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The Unsettling Appeal of ‘Dementia’

In 1955, John Parker’s experimental feature didn’t find its deserved audience. Today, we present it as an essential work of horror cinema existing in the canon beyond the classics.
Dementia movie
Cohen Media
By  · Published on June 21st, 2021

Beyond the Classics is a recurring column in which Emily Kubincanek highlights lesser-known old movies and examines what makes them memorable. In this installment, she takes a stab at describing the unsettling appeal of John Parker’s Dementia, an experimental horror movie from 1955.

If the name John Parker doesn’t ring a bell, that’s probably because he’s remained a mostly obscure figure in the history of horror cinema since he made his first and only feature film nearly seventy years ago. When it initially opened in 1955, Parker’s dialogue-free movie Dementia confused the few people who were able to see it. Some notoriety arrived a couple of years later, however, after the movie was re-released under a different title and then it made a brief appearance in a classic sci-fi/horror movie that you probably do recognize. While Dementia‘s value may not have been evident during its own time, today its influence and appeal are impossible to ignore.

Parker had grown up and was based in Portland, where his family ran a popular chain of movie theaters. The idea for Dementia came about when his then-secretary, Adrienne Barrett, relayed an odd nightmare that she’d had. Parker decided to adapt the dream into a short film and cast Barrett in the lead role herself. Joined by cinematographer William C. Thompson (later of Plan 9 from Outer Space fame) and actor and producer Bruno VeSota, they set out in 1953 to shoot on location in Venice, California, then they continued filming on some Hollywood studio sets that they were able to nab on a small budget.

VeSota was so enamored with Parker’s idea that he signed on for just $30 to collaborate on what was meant to be a ten-minute film. However, the two men were keen on improvisation, and Dementia grew into a feature in no time. Long after the movie was made, VeSota would claim he deserved more than just the acting and associate producing credits he received on Dementia because several of the newly added scenes were the result of his improvised attempts to get a scared reaction out of Barrett. Regardless of who did what, though, the small cast and crew managed to put together a fifty-five-minute film that was unlike anything audiences had ever seen.

On-screen, Barrett plays a woman only referred to in the credits as “The Gamin” [sic], a term Wikipedia defines as “a slim, elegant young woman who is, or is perceived to be, mischievous, teasing or sexually appealing.” She awakens from a dream in a seedy hotel and peers into the mirror as if to confirm she’s no longer sleeping. In the vanity drawer is a switchblade, which she tucks into her skirt. She then walks out the door and into Los Angeles’ Skid Row, a neighborhood with a long history of being host to the city’s unwanted populations, from homeless workers to those suffering from addiction.

The Gamin meets a slew of characters, including one who proposes that she join a rich man (VeSota) looking for company, presumably for money. She jumps from bar to club with him before they end up in his hotel room. After the man gorges himself on a large meal, he makes a move on the Gamin, but not before she pulls out her switchblade and stabs him. With the man still holding onto her necklace, which he had used to pull her into the attempted kiss, the Gamin pushes him out a window for good measure. The shocking scene seems like it could be another one of her fantasies, but once she sees his corpse on the sidewalk below, she knows her mind was not fooling her.

After painstakingly sawing off the rich man’s hand, which is still clenched around her necklace, the Gamin runs from the police, with the removed body part in her pocket. After a lengthy and dizzying scene at a jazz club, a police officer presents the man’s body to the Gamin, and everyone in the room points at her with maniacal laughter, shaming her for what she’s done. She suddenly awakens where we first found her, in that seedy hotel room. However, just when it seems as if Parker is going to pull one of those “it was all a dream” tricks on the audience, the Gamin finds the severed hand in the vanity drawer, and we realize this gruesome tale was not simply a nightmare.

Dementia has the kind of meandering attitude that, if not handled well, can make a movie feel tedious. But Parker pulls out the most unusual and outrageous instances for his character to wander into, making for anything but a boring experience. Despite it having such a low budget, this is one of the most stylish horror movies of its time. Combining techniques from the very best visual eras to date in the 1950s, Thompson creates a terrifyingly German expressionist noir that’s keen on a voyeur camera perspective and extremely uncomfortable close-ups. Shadows are almost always looming in a shot, coinciding with an intense sense of paranoia. The cinematography helps build a world that looks realistically grimy while remaining eerily unreal.

