‘Dementia 13’ – Francis Ford Coppola begins on MGM+ and free on Kanopy

Young Francis Coppola (before adding the Ford) made his “official” directorial debut with Dementia 13 (1963), a low-budget Psycho knock-off about an axe-murderer in an Irish castle.

Produced by Roger Corman, this is one of those productions of pure opportunity and ingenuity. Coppola was part of a Corman crew shoot a racing drama in Europe when Corman decided to put the equipment and production team to use on a second picture before returning stateside. Coppola pitched his idea, which Corman approved, and reportedly wrote his screenplay over three nights, which went into production in Dublin (because, as Corman explained, “Ireland was much looser with labor permits) with The Young Racers stars William Campbell, Luana Anders, and Patrick Magee

The story, about scheming siblings vying for the control of the family fortune on a spooky Irish estate, is a bit murky. There’s a past death that hangs over the clan, a possibly mad matriarch, a cagey family doctor, and of course an axe-murderer stalking the estate grounds. Think Gothic horror reimagined for the post-Psycho sixties on a fraction of the budget.

Coppola learned well from his Corman and creates some stunning images from limited resources and finagled locations. The opening sequence, set in a rowboat on a lake one foggy night, has a delirious, dreamlike quality that Coppola accentuates with the offbeat soundtrack, and he goes his mentor one better with a few shocking, startling moments of axe-wielding violence using jagged cuts and the darkness to suggest what he can’t show. Magee brings a little class to a couple of scenes, but the rest of the film (at least between the padding) is carried by shock and B-movie ingenuity.

It’s a second rate movie but a superb example of low-budget invention and a glimpse of an American auteur while he was still learning his craft. Corman, however, padded out the film with new footage shot by filmmakers Jack Hill and Monte Hellman. In 2018, Coppola released a “Director’s Cut” of the film, restored from original elements, without the padding.

Bart Patton and Mary Mitchel costar.

In black and white, features plenty of killing but no explicit violence.

The film fell into the public domain decades ago and has proliferated in poor quality TV prints, VHS tapes, DVD releases, and now streaming services. The Director’s Cut release is the only edition that you can reliably count on for good quality.

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Dementia 13: Director’s Cut [Blu-ray]
Dementia 13 [Blu-ray]
Dementia 13 [DVD]

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The film fell into the public domain decades ago and has proliferated in poor quality TV prints, VHS tapes, and disc releases. The Director’s Cut release is by far the best quality you’ll find, though the DVD and Blu-ray editions from The Film Detective is the best of the original release versions.

The Director’s Cut release features commentary by Coppola.


Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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