Thursday, July 09, 2009

"Yes! I am Here!" DEMENTIA: DAUGHTER OF HORROR

It's not by Ed Wood, but John Parker's 1955 surrealist grade Z nightmare, DEMENTIA (AKA DAUGHTER OF HORROR), is full of poverty row trimmings, with Ed's same weird love for all the seedier elements of late 1950s life as a closeted schizophrenic beatnik prostitute. It's like a cross-dress between the crazy dream scenes in GLEN OR GLENDA and Polanski if he was a crackhead and making REPULSION in a dingy basement with a young Mercedes McCambridge instead of Catherine Deneuve.

John Parker's only film (his parents owned a few theaters in Oregon, and mom gave him most of the money - I wonder what she felt about the result? Probably a lot like my mom re: this blog), if it had made it to Cannes or Greenwich Village, it might have been a hit, but shown to a bunch of linear-narrative-expecting 1955 folks on some triple feature horror bill, it must have sent them yawning and off to the snack bar or home. The film's like a drier, slower Ed Wood, someone for whom the grotesque poverty row-style fantasma on display is genuinely "their cup of tea" and not just what jaded producers think will sell drive-in tickets.

Not a word of dialogue is spoken as we follow a woman known only as 'The Gamin' (Adrienne Barrett) on her midnight sojourn through a desolate urban landscape to do what? Turn tricks? Seek kicks? She encounters a drunk, a sadistic cop, and a dwarf (Angelo Rossitto) who sells her a paper, all in the first few agonizingly slow minutes. Later a masked figure leads her to where her dead parents are boozing it up in a graveyard, and in between she is led around to various seedy bars by a rich fat guy with a cigar (Bruno Ve Sota).

The original version was stopped in its tracks via two years of censor battles and was barely released. Later it was picked up by Exploitation Pictures and given a voice-over and a new name, DAUGHTER OF HORROR. Purists rant, but the narrated version is plenty awesome, with heavy breathing lines (supposedly by Ed McMahon) like: "Come with me to the haunted, half-lit night of the insane... for this is a place where there is no love, or hope and the pulsing, throbbing world of the insane mind, where only nightmares are real... nightmares of the daughter of horror!"

If it is Ed McMahon it sounds nothing like him, but who cares? Whomever he is, he enunciates every word as if he's getting off on his first hit of reefer while having his toes cut off. It's with the narrated version that the true Ed Woodiness comes roaring out, thanks to Criswell-esque lines like this: "Yes! I am here.. the demon who possesses your soul. Wait a bit... I'm coming for you. I have so much to show you, so much that you are afraid to see." You keep wanting him to add: "Beware of the dragon that sits on your doorstep! He eats little boys! Puppy dog tails and big... fat... snails!" Each word is emphasized and dragged on, like the film itself, struggling to stretch a short film into a feature length and only getting as far as around 57 minutes. Perfect for an all-night horror film fest, such as the one visited by the unwitting denizens of Anytown USA in the BLOB in 1958.

Connecting the film with Roger Corman is the presence of Bruno Ve Sota -- he plays a fat capitalist with a cigar who lures our gamin up to his penthouse, where a bartender has been waiting all this time upstairs to serve them. She looks at Ve Sota, quizzically. What is she expecting? Certainly not for him to jump on the piano and start banging out some classical jazz. He's certainly not expecting her to... but wait, I mustn't spoil it. Suffice it to say that the usual "innocent girl down the rabbit hole" stuff (males leering and groping, getting drunk and slapping taunting bitches in furs, etc.) is countermanded by the gamin's own sadism. When a cop beats a drunk who was harassing her to a pulp, she just stands there and laughs delightedly.

The score is great with George Antheil's weird orchestral booziness and the Yma Sumac-style upper register wordless eerie whooping of a theremin welded to Marni Nixon. When our lesbian gamin outlaw hides out from the cops in a dingy basement jazz club, she ends up literally throwing on a cocktail dress and singing with gone-daddy jazz combo Shorty Rogers and His Giants, until her paranoia gets too deep. It's pure Wood to watch her continually open her mouth and then quickly close it while on stage, trying to lip sync to Marni Nixon's wordless vocal noises and stopping when she realizes Nixon's voice isn't coming where she thought it was. Meanwhile sleazy dudes grope drunken party girls and lonely old guys with five o clock shadow drink up and look sad and repulsive for the camera. Shorty Rogers and his Giants take up half the basement; the drummer bugs his eyes and makes goofy faces. The cops shove a dead man's head through the basement window bars, so he can dig the sounds. Everybody's happy and a creepy classic is born... or is it? Do you fear the demon with... the daughter of horror?

And the best part is, you can see it in its entirety, for free, on the web right now: Just click here

11 comments:

  1. In either version, this is a truly bizarre and unsettling film -- forget Ed Wood, it channels David Lynch a good 20+ years before Lynch. It's hard to imagine what it'd be like going to the theater expecting the usual B-grade horror schlock and getting... this instead, this queasy, outlandish concoction, a loose stream of unconsciousness chain of strange, violent events. As Pauline Kael might've said, it's great trash.

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  2. Erich: I'm in. I'm going to get this film. Great post. -- Mykal

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  3. Thanks Mykal, the Kino disc is definitely worth getting, but you may want to check out the link at the bottom first, to make sure you dig it. The pace is more Jess Franco than Ed Wood, and has been known to cause napping and/or fistfights.

    And Ed, you are right. I forgot to name check David Lynch, and Salvador Dali/Luis Bunuel for that matter, which even shares some of the same dismembered symbolism.

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  4. I once wrote something to the effect that if Maya Deren had ever worked for Sam Arkoff, this would be close to what she'd come up with.

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  5. I love this film - to me it's a lot closer to Maya Deren or early Curtis Harrington than to Ed Wood.

    I prefer the tighter narrated version - never had any doubt that McMahon was the narrator.

    For another similar exercise in independent silent noir filmmaking tied together by narrative voiceover, see CRASH OF SILENCE (released by Criterion, no less) which does for New York was DAUGHTER OF HORROR does for L.A.

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  6. Maya Deren! Why didn't I think of that? And of course early Curtis Harrington, like NIGHT TIDE...

    Thanks for tip, CJ, I will check out Blast of Silence.

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  7. Yes, "Blast" not "Crash," dammit.

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  8. Great post and incredible movie.
    Bye
    A Spanish Ed Wood fan

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  9. Thank you for this post!

    I can't learn enough about poverty row in Hollywood!

    Here's a music video that appropriates parts of this film.

    Let Andy Manilow know what ya think!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QlSdP84NHz4

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  10. But of course there's a direct link to Ed Wood here: cinematographer William C. Thompson. His ethereal style did a lot for both DOH and Wood's films.

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  11. Here's a link to a version sans voiceover. Yay!!

    http://filmsandallthat.blogspot.com/2010/08/dementia-1955-aka-daughter-of-horror.html

    Enjoy

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