Labelling John Parker's haunting, wonderfully bizarre little movie Dementia: Daughter of Horror as a 'cult classic' is, well, kind of unfair, no? It's a weirdly stylised piece of fifties noir, part detective story, part slasher, part revenge flick that plays like a mashup between Chandler, Poe and Reefer Madness, and yet instead of the camp howler you might expect would be born out of a three-way like that - where 'cult classic' means something like 'so bad it's good' - in many respects Dementia holds up astonishingly well. It still strives for the same over-ripe hysteria many of its contemporaries abuse, but the art design, framing and cinematography in general have a stark, timeless clarity that proves genuinely unsettling, and though a film without dialogue sounds like a cheap excuse to cover for an incompetent cast - the actors speak, but the only voice we hear is the narrator - the leads' bullish attempts to internalise everything largely pay off.
Dementia follows a nameless young woman (Adrienne Barrett, credited as The Gamin) through a bleak, rundown cityscape, part obvious, heavily theatrical sets, part exteriors. The film opens just as she's waking up from a dream, struggling with conflicting emotions and finding no way to calm herself down. She takes up a flick knife and walks out onto the streets. The deprivation and general hopelessness everywhere drives her to the point of hysterics - at first she seems as if she plans on doing something about it (has she used that knife before?), but then she comes across as more like a bewildered little girl, tempted by a zoot-suited huckster with a devilish grin into pimping herself to a slimy, obese businessman, the very essence of privilege. Naturally this doesn't go anywhere pleasant, though as it becomes more and more obvious just how damaged the young woman's psyche is where exactly things have gone ends up open to question. Dementia does have a story; indeed, it's almost a classical three-act setup, but Parker is more interested in symbolism, misdirection and disturbing eye candy for the hell of it than neat and tidy plotting.
Again, the visuals and many of the performances tend towards the exuberant. Barrett manages some chilling emoting, effortlessly slipping from confusion to venomous malice to whole new personalities later in the film, but there are times she lurches into silent movie hyper-acting, all bug eyes, shaking her head and rending her garments. Hell is a basement speakeasy with hot jazz music and licentious girls - beautifully shot, yet still with a suggestion Parker couldn't be bothered thinking of anything more creative. The pimp is all aw-shucks bonhomie, the businessman nothing but his appetites - yes, there's a sequence with him eating, with the camera zooming in on his mouth. Parker can't resist several set pieces that were long in the tooth even back in the fifties - leering derelicts, a fog-bound graveyard and such. There are times, particularly after discovering The Gamin's backstory, you wonder if a warning's about to spin towards the screen in screaming bold type: "Parents! Are your offspring completely sane? Are you sure?"
And yet Dementia never takes that final step off the edge. It's partly the craft in it, and the almost unearthly feel to even the most obvious setpieces. While the low budget is pitifully obvious at times there are still any number of genuinely startling compositions, each one a model of economy with DP William C. Thompson using sharp divisions between light and shadow to fantastic effect. The graveyard is patently fake, but still deeply, deeply eerie. Ditto The Gamin retrieving the evidence of what she might have done, watched by masked, silent figures who might or might not be there. A couple of key scenes feel surprisingly technically accomplished - a chase down a deserted street lit by a searchlight, or the epilogue, a playful, blackly funny coda that does a great job putting a sting inside an old cliche. And the fllm gives the odd impression Parker sympathises with his troubled heroine, rather than treating her as something to be casually exploited. Its final shot has the feel of a ghoulish little fairy tale, rather than a case of When Good Girls Go Bad. There are definitely reasons to laugh at Dementia, but like a fairy tale, it seems far more 'classic' than 'cult', even fifty years on, and for anyone interested in seeing how hauntingly unhinged noir can get this comes strongly recommended.
As part of their L'Etrange Musique
programe, L'Etrange Festival 2011 recruited underground goth and counter-culture icon Boyd Rice
(one-time member of the band Current 93) to play a live score for Dementia: Daughter of Horror
, along with Dwid Hellion of seminal hardcore band Integrity
. In a short introduction for the crowd Rice explained the film was one of his favourites since seeing it as a young teenager, and while his musical accompaniment was typically idiosyncratic (not remotely mainstream, in other words) it was clearly the product of someone deeply in touch with Parker's work. The two men had a selection of instruments from the relatively hi-tech - looping and adding effects to impromptu samples - to hand-crafted pieces like a single-string guitar designed to be battered and abused, or an arrangement of metal flanges designed to be bowed to produce shivering, wailing string sounds.
The live score was mostly washes of ambient noise, with the atmospherics and cracking pulses from Rice's guitar buried in the mix - probably fairly punishing for anyone not attuned to that kind of thing, though many of the crowd seemed to be there for Boyd Rice rather than the movie. While it never became music per se there was structure to it - not as much as a Ben Frost track, say, but some of the strongest passages had repeated percussive loops or chimes breaking through the droning pads. If you could go with the flow, though, it was frequently hugely effective: some of the guitar or voice samples were a little too jarring, but the dynamics of the sound as a whole matched the weird, alien dread Parker's visuals evoked. Like any good live score, it made you wish you could hear the film with it a second or third time. If Rice ever performs something similar again, consider it highly recommended.
(Dementia: Daughter of Horror was screened with a live score from Boyd Rice and Dwid Hellion as part of the 17th L'Etrange Film Festival run from 2nd-11th September 2011.)
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