“We were young and making a feature film! I think that kind of enthusiasm has a lot to do with the fact that while you’re young your standards are low. If you shoot something that looks like a real movie, that puts you into euphoria.”
At 83, with the Godfather films, Apocalypse Now, and The Conversation to his credit, Francis Ford Coppola has little to prove to anyone, but earlier this year he wrapped principal photography on Megalopolis, a project gestating in some form since the early ’80s. When completed, it will be his first feature since 2011’s Twixt (not counting his “Live Cinema” experiment Distant Thunder) and its generous budget (rumored to have far surpassed the $120 million initially earmarked for it) proves he hasn’t lost his knack for swinging for the fences – and on his own dime. It’s also a far cry from where he started six decades ago.
Like many filmmakers who became heavy hitters in Hollywood in the ’70s and ’80s, Coppola apprenticed under Roger Corman, who plucked him out of film school at the suggestion of Dorothy Arzner, his directing teacher at UCLA. (The other student she recommended was Jack Hill, who likewise went to work for Corman.) By the time he came to Corman’s attention, Coppola already had two “nudie cuties” under his belt, so he was put to work on a Soviet science fiction film that eventually saw release under the title Battle Beyond the Sun. To get it into shape, Coppola had to re-cut it, rewrite the story and dialogue, and re-dub it, adding footage of two strangely designed aliens to give the drive-in crowd monsters to gawk at.
When he wasn’t in the cutting room wrangling Battle Beyond the Sun, Coppola acted as Corman’s assistant director on 1962’s Premature Burial and dialogue director on the same year’s Tower of London. From there, they traveled to Europe to make The Young Racers, which was filmed on the Grand Prix circuit three years before John Frankenheimer had the same idea. At first, Coppola’s job was sound, but he also directed the second unit and was in the right place at the right time when Corman noticed a $20,000 surplus in the budget. Tossing off a pitch for a cheap thriller in the Psycho mold, Coppola convinced the famously penny-pinching producer to back his first legitimate feature, which bore the title Dementia until it was pointed out there was already a film of that name in circulation. The addition of the unlucky number 13 was all it needed to set it apart.
By far, the best sequence in Dementia 13 is the one that earned Coppola the job. Gold-digger Louise Haloran (Luana Anders), widow of eldest son John, is trying to keep his untimely death a secret because she doesn’t want to miss out on his inheritance. In a bid to get Lady Haloran to change her will, Louise steals dolls belonging to her long-dead daughter, takes them out to the pond late at night, strips down to her bra and panties, and dives into the murky depths to plant the dolls so they can bob to the surface the next day. She has a scare, though, and quickly comes up for air, whereupon an axe-wielding maniac does her in and drags away her corpse. In Coppola’s conception, this was to be the only axe murder in the film, but when Corman requested more mayhem, it fell to Jack Hill (credited with writing and directing the second unit) to shoot a second one (including a decapitation) and other gory inserts.
Along with the money and camera equipment, Coppola borrowed a few of the actors from The Young Racers for his nine-day wonder. In addition to Anders, who has the Janet Leigh role of the apparent lead bumped off midway through, Coppola retained William Campbell and Patrick Magee, both potential suspects. Campbell is even introduced operating a blowtorch in his capacity as a metal sculptor, and he’s identified in Louise’s voice over as “the one to watch out for.” As for Magee, he plays Lady Haloran’s doctor, who revels in the chance to play amateur detective. “One of you has a brilliantly imaginative and effectively sadistic mind,” he tells the assembled Halorans. “I wish I could keep up with it.” Eagle-eyed viewers will be able to solve the mystery long before he does, though.
Dissatisfied with Corman’s tinkering, Coppola didn’t stick around to make a second film for the producer, although he did spend a few days working on 1963’s The Terror, making him one of five uncredited directors (including Monte Hellman, Jack Hill, and star Jack Nicholson) who took a stab at making sense of the footage shot by his predecessors. Instead, the next time he put his name on a film, it was one (1966’s You’re a Big Boy Now) released by Warner Bros./Seven Arts. That’s euphoric on a whole other level.
Corman’s cut of “Dementia 13,” which is in the public domain, is streaming just about everywhere. You name it, they’re probably streaming it. The film is also available on Blu-ray from Vestron Video in the restored director’s cut Coppola prepared in 2021, giving audiences the opportunity to experience his original vision.