Do YOU know what HORROR is??
Above: Adrienne Barrett
Dementia / Daughter of Horror
Written, produced and directed by John Parker.
Cinematography by William Thompson.
Music by George Antheil, conducted by Ernest Gold.
Orchestrations by Shorty Rogers & His Giants.
Vocal solos by Marni Nixon. Released in 1955.
With Adrienne Barrett (the gamine), Bruno VeSota (the rich man),
Ben Roseman (father/detective), Richard Barron (evil one),
Ed Hinkle (butler), Lucille Howland (mother), Debbie VeSota (flower girl),
Faith Parker (nightclub girl), Gayne Sullivan (wino).
"Sadism manifests itself in two ways in the film — sexually and through violence. Adultery and murder are by-products of the girl's environment. Feeding like jackals on her sordid circumstances are a 'procurer' and his 'patron.' This is a nightmare world from which all good has been routed, leaving the girl enveloped in madness, like a protective cocoon.
"Without a spoken word but clamorous with the sounds of a city that might be anywhere in the world, the girl, too psychotic to be reached by words, reacts only to 'neutral' sounds and distortions of 'everyday life,' whether they be the screeching of automobile brakes or the frenzied incantations of a jazz band. Dementia unfolds this case history with an inexorable mounting rhythm that reaches a paroxysm. Accompanying this Caligari-esque tale is a stunning musical score by George Antheil that seems to spring itself from some hidden recess in the girl's subconscious.
"Dementia is a film that exists on two levels... for the two groups of film audiences. On either one, and on both, it is unique and truly (as has so often been falsely said before) unforgettable."
"The first foreign film ever made in Hollywood!"
— Downbeat Magazine
It wasn't always Daughter of Horror. In the beginning, it was titled Dementia, and related an odd dream. But unlike most other dream-state films, the protagonist wakes not in reality, but in another dream.
In a seedy hotel, "the gamine" dreams she is swallowed by a wave, awakens, and takes a switchblade knife from the dresser. After eavesdropping on a domestic squabble, she steps out into the urban nocturne of noir. Angelo Rossitto hawks newspapers sporting the headline, "Mysterious Stabbing!" Our gamine is vexed and drops the paper. (In a nod to Ford's The Informer, the tabloid follows after her like a guilty conscience.) After being harassed by winos in an alley, she's rescued by a cop who beats one of the drunks to a pulp with his blackjack. She laughs hysterically! A con artist appears on the scene, and fixes her up with a portly playboy who takes her to nightclubs and ogles other women.
Cruising the night she has a vision: a faceless man guides her through a graveyard and conjures childhood memories. A living room appears, her mother on a sofa, eating chocolates and reading the Police Gazette. Her drunken father stumbles in (he has the same face as the cop who rescued her earlier), and wants sex, but mom laughs him off. He sees a cigar in the ashtray -- not his! Dad shoots mom, daughter comes up from behind and stabs father.
Back with the playboy in his apartment, she watches in disgust as he devours a greasy chicken dinner. He later makes a pass at her, but she lunges at him with the switchblade. Grabbing her necklace, he falls back off a terrace and crashes down to the street below. Before she can run she must retrieve the necklace, but his body is surrounded by faceless, inanimate figures. Crawling between them, she grabs his hand, but it won't release the evidence. She saws the hand off with the knife.
Running down an alley, she disposes of the hand in a flower girl's basket. The cop in pursuit, she ducks through a doorway and is helped by the con artist. An evening gown materializes on her, and she bops to a jazz band in a small club. The cop enters, but is assuaged by the con artist. The playboy, now alive, appears at the window, pointing his handless arm at her. Club patrons point at her, laugh at her, guilt comes crashing down in a wave.
She wakes, back in the hotel. A dream? She opens the dresser — a severed hand clutching the necklace! A scream, then darkness.
The kind of film Maya Deren would've whipped up for Sam Arkoff, Dementia began as a ten-minute short by novice director John Parker. His secretary, Adrienne Barrett, inspired him from a nightmare she'd had — the girl finding the hand in the drawer. Barrett wound up playing the lead, and Parker fleshed out the scenario by nearly an hour.
According to co-star Bruno VeSota, in a posthumously published interview in the fanzine, Magick Theatre, much of the writing and direction was his work, not Parker's. "Parker had good intentions and pretty good ideas about making movies," said VeSota. "But they weren't consistent, and he didn't have enough experience to carry continuity through. I was interested in making a movie and getting it on the screen, and Parker had too much ego to give me credit. I wrote it all except for the first dream sequence. I directed more than half the picture."
(While VeSota may have helped expand the screenplay, Dementia suggests a broader range of talent than he exhibited in other films he directed: Female Jungle, The Brain Eaters, and Invasion of the Star Creatures.)
Released in 1955, after a two-year battle with censors (Barrett removing VeSota's hand in the unedited version is still potent), Dementia was without dialogue or narration. (The soundtrack is a unique composition by George Antheil.) Distributed by an outfit called Van Wolk/API, it was paired with Luciano Emmer's documentary, Picasso, and premiered at Manhattan's 56th Street Playhouse. One draw of the dvd is a photo of the sleepy, poverty row gala.
Although dismissed by the New York Times for its "lack of poetic sense, analytical skill and cinematic experience," John Parker snagged a plug from Preston Sturges, who called it "a work of art. It stirred my blood and purged my libido." (On the dvd is a reproduction of Sturges's original letter.) But it wasn't enough to keep Dementia from spiraling down the vortex, into obscurity.
A case could be made that The Blob "saved" Dementia: its movie theatre episode, with mention of Daughter of Horror on the marquee, and clips of Parker's eerie cemetery and nightclub scenes are among the memorable parts from Steve McQueen's movie. Otherwise, lacking decent distribution and without tv exposure, Dementia hit a dead end. It popped up in the 1970's at the New England School of Art and Design, where students were asked to illustrate scenes from the picture. (Alumni Steve Fiorilla recalls "the creepy jazz scene blew me for a loop, and its closing shot — the woman in the bedroom matted into the hotel and cityscape — became an ideal image of film noir ambiance for me.") And in 1996 and 2002, a pristine print was shown at the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, New York, exemplifying 35mm's superiority. Two scenes in particular — the foyer of the rich man's apartment building, and a crane shot in the cemetery — were stunning.
Horror movie? Art film? Or a bohemian swill of Bop/Beat dime-store psychoanalysis? However you cut it, Dementia cruises its own nightmare alley.