The Cohen Film Collection brings to Region A its beautifully remastered disc of American fringe filmmaking’s weirdest, most obsessively arty shock-fest — a loving return to silent expressionist horror. The New York censors scuttled its commercial chances, and it wound up as a movie-within-a-movie footnote for Steve McQueen. We never thought we’d see the show look this good — John Parker memorialized Venice, California five years before Orson Welles. But the overall package packs a big disappointment, as I’ll explain.
Cohen Media Group
1955 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 56 min. / Street Date April 26, 2022 / Available from Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Adrienne Barret, Ben Roseman, Bruno VeSota, Ben Roseman, Angelo Rossitto.
Cinematography: William C. Thompson
Film Editor: Joseph Gluck
Original Music: George Antheil
Music director: Ernest Gold
Featured Vocal: Marni Nixon
New Concepts in Modern Sounds: Shorty Rogers and his Giants
Written, Produced and Directed by John J. Parker
The BFI first released Cohen’s restoration of Dementia in 2020, but in Region B only. We don’t expect this U.S. release to carry the BFI’s generous extras, but they didn’t correct a glaringly obvious missing shot, or even acknowledge its absence. It’s not a deal-killer, the movie still mesmerizes. We’ve taken this opportunity to adjust our original review.
In 1972 John Parker’s Dementia was so obscure that Audio Brandon was surprised we wanted it for a screening at a UCLA dorm. I saved their 16mm catalog just to be able to prove that it even existed. (See a scan from the catalog near the bottom of the page. ↓ ) Awareness of this most sacred of cult attractions spread with the 1985 Incredibly Strange Films book, which celebrated forbidden corners of ‘shadow cinema’ exploitation. Dementia first came to home video around 1988 on a murky Sinister Cinema VHS, in its altered but highly entertaining re-issue version Daughter of Horror. Fellow editor Steven Neilson proclaimed it the best movie he’d seen that year. It was difficult to make out what we were looking at, the image was so poor. But the terrifying voice was there … the Demon voice … in the dark:
The scarcely hour-long Dementia has little in common with other independent films of ’53-’54, when both Roger Corman and Stanley Kubrick debuted with extremely modest first film efforts. But Dementia feels fully formed — it knows exactly what it is doing and pursues its cinematic agenda in every shot. Fans of the bizarre might find that Dementia harmonizes with the weird filmic world of David Lynch.
Film students, art students, lovers of the unusual … John Parker’s psycho-horror shocker will appeal to all of them. It’s essentially a silent movie — dialogue-free — with expressionist imagery and demonstrative, avant-garde performances. Most of Parker’s show was filmed on the sandy beach-adjacent streets of Venice, five years before Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. The direction is forceful and assured: good blocking and compositions plus expressive trucking shots in deep focus. The soundtrack features an eerie George Antheil score with a wailing vocal by Marni Nixon. Add a dab of Maya Deren / Curtis Harrington experimental film atmosphere and the recipe for original horror art is complete.
John Parker must have been destroyed when his film was so soundly rejected by the gate-keeping New York censors. It eventually had a very brief run in one little theater in New York, disappearing after barely making a ripple. Not much is known about John Parker, or what became of him. He didn’t drop off the art-film awareness radar, because he was never ON it. It’s as if Parker fell into the forbidden zone of his own creation:
In the pulsing, throbbing, world of the INSANE MIND
Where only nightmares are real.
How obscure was Dementia? When it returned in 1957 as Daughter of Horror it saw so few bookings that even Forrest J. Ackerman didn’t take notice of it. Forry once ran an image of its poster as a ‘mystery photo’ in his Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. ← In his next issue he admitted that he didn’t know if it was even a real movie.
Dementia begins in a nighttime city of the Damned. ‘The Gamin’ (Adrienne Barrett) wakens in her tawdry rented room. Dressed like a beat chick from pre- rock ‘n’ roll days (except for an attention-getting medallion), she takes a switchblade from her dresser and steps out on the town. She witnesses a man arrested for beating his wife, sees some winos and is accosted by a news hawker (Angelo Rossitto) who gives her a paper announcing a murder. That paper and its prophetic headline seem to follow The Gamin as she walks. A pimp, aka ‘The Evil One’ (Richard Barron) accosts The Gamin and sets her up with a John in a chaufeurred black car. The porcine Rich Man (Bruno ve Sota) takes her to a series of nightclubs, including one where he ogles a dancer.
In the car, The Gamin re-experiences a horrifying episode from her childhood that plays out in an unreal, foggy cemetery. A ghostly Demon escorts her by lantern light through a replay of scenes with her parents, amid furniture arrayed between gravestones. Two killings occur. When The Gamin emerges from this nightmare-in-a-nightmare, the Rich Man takes her to his apartment in a building with an enormous staircase. (Author James Ursini identified the location as an old hotel on Alvarado Street, across from MacArthur Park.) There she watches him eat a greasy meal of chicken. When The Rich Man makes advances The Gamin savagely attacks him — as predicted in the newspaper. From that moment forward events and perceptions no longer have even the pretense of reality … the nightmare of murder and mutilation commences.
