It’s safe to say there’s never been a film, before or since, quite like John Parker’s 1953 psychodrama Dementia (now on Blu-ray from Cohen Film Collection, $19.99). An uncanny marriage of avant-garde cinema, horror and noir, it was somehow both ahead of its time and, boldly, behind it: Parker shot it as a silent film, without intertitles, in an era when such an approach was unthinkable in mainstream cinema. And he cast his secretary, nonprofessional actor Adrienne Barrett, in the lead role, because it was her strange dream that inspired the narrative.
The film is, indeed, a waking nightmare, an hourlong residency in the darkest corners of Los Angeles’s Skid Row. No plot description can justify the movie’s eccentricities, but here goes.
Barrett awakens in her rundown L.A. hotel, walks outside and begins a nocturnal odyssey in which toxic men lurk around every corner and traumatic memories swim around her addled brain. She’s accosted by theatrically staggering drunks and manhandled, as if she were a prostitute, into the limousine of a Wellesian tycoon (Bruno VeSota, credited as “Rich Man”), who takes her to a cabaret, where he leers at other women. Later, in his posh suite, he devours chicken wings with a gluttonous élan; the presentation is gross enough to sink KFC’s stock.
Soon enough, she finds herself on the run and into the arms of an erudite man revealed in the credits as the Evil One (Richard Barron), who escorts her to a jazz club, where Parker’s intoxicating montage style reaches a fever pitch of pure, subjective terror.
Omens gather along the way. A dwarf hawks a newspaper with the lurid headline “Mysterious Stabbing,” the front page following Barrett around like a determined stray. At one point she finds herself lost in a nightmare within a nightmare, as a masked, lantern-carrying steward guides her into a cemetery, where she confronts the ghost of her abusive father.
Ultimately, the distinctions between Barrett’s delusions and “reality” dissipate, allowing Parker to experiment with some progressive ideas, including temporal displacement — that newspaper headline likely refers to an action Barrett commits before it happens — and, at one eerie juncture, transforming time into a frozen tableau.
Parker’s cinematic forbears are all over the movie’s crazy map, from the towering shadows of German Expressionist directors like Murnau to the rapid-fire, associative montage of Soviet pioneers such as Eisenstein. The penetrative score, with its liberal deployment of theremin, layers paranoia on top of everything, its motifs like unrelenting insects buzzing in Barrett’s head. But the music, by George Antheil and Shorty Rogers, captures the sounds of the movie’s live jazz musicians, too, and inspires some crafty editing — like the close-up of Barrett stubbing out a cigarette, which cuts to a drummer stepping on a pedal.
It all adds up to a singular vision of what it’s like to live with a severe mental illness, evidently psychosis, in a manner that is raw and, owing the film’s lack of dialogue, agreeably absent of moralizing or pathologizing. As with Barrett’s fractured consciousness, there is no escape, which makes the journey of Dementia all the more harrowing. What’s more, the action plays against an amplified backdrop of real ambient threats: If all of this depravity happened in her head, she should be so lucky.
Parker’s uncompromising approach proved too much for the film’s producer, Jack H. Harris, who re-edited the movie and added superfluous voiceovers by Ed McMahon to cushion its austerity and man-splain its themes. This version, terribly retitled Daughter of Horror, is included in the Blu-ray disc as a bonus feature, and it’s watchable only as a case study in classic Hollywood moguls underestimating their audiences’ intelligence. “In the world of the insane, you’ll find a kind of truth more terrifying than fiction,” McMahon intones. “Let me take you into the mind of a woman who is mad”— into the “pulsing, throbbing world of the insane.”
John Parker, who tragically never made another movie and would die at 54, knew that for the most visceral plunge into a demented mind, no words could do it justice.