Contributor; Derby, England
to Vote
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.)
to Vote
Screen Anarchy logo
Do you feel this content is inappropriate or infringes upon your rights? Click here to report it, or see our DMCA policy.
karjbuchSeptember 10, 2011 9:55 PM

Having seen the Paris screening & read the foregoing review, it is patently obvious that the reviewer wasn't even present for this showing of DEMENTIA. He tells us that the only voice in the film is that of the narrator, but what Boyd Rice scored was the original SILENT version of the film (sans narration). He tells us that the soundtrack consisted largely of "washes of noise", yet the soundtrack I heard was very subtle & understated... more dreamlike & hypnotic than "jarring". It appears that this reviewer made certain assumptions & felt he could make informed decisions in writing about this showing without having seen it. He was wrong. All his major criticisms about the film itself were also way off base. I assume it's been quite some time since he's actually seen it. Shame that. If he'd bothered to show up for the screening I was in Paris the other night, I'm sure his commentary might have been much different indeed.

Matthew LeeSeptember 11, 2011 3:16 AM

Sigh... okay, let's try and be nice. Could have sworn I put that the score completely replaced Dementia's audio track, but apparently not. That much I do apologise for. The rest, well, I'm guessing you're one of the people who think the film's pretty much perfect? Sorry, I don't agree, and I stand by all my criticisms of what I saw. I liked it a great deal, am extremely grateful to the festival for letting me see it and would love to see it again, but I wasn't going to give it a free pass. And I suspect nothing I could post would convince you I don't feel some desperate need to pretend I was there, but I liked the score - which I repeatedly said - I was trying to say I don't think many people who weren't already into dark ambient, drone and the like would enjoy it (perhaps you think I just randomly got Ben Frost off Google? Go listen to Kill Shot off the album With Teeth to hear harsh, abrasive guitar noise that isn't 'jarring'. Plus the part where Boyd looped the sound of himself screaming at the point where the gamin stabs the businessman struck me as way too dissonant and counter to the mood when it went on for more than a few seconds). I came from the airport to Paris with Boyd Rice - complete coincidence - I chatted with both him and Dwid in the festival offices, I sat through the whole performance and I'm currently posting this from my hotel room on my phone. Would you like me to describe the man's snuff box or something?

karjbuchSeptember 11, 2011 5:25 AM

My salient point is something you refuse to address. My objection was not that you somehow "neglected" to mention that Rice left off the narration, but that the version you saw in fact HAD narration ("the only voice we hear is the narrators"... your words).

You no doubt are unaware that two versions of this film exist, & the first, DEMENTIA, was silent. The second, DAUGHTER OF HORROR came out a few years later with an over the top noir style voice-over (in an attempt to commercialize this thing. it didn't work). If you heard a narrator during this film, your drugs must be better than mine!

BTW, almost the entirety of DEMENTIA was shot on location, in & around Venice & L.A. There were no cheesy "pitifully" low budget sets. These were real locales & go a long way to contributing to the films mystique so many years on. If you "stand by" your opinion that this film was mostly shot on cheap sets, view this film again.

I'm not one who would claim the film is "perfect", but it comes very close. Where is the other surrealist noir we could compare it to? Where is the other early 50s film that delves into insanity, prostitution, incest & patricide? How many are there? Is there even one?

Matthew LeeSeptember 11, 2011 7:22 AM

Okay, I'll waste a bit more time on this - the French-language program for the festival calls it Dementia: Daughter of Horror, so that's what I used. I've never seen either version before, and IMDB did not make it clear the narration was only inserted for the US cut, nor did the other three or four reviews I looked up to check my facts. Again, that part I apologise for: it's a small mistake, but I could have got it right. The rest of it... yeah, I'm pretty sure we're never going to see eye to eye on this, I'm afraid. I repeat, I really liked the film, but if there's actually no narration period then l stand by my criticisms all the more. It looks great, even if the graveyard is closer to an amateur theater production and the tenement hallways look fake as hell, but it doesn't provide a deep analysis of anything. Shock Corridor is a more nuanced look at mental illness, for God's sake.

karjbuchSeptember 11, 2011 5:40 PM

You "could have got it right"?! My whole point is this: if you'd ACTUALLY BEEN THERE, YOU COULD'T HAVE GOTTEN IT WRONG. There would have been no necessity to "check your facts" via online reviews. My suspicion is that your review is probably cobbled together from those very internet sources you used to check your facts. You refuse to address my main point because you can't; you can't explain how you sat through an hour of a silent film, yet somehow ended up reviewing an alternate release of the same film! This, to you, is a "minor" point. To me, this is only a major point because it taints any further criticism based on the criteria that you very likely didn't see the film to begin with. In light of this, arguing about set design is largely irrelevant; although I have it on good authority that the dream / flashback sequence was filmed in an actual cemetery, with a few tombstones (such as Mom & Pop) thrown in for good measure.

You can respond or not, but every convoluted answer you come back with weakens your credibility. And if you do respond, answer my main question please, I've asked it three times now.

GaryMLSeptember 11, 2011 9:33 PM

Sorry, but karjbuch seems hung up on the term "narrator." Eight Rooks mentions that the only voice we hear is a narrator, and later refers to the musicians who "spoke" while playing the music, so I understood it to mean that's the narrator he's referring to since there isn't any true dialog. Is Eight Rooks wrong that the musicians never spoke? Looks like karjbuch thinks he has himself (or herself) a "gotcha" moment (and some connection to the film itself) but that's assuming quite a bit.

Ard VijnSeptember 12, 2011 7:18 PM

I've known Eight Rooks to miss a screening, but he is always the first to own up to that or use it as a funny anecdote in another review. Heck, with the amount of reviews he's sent in from Etrange this week he sure doesn't need to add some for films he didn't visit.