Dementia (1955, John Parker)


Often seen in a cut version with superfluous narration under the title Daughter of Horror and released by a company actually called Exploitation Pictures, John Parker’s Dementia is reputed to be one of the strangest films ever made in the U.S., and I honestly feel a little bad for you if that’s the majority of what you get out of it. Seen with modern eyes and a patient affinity for the purity of its visual storytelling, it’s a playful, magic nightmare that features what may amount to some of the earliest blurred lines between the B-picture and the true independent film as we now understand it.

Really, the film is indescribable, but we’ll do our best. It’s a latter-day silent that follows an alternately terrified and vengeful woman (the otherwise unknown Adrienne Barrett, brilliant and clearly having a blast) through a maze of lecherous men, neglectful parents and the generally oppressive American sleaze of the city streets. She finds liberation at a jazz concert but is then called out for it, and while this is literally because she cut a guy’s hand off, we can sense the film’s (surprisingly advanced for its age) deeper message about sexual politics and female independence.

It seems kind of silly to talk about the story in a film like this that so freely and beautifully engages with the avant garde despite its simultaneous leanings in the horror genre, but it is telling us something surprisingly coherent — it’s hardly a pure exercise in weirdness, though it seems many of its fans would have it otherwise. What impressed me was that every film it reminded me of was released some time later — The Trial (big beautiful German expressionist fear and desire), Carnival of Souls (a woman hallucinating her imprisonment and liberation) and especially Repulsion (the indictment of female sexuality by the patriarchy, the resultant fear and justified violence) — with the exception of Pabst’s Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, both starring a similarly smirking Louise Brooks and both of which are obviously reference points.

The great majority of the shots in this film are just as striking as what you’d see in a Pabst or Welles film, and several moments are utterly transcendent — like the rich man’s “death” scene that has him cartoonishly but somehow beautifully falling from a tall building, and the lengthy jazz dance which captures what feels like a real sense of the independent-minded spirit of the times without being terribly blatant about it, I would say more effectively than the beloved Shadows. I don’t think any film, except Wings of Desire three decades later, has ever captured the sense of abandon and emotional freedom possible at the edge of a stage watching musicians perform.

The relative obscurity and cult status of this film is shameful. As much as I love Carnival of Souls, this deserves that movie’s status at the very least. Not only does it beautifully capture the “woman alone” concept popularized by Hitchcock with a bare-minimum of exposition or over-explanation, it refreshingly and mind-bogglingly calls for an appreciation of the art possible in American film outside the slick confines of the studio system. This is real beautiful small-time pulp, not the trashy Tarantino kind, and it feels astonishingly current. It’s one of the most shocking and moving discoveries I’ve made through this weblog.

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