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Living the Nightmare: Dementia on Blu-ray

  Ever since George Melies took up his camera at the turn of the nineteenth century, there have been filmmakers endeavouring to recreate dreams on film, as the medium is often described as akin to watching a waking dream play out before the audience's eyes. This baton was passed to the likes of Luis Bunuel, Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger, but one tiny bit of film history was achieved by John Parker when he put together his shot at B-movie infamy, the stream of consciousness cult classic Dementia. As legend has it, this barely hour-long effort ran into all sorts of bother when it was attempted to find it a home on the big screen.

You have to ask, especially after watching it, what were the censors so scared of? Not only the board in Parker's native United States, but The British Board of Film Censors, as it was then, were deeply unimpressed with what Parker wanted to exhibit, and in Britain it was not available to view until the early seventies, almost twenty years after it was completed. Heck, in America it was shown just the once in New York City, in an arthouse theatre, and then as if a sop to its creator, following that it was as if everyone in the film industry simply wanted Parker to forget it: "You had your screening, now scram!", they seemed to be saying to him.

He continued to try and get the thing seen, eventually selling it a couple of years after the 1955 showing to Jack H. Harris, who was producer of a much more famous horror, The Blob. Not only did Harris recut and add narration to the silent Dementia, retitling this version Daughter of Horror (presumably lest anyone think it was about Alzheimer's Disease), but he made it the movie showing when the titular, blood-red Blob attacks a cinema and feasts on the patrons in his 1958 production, thereby giving Parker's project its most exposure. After seeding the question in many a Blob fan's mind as to what the Hell that movie in the movie was, Dementia continued its chequered path.

Once the VHS era arrived, it was treated as a public domain work, but you were more likely to see it as Daughter of Horror on a bootleg tape than you were as Dementia in an official release. Yet still people talked about it - not many people, but enough to give it an underground profile as a piece that had somehow captured a kind of madness of suffering a nightmare as the leading lady (Adrienne Barrett) does in its plotline. Eventually, a print of Dementia was restored and released on DVD, then on Blu-ray, thanks to Cohen Media, often pairing both versions to contrast one with the other. Purists preferred the original, made in 1953, while newcomers liked the crazy narration.

What is it about this tiny movie, barely justifying itself as a feature film, that continues to fascinate? Was it that Parker, who was uncredited as director for some reason, elicited something of the fugue state of a deranged mind almost accidentally? Bruno Ve Sota, a far more significant figure in the cult movie world, claimed he had assisted Parker with the direction, which he said made up a series of mostly improvised sequences based around a nightmare Barrett had had, and you can see how this would slot into Ve Sota's canon quite comfortably, if "comfortably" is the right word. But his efforts as director like The Brain Eaters do not quite have the forbidden cachet as Dementia does.

It could be that ban, the suspicion the film would warp an impressionable mind, that lends the often nonsensical item that air of danger. It takes place entirely at night, like other contemporary cult movies such as Female Jungle, it has no dialogue but it does have a jazz score, popular dwarf actor Angelo Rossitto appears as a newsboy (his day job when he wasn't in movies), and you can link it to other cult works and characters - it even begins with a quote encouraging you to watch it from Hollywood comedy specialist Preston Sturges, far after his star had fallen, but a pal of Parker's in some mysterious fashion. With its Freudian blaming of the nameless lead character for more than one murder, it contained enough pop psychology to engage, and enough kitsch too, but Dementia was akin to a novice stumbling into some curious cinematic power they barely understood, and bringing that to the memory like the dream it purports to be.

On the BFI's reissue of this, holding both versions on one Blu-ray edition, the extras are just as intriguing, not least a short, fifteen-minute soulmate of Dementia's titled Alone with the Monsters. This was the brainchild of seventeen-year-old drama student and aspiring poet Nazli Nour, of Egyptian extraction but in London, who gained a grant to create her tribute to the outsiders in life, which happened to culminate in the excoriation of those who would persecute them. One wonders how much of her experience she was drawing from, but with its central character dreaming of dancing her cares away while the wider society cruelly mocks her, leading her to suicide, you would hope this was teenage dramatics rather than a grudge she kept to her older years. Also on the disc, a commentary by the reliable Kat Ellinger, a trailer commentary from Joe Dante taken from his Trailers from Hell website, restoration comparisons, the Dementia trailer (not original) and some stills and artwork. This will ensure the film endures on its bizarre journey into the future, far beyond the dreams of its creators, outlasting us all.

Author: Graeme Clark.


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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018