The 1957 Daughter of Horror is an ‘improved’ re-edit by distributor Jack H. Harris. He replaced some of the credits and eliminated both John Parker’s directing credit card and the cast re-cap at the finish. Harris’ main revision is the addition of a ‘horror’ voiceover that explains The Gamin’s state of damnation, forever guilty, etc.. It is said to have been recorded by TV announcer Ed McMahon. A shadow image of the narrator is added to the starfield up front, identifying him as the ghoulish Demon seen later in the cemetery horror flashback. The voiceover removes the ambiguity from The Gamin’s story, but it’s one of the most effective ‘spooky voices’ on film. McMahon indeed sounds like a hell-demon from beyond the grave:
Wait a bit. I have so much to show you.
So much that you are afraid to see.
The Gamin evades a policeman (who looks like her father) by ducking into a beat nightclub, where the hopheads hang out and the oily police detective takes his bribes. The pimp gives her a sleeveless dress — which she puts on in a ‘magical’ editorial trick straight from Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. George Anthiel’s wailing music score gives way to several minutes of bebop jazz from Shorty Rogers and his Giants. The nightclub jazz set piece is both well directed and very atmospheric, a nightmare in the vein of Jack Kerouac.
The busy, throbbing Antheil score then returns uninterrupted save for some laughter, gunshots, and screams. The young Marni Nixon, at the time married to music supervisor Ernest Gold (the future film composer), wails practically non-stop throughout the Antheil score. The weird vibe may have been directly lampooned in a vintage skit-film seen on Saturday Night Live. In that skit a female motorist is terrorized by nervous, wailing singing. She traces it to its source — a woman shrieking into a microphone on the floor of her apartment.
Dementia was no amateur production, either on the soundtrack or behind the camera. Editor Joseph Gluck cut westerns and serials, E.A. Dupont’s The Scarf and TV’s Nanny and the Professor. Matte painter Albert Simpson created special effects for movies as diverse as From the Earth to the Moon and Hawaii. Cinematographer William Thompson delivers precise visuals at all times — the show couldn’t be less like one of Ed Wood’s movies. The nightmare montage finale is extremely effective, even if it owes a debt to the British horror classic Dead of Night (1945). A similar lone person is surrounded by laughing, accusing demon-people:
the DEMONS of
your mind crowd in on you to DESTROY you!
Twenty-two years ago Kino released a double bill DVD of Dementia and Daughter of Horror, allowing us to compare the two versions of the film. Its main extra was Bret Wood’s revelatory illustrated essay Dementia: A Case Study. Despite Bruno ve Sota’s later claim of directing credit John Parker undoubtedly conceived and directed the movie. Between 1953 and 1955 he submitted it ten times to the New York censors, and each time was refused a license for exhibition. The documentation is part of Bret Wood’s essay. The censor board’s gripe sheet lists just about every forbidden item in the Code: prostitution, pimping, police corruption, adultery, incest (maybe) and heroin addiction: they demanded the deletion of practically every event in the film. It eventually had one brief run at one forlorn art-house in New York, double-billed with a short subject on Picasso.
A number of ‘facts’ about Dementia appear to be the result of interviews affected by faulty memories and credit-hogging. Ed McMahon is almost certainly not the film’s graveyard Demon and neither is Adriene Barrett doubled in the graveyard scenes. McMahon was in New York in 1957, when Jack H. Harris would have been retrofitting Dementia to create Daughter of Horror. He may have remembered being filmed as the shadowy face we (barely) see reciting the first lines of the Demon’s narration. I can readily believe that Mr. McMahon felt bad that he could recall so little about the movie, and simply said that ‘it could have been me.’
The feature transfer on Cohen Media Group’s Region A – locked Blu-ray of Dementia is exactly the same as the BFI’s Region B – locked 2020 disc release. It’s a fine HD encoding with a digital clean-up and stabilization, as seen in a brief restoration extra. The improvement over the earlier DVD is phenomenal. We can see the stocking masks that turn various bystanders into Cocteau-like ghouls. We can verify that Adrienne Barrett does not appear to be doubled anywhere. We can also see a shot or two that were flopped and repeated. The audio track is much clearer as well. It’s quite a concert, a solid hour of music composed by George Antheil and coordinated by Ernest Gold.
I checked the Cohen disc on two machines. It is Region A – locked and will only play in normal U.S. Blu-ray players. My Region B machine rejected it.
Cohen’s film source is almost complete. An opening text scrawl is present, the full quote from the Preston Sturges endorsement. The credits play uncut until part of a pullback from the animated star field is repeated, a jarring jump-cut. It’s been done to cover the missing director credit. If one watches carefully after the George Antheil credit, 3 or 4 frames of a card reading ‘Directed by John Parker’ fading up are still present, before a hard cut to the star field. Did Jack H. Harris remove the credit card at Parker’s own request? The BFI’s commentary essay had no reaction to this editorial surprise.
