number of loony low-budget horror films of the era at drive-ins and midnight screenings, passed into cult movie lore, fell into the public domain, and became a ubiquity in the home video age. It even managed to squirrel itself deeper into the B-movie psyche than most of its ilk, because Jack H. Harris, ever the penny-pinching entrepreneur, clipped footage from it into a key scene in The Blob (1958): when the gelatinous monster invades a movie theater, the film being shown is Daughter of Horror. As the terrified patrons flee the theater, they run past the actual movie posters for Daughter of Horror.

The craziest aspect of Dementia or Daughter of Horror, by whatever name or version you wish to consider it, is not its dreamlike plot or any sight of a woman running through alleyways clutching a bloody hand to her breast, it is the idea that the 1950s film industry would even consider this one of their own. The censors attacked this strange little handmade movie as if the scattershot screenings its makers could rope up on their own could somehow threaten public morals. Jack Harris showed up with a checkbook to give the movie a wider release, an actual movie poster, and a legitimate stage. Variety even bothered to review it! This is an outsider film, a work of the underground, but it emerged at a time when such independent venues were unknown. Since no other model existed by which to categorize this cuckoo's egg, Hollywood had no alternative but to accept it as a commercial product and treat it as such.

Producers: John Parker
Director: John Parker
Screenplay: John Parker
Cinematography: William C. Thompson
Music: George Antheil
Film Editing: Joseph Gluck
Cast: Adrienne Barrett (The Gamine), Bruno VeSota (Rich Man), Ben Roseman (Gamine's Father/Plainclothes Cop), Richard Barron (Evil One), Ed Hinkle (Butler), Lucille Rowland (Gamine's Mother), Jebbie VeSota (Flower Girl), Faith Parker (Nightclub Dancer), Gayne Sullivan (Wino), Shorty Rogers (Jazz Musician).
BW-56m.

by David Kalat

Sources:
Stephen R. Bissette, "Curtis Harrington and the Underground Roots of the Modern Horror Film," Underground USA: Filmmaking Beyond the Hollywood Canon
Jack Hunter, Inside Teradome: An Illustrated History of Freak Film
Stefan Jaworzyn, Shock! The Essential Guide to Exploitation Cinema
Gary Don Rhodes, Horror at the Drive-In: Essays on Popular Americana
Jonathan Rigby, American Gothic: Sixty Years of Horror Cinema

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