In terms of cult cinema, the 1950s in America was primarily dominated by two movements. First, the paranoia-fueled atomic horror of films like The Thing from Another World (1951), The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), where terror had an external, often alien source. Secondly, a uniquely American cinematic movement, film noir. Titles like Double Indemnity (1944), Out of the Past (1947), and The Big Heat (1953) reflect some very grim wartime and postwar sentiments, particularly anxieties about a suddenly changing world and unresolved traumas experienced on the home front and front lines. Much like the American horror genre, film noir grew out of German expressionism and was developed by many of the European filmmakers who fled the Nazis for Hollywood.
Film noir reflected the lingering effects of the Great Depression and WWI, the horrors of WWII and the Holocaust, as well as the dawn of the Cold War, nuclear terror, the oppression of the House Un-American Activities Committee and Senator McCarthy’s wave of hysterical anti-Communism. The plots of these films reveal the murky underbelly of American life: the failure of the American dream, of industry, masculinity, the family unit, and authority. These are worlds plagued with paranoia, corruption, and crime. Heroes are supplanted by criminals and anti-heroes, hope is a thing of the past, and erotic love is entwined with death.
While the majority of these titles are more in line with thriller or crime films, a few have some horror elements — such as In a Lonely Place (1950) or Night of the Hunter (1955) — though none more so than the all but forgotten independent film Dementia (1955). Poetic, dreamlike, and deeply strange, there is nothing quite like director John Parker’s blend of horror, film noir, surrealism, and German Expressionism. It has no equal in the period with the exception of the low budget shockers of Edward D. Wood, Jr., who began directing movies like Glen or Glenda? (1953) and Bride of the Monster (1955) around the same time. Dementia could also be loosely described as a precursor to later genre films like Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) or the early work of David Lynch.
This cheaply made film is a shocking, nightmarish work that is the culmination of anxieties about identity, sexuality, gender, violence, and urban life. A young girl known only as the Gamin (Adrienne Barrett) is living in a seedy hotel and has disturbing visions and nightmares. She heads out into the night and is startled by a dwarf handing out newspapers. The headline blares that a mysterious stabbing has occurred. She’s almost attacked by a drunken man, but is rescued by police officers. Someone else propositions her and convinces her to join a wealthy man riding in a limo, though she has flashbacks about an abusive childhood where her father killed her adulterous mother and then she stabbed her father to death. The wealthy man – presumably her client – gorges himself on food and ignores her advances, so she stabs him and pushes him out the window of her apartment. She has to cut off his hand to reclaim a necklace he ripped off of her, and afterwards goes on the run from police in a jazz club.
For years, little was known about Dementia outside from its appearance in The Blob (1958), as the film moviegoers are watching when they are attacked by the titular creature. Dementia was released to very limited audiences two years after its creation, in a slightly recut version retitled Daughter of Horror. This version amazingly includes some added voice over narration from a young Ed McMahon (!). Though certainly overwrought, it’s meant to resemble a Gothic tone poem and it is also the film’s only regular source of dialogue; Dementia lacks much audio and the soundscape is focused on screams and hysterical laughter, frantic jazz music, doors slamming, and gun shots.
A lengthy scene in a jazz club adds to the beatnik flavor, as does the unusual score from avant-garde composer George Antheil, which is accompanied by vocalist Marni Nixon (who later became famous as the often uncredited voice behind many female stars in ‘60s musicals like My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins, and The Sound of Music). Antheil primarily worked on film and television scores (including the aforementioned In a Lonely Place), though he’s known for this great piece of avant-garde music, as well as for his collaborations with actress Hedy Lamarr. The two developed a telecommunications technique known as “spread spectrum,” initially intended to be a frequency-hopping style of communication for the military during WWII, which is the foundation of modern Bluetooth technology.
Shot at least in part by Ed Wood’s regular cinematographer William C. Thompson, Dementia does bear something in common with Wood’s low budget labors of love. It exhibits an exceptionally seedy side of life, one not typically associated with ‘50s cinema (outside of film noir, that is), including murder, prostitution, infidelity, and child abuse. Instead of being horrified at her predicament, the Gamin seems to delight in murder and sex work, inextricably entwining violence, the repression of traumatic memories, and the erotic urge. The film’s portrait of the city as a terrifying place of madness, vice, and violence links it with film noir, and Dementia even shares some exterior locations with Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958), a film widely regarded as the last classic-period film noir.
Dementia even explores some taboo themes left generally underrepresented in film noir, like female psychosis and the epidemic of wartime and postwar suicide. Female madness and the character of the female psychopath were not as common a fixture in film noir as the femme fatale, but a few examples can be found in the postwar years: such as Leave Her to Heaven (1945), Possessed (1947), Whirlpool (1949), and Otto Preminger’s Angel Face (1952), possibly film noir’s most cynical look at doomed love. Several of these titles end in suicide and thus form a loose connection to Dementia, which also has roots going back to producer Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim (1943), about a young girl’s strange journey through the underbelly of New York City to find her suicidal sister who is being pursued by a satanic cult.
Like The Seventh Victim, Dementia portrays the city as a terrifying place of madness, vice, and violence — another of its compelling connections to film noir. And like that film, it straddles the line between thriller and horror film, making fresh, inspired use of several horror tropes and leaving behind an unsettling feeling that leaves far more of an impression than the awkward acting or cheap production values. Though Kino Video released the best available version of the film on DVD, it is in the public domain and is thus also available free online. It would be great to see someone restore the film and release a special edition version on Blu-ray. Dementia may be disorienting, violent, seedy, and uncomfortable, but there is absolutely nothing like it.