In one of the coolest and most disorienting scenes of Dementia, the Gamin has a waking dream in which she visits her parents’ graves in a cemetery. A headless man escorts her to stone markers simply inscribed “Mother” and “Father.” There, in the foggy, desolate graveyard, The Gamin relives memories of her abusive father and avoidant mother. Living room and bedroom furniture sit between the gravestones like parts of a makeshift theater set, where her father shoots her mother after suspecting that she’s been with another man. Then, the Gamin stabs her father, hinting at an origin to her violent ways. Rather than a straightforward flashback, Parker presents a nightmarish scene that is much more visually compelling and interesting to watch. This style flows through the movie, creating an unsettling sense of place to go along with the unpredictable direction of the plot.

Despite the analyses that others have tried to prescribe to Dementia, the movie’s best asset is the way it shrugs off any rhyme or reason for what transpires on screen. Yes, we get to see some of the main character’s backstory play out on screen in the graveyard sequence, but this information from her past is never used in any other scene that follows. Trying to explain why violence and chaos exist in our world by explaining why they happen in the Gamin’s world would just feel like an “after school special” version of The Twilight Zone.

Violence for violence’s sake is not a rare concept in horror, but there seems to be some difficulty in accepting that this can be done by a woman, as Kat Ellinger explains in a 2020 essay for the British Film Institute:

“There is always an expectation that if women are to be violent, they should at least be excused by either mental incapacity or some other explanation, like brainwashing or revenge. ‘Dementia’ in its original form, while employing some Freudian notes, does little to explain or excuse the main protagonist named simply The Gamine [sic]. The whys and wherefores are rendered nebulous and ambiguous by the film’s silent, expressionist, freeform presentation, which is devoid of dialogue.”

Few movies of this era were so bold as to commit to the unruly and unexplainable nature of a nightmare when depicting one on screen, but that is what transcends Dementia onto a different level of filmmaking.

When Parker initially tried to release the feature in 1953, the New York State Film Board banned its release there, keeping it from debuting in New York City until two years later. Even then, the number of theaters willing to play such a shocking picture was limited, and Dementia‘s existence was mostly forgotten except by writer and director Preston Sturges, who stated in 1953 that he enjoyed the film, for “it stirred my blood, purged my libido. The circuit was completed. The work was a work of art.” His glowing endorsement would even be shown before the credits in a later version of the movie.

To recover from its disappointing debut, Parker sold Dementia to opportunistic producer Jack H. Harris for distribution by his Exploitation Pictures. Harris added extremely campy but ultimately delightful narration by Ed McMahon, cut the movie slightly to appease censors, and re-released it in 1957 under the new title Daughter of Horror.

One year later, Parker’s work finally got the kind of exposure he wanted, but not in the way he expected: Harris featured some clips of Daughter of Horror in his 1958 B-picture The Blob, during a scene in which the titular mass of slime descends on a packed movie theater audience. Parker’s cheesy but horrific film finds the perfect place within that cult classic, which also embodies the fears and paranoia of its time.

For many years, the scene in The Blob was the only way to access any part of Dementia — even in its reworked form as Daughter of Horror. Like so many underground gems of American cinema, Parker’s film was almost lost to the hands of time but was fortunately saved thanks to the horror fans who kept its irreplaceable value in mind. In 2000, Kino Video released both versions on DVD, and last year, the BFI released a beautiful Blu-ray restoration of both Dementia and Daughter of Horror as well. As of this writing, you can currently watch a Cohen Media version of Dementia for free (with ads) on the streaming platform Tubi.

Who knows how many filmmakers could have been inspired by Dementia had the movie been more successfully released in its own time? Today, Parker’s style resembles other unusual works of cinema, including those made by David Cronenberg and David Lynch, but they only showed up decades later. Before post-modern cynicism and surrealism became a more embraced part of filmmaking, Parker dared to create a movie that could not be compared to anything else before it. While similar renditions of the waking-nightmare type of psychological thriller are now common, to experience true disorienting horror, it’s best to go back to the original.

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Emily Kubincanek is a Senior Contributor for Film School Rejects and resident classic Hollywood fan. When she's not writing about old films, she works as a librarian and film archivist. You can find her tweeting about Cary Grant and hockey here: @emilykub_