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Francis Ford Coppola was still a graduate student at UCLA film school when he was hired by low-budget producer and director Roger Corman to write a new story and dialogue around a Russian science-fiction movie Corman had acquired, Nebo Zowet (1959). Coppola worked for six months on the script for Battle Beyond the Sun (1963) and received $250 for the job. Corman continued to call on Coppola for assistant assignments, and when he asked if the student was adept at recording sound, Coppola exaggerated his abilities and became the recording engineer for Corman's The Young Racers (1963). The film was shot in Liverpool, England and starred William Campbell and Luana Anders. Whenever Corman had access to elaborate settings or a particular cast (and especially if he had paid for travel expenses), he was fond of squeezing an entire extra feature film out of the experience. In a trip to Puerto Rico to shoot Battle of Blood Island (1960) and The Last Woman on Earth (1960), for example, Corman and his troupe practically improvised a third film while on location, Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961). When Corman saw that he had twenty thousand dollars left from his budget for The Young Racers, he told Coppola that if he could come up with an idea for a film that could be shot quickly in Ireland, he could direct it.
Coppola came up with a single scene, a Hitchcockian sequence that was purely visual and included "everything I knew Roger would like." As Coppola was further quoted by biographer Gene D. Phillips: "'A man goes to a pond and takes off his clothes, picks up five dolls, ties them together, goes under the water, and dives down, where he finds the body of a seven-year-old girl with her hair floating in the current...then he gets axed to death.' Corman responded enthusiastically, 'Change the man to a woman, and you've got a picture, kid!'"
Coppola complied with Corman's request and built a script around the scene. As he said in a 1970 interview with Joseph Gekmis, "I was dreaming up an idea for a story, while everybody else just talked about making a film. The secret of all my getting things off the ground is that I've always taken big chances with personal investments. While other guys my age were all pleading, 'Roger, let me make a film,' I simply sat down and wrote a script." Coppola wrapped the striking imagery he was creating around a familiar story setting: a dysfunctional family in an old creepy castle.
We meet John Haloran (Peter Read), member of a noble Irish family, and his American gold-digging wife, Louise (Luana Anders). They argue in a rowboat over money and, specifically, the fact that Louise will be cut off in the widowed Lady Haloran's will if John should die first. John promptly dies of a heart attack, and Louise goes on to a family gathering at Castle Haloran, pretending that John is away on business, and intent on persuading Lady Haloran (Eithne Dunne) to alter her will. The gathering is to mark the yearly anniversary of the drowning death of young Kathleen Haloran (Barbara Dowling). Also in attendance are brothers Richard (William Campbell) and Billy Haloran (Bart Patton), and Richard's American fiancé Kane (Mary Mitchel). Lady Haloran is ill and being attended to by the family physician, Dr. Justin Caleb (Patrick Magee), who also offers assistance as people begin to disappear from Castle Haloran. The vanishings, as soon becomes apparent, are due to a series of ax murders.
While Coppola was still fleshing out his story, he met with British producer Raymond Stross who, like Corman, was intrigued with the ax murder imagery of the proposed film. In exchange for British release rights, Stross put in another $20,000 toward the film, doubling the budget. Coppola wrote the screenplay in a marathon over three days and nights; according to biographer Gene D. Phillips, "...he typed directly onto mimeograph stencils for immediate distribution to cast and crew."
Coppola was given a nine-day schedule to shoot Dementia 13 at Ardmore Studios in Dublin, where co-investor Stross was a part owner. With a small crew of nine, the director wrapped work at the studio but spent a few additional days shooting on location on the castle grounds. When Coppola screened his rough cut for Corman, the producer lambasted the picture. Phillips wrote that "[Corman] criticized the shallow, inept script, which presented a pinwheeling series of murders without enough transitional material to link them together into a coherent narrative." Coppola shot some additional material in Griffith Park in Los Angeles, which served as a substitute for the castle grounds in Ireland. Corman was still not satisfied, however. As Coppola later said, "[Corman] wanted some extra violence added, another ax murder at least, which he finally had shot by another director named Jack Hill. But I must say I like Roger (who doesn't?), and I am grateful for the chance he gave me." Hill was eventually credited as a 2nd Unit writer and director.
Coppola told Gekmis, "...Dementia 13 was meant to be an exploitation film, a Psycho -type film. Psycho was a big hit and William Castle had just made Homicidal  and Roger always made pictures that are like other pictures. So it was meant to be a horror film with a lot of people getting killed with axes and so forth." Speaking of the film seven years later, Coppola would say, "It was imaginative. It wasn't totally cliché after cliché. Very beautiful visuals. In many ways, it had some of the nicest visuals I've ever done. Mainly, because I composed every shot. In the present circumstances, you never have the time. So you just leave it to others."
Following Dementia 13, Coppola worked again for Corman, as one of the many directors brought in to shoot supplemental footage for Corman's quickie, The Terror (1963). In the winter of 1963 Coppola signed on as a screenwriter with the independent production group Seven Arts, at a salary of $375 a week quite a leap from the low wages earned working for Corman.
Producer: Roger Corman
Associate Producer: Marianne Wood
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Screenplay: Francis Ford Coppola
2nd Unit Writer and Director: Jack Hill
Cinematography: Charles Hanawalt
Film Editing: Stuart O'Brien, Morton Tubor
Art Direction: Albert Locatelli
Set Decoration: Eleanor Neil (Coppola)
Sculptures: Edward Delaney
Music: Ronald Stein
Cast: William Campbell (Richard Haloran), Luana Anders (Louise Haloran), Bart Patton (Billy Haloran), Mary Mitchel (Kane), Patrick Magee (Dr. Justin Caleb), Eithne Dunne (Lady Haloran), Peter Read (John Haloran), Karl Schanzer (Simon), Ron Perry (Arthur), Barbara Dowling (Kathleen Haloran).
by John M. Miller