The bad news is that the important shot noted missing in the BFI disc is still missing. In the jazz club scene near the end, a key cutaway to the Rich Man at the basement window has been removed, the important one that reveals the bloody stump of his arm. A pull-back camera move to the empty sleeve proves The Gamin’s guilt, providing the shock that motivates the jazz club ‘demons’ to accuse and mob her. The shot is intact on the old DVD. ←
This is a KEY SHOT. Nothing on the disc or in the extras acknowledges that it is missing. For completeness, this supposed special restoration of Dementia gets a big FAIL. I suspect, but haven’t checked, that other shots may be missing as well.
The Daughter of Horror recut is present, listed as an extra. It has the ‘bloody stump’ shot, intact. It’s the same dirty encoding we’ve always seen, less distinct in both video and audio. It certainly helps us to appreciate the transfer quality given Dementia.
Besides that alternate version, the only other extras are a remnant of an original Daughter of Horror trailer, Cohen’s new Blu-ray promo trailer and the restoration comparison. None of the BFI’s exclusive extras have been carried over.
The place to really learn about Dementia is still Bret Wood’s illustrated essay on the old Kino DVD. The BFI disc gave no indication it even knew about it, and did not address the odd editorial differences between the film’s surviving versions. The stunning HD transfer repeated here is highly desirable, but we’re disappointed that Cohen couldn’t find a way to restore that missing ’empty sleeve’ shot. And we’re still grateful to Cohen for their excellent 2014 restoration of a long-missing scene from Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die!
– – – But You – you out there. . . you WILL be knocked out by Dementia overall. To see the missing shot, just choose Daughter of Horror from the extras menu and take a peek at the finale. It cues up at 52 minutes and 4 seconds. It makes a big difference.
— And this addendum remains popular, so I’m repeating it.
Daughter of Horror is dismissed as the bastard offspring of Dementia, marred by its campy horror-host narration. But we love the Graveyard Demon’s creepy voiceovers. Here is the entire text of that narration, a prose poem worthy of Edgar Allan Poe.
It’s best recited in the shower, at full bellowing volume, until someone calls the cops. The first person to put these lyrics to music gets a Pulitzer.
The Graveyard Demon:
You. You out there. Do you know what HORROR is?
Smug. Confident. Sure. Because you are sane.
Do you know what madness is or how it strikes?
Have you seen the demons that surge through the corridors of the crazed mind?
Do you know that in the world of the insane
You will find a kind of truth more terrifying than fiction?
A truth that will SHOCK YOU.
Come with me into the tormented, haunted, half-lit night of the INSANE.
This is my world. Let me lead you into it.
Let me take you into the mind of a woman who is MAD.
You may not recognize some things in this world
And the faces will look strange to you
For this is a place where there is NO love, NO hope.
In the pulsing, throbbing, world of the INSANE MIND
Where only nightmares are real.
Nightmares of the DAUGHTER OF HORROR.
The pulse of the neon lights, like a hammer at your brain
Tormenting you, haunting you
Forcing you to think, forcing you to remember your guilt, your HORROR.
Forcing you to go back, back, back into the TERROR that you are trying to forget
Back through the mists of time
Into the graveyard where your secret lies buried from the world.
Yes, I am here. The DEMON that possesses your soul.
Wait a bit. I have so much to show you. So much that you are afraid to see.
Come, let me take you by the arm and show you the bed of EVIL you sprang from.
Let me take you back to when you were a little girl. Let me show you – your father.
Let me show you – your mother.
Marked! Marked forever, DAUGHTER OF HORROR.
Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. Mad with guilt and the DEVILS that have taken possession.
There. There it is. The body of your latest victim.
And around it the GHOULS of insanity. The imaginary figures real only to you.
The pendant! The clue to your guilt!
The GHOULS know. They know you did it. But they can’t hurt you.
You’ve got to get it. You’ve got to take it out of his hand.
Go ahead, the GHOULS won’t hurt you!
Run, DAUGHTER OF HORROR, run from your crime.
But behind you the policeman with the face of your father,
The face of your first victim.
Pursuing you relentlessly through your haunted dreams
Hunting you mercilessly through the twisted corridors of your TORTURED mind.
The HORROR that will track you down!
The HORROR that will destroy you!
Run. Run. Run. Guilty. Guilty. GUILTY!
Nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide. If you could only wipe out the CURSE of your guilty past.
If you could only become somebody else before it is too late.
Escape into a world of your kind of people.
Safe. Safe at last.
Yes, you are safe in another hallucination of your CRAZED mind.
Safe. In a drug dream of forgetfulness.
Yes, he’s seen you. And you’re trapped.
The handcuffs are waiting for your wrists.
Look. Look. It’s your latest victim.
Now everybody knows. There is NO escape.
Look, around your neck. The pendant, for everybody to see.
Now all the images of horror, the DEMONS of
your mind crowd in on you to DESTROY you!
Only a dream. A dream of MADNESS on a dark night.
Or was it? Was it ONLY a dream?
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Region A Blu-ray rates:
Video: Excellent but Incomplete
Supplements: New trailer promo for Dementia (2015), original Daughter of Horror trailer (1957), restoration comparison.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? Your Call: English subs register for Dementia but without dialogue, what’s the point? Daughter has narration dialogue, but no subs.
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: April 1, 2022
Text © Copyright 2022 Glenn Erickson
Here’s Joe Dante on Dementia (Daughter of Horror):