Thursday, July 09, 2009

"The Half-Lit Night of the Insane" 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 Wood's same weird love for all the seedier elements of late 1950s Hollywood. In fact if Ed was a closeted lesbian schizophrenic beatnik prostitute, this would be his GLEN OR GLENDA (presuming too the whole film was that weird devil dream sequence). If Roman Polanski was a crackhead and making REPULSION for the Finlays in a dingy basement with a young Mercedes McCambridge instead of Catherine Deneuve, well... it's better.

John Parker's only film. His parents owned a few theaters in Oregon, and mom gave him most of the money (I'm sure she was thrilled by the result). If it had made it to Cannes or Greenwich Village, who knows? It might have been a hit. It surely sent linear-narrative-expecting 1955 audiences on some into fits of yawning and/or disgruntled popcorn hurling. Clearly made by 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, it has that same outsider art glean only genuine eccentricity can deliver.

The lack of dialogue might be a reason it seems to move backwards and slow time to a crawl. Not a word is spoken as we follow a woman known only as 'The Gamin' (Adrienne Barrett) on her midnight switchblade-strapped sojourn through a desolate urban landscape... to do what? Turn tricks? Seek kicks? Cop a fix? Along her route she encounters: a drunk being beaten to a pulp by a sadistic cop; a dwarf (Angelo Rossitto) who sells her a paper (as Rossitto did in real life--he was a Hollywood Boulevard fixture); a masked figure leads who 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!" Hey, he's only saying what we're all thinking.

If it is Ed McMahon, it sounds nothing like him (to my ear) but who cares? Whomever he is, he enunciates every word as if he's getting off on his first hit of reefer and trying not to exhale while he's having his toes cut off. It's with the narrated version that the artsy backwards momentum ennui halts and the true Ed Woodiness comes roaring out. Dig this Criswell-esque number (I had to write it down): "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: "He eats little boys!" Each word is emphasized and elongated like the film itself, struggling to stretch a short film into a feature length and only getting as far as around 57 minutes before wheezing to a halt.

Anyway, it's 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, where it shows up onscreen (replete with narration) while the kids make out oblivious to the genius before them.

Connecting the film with Roger Corman is the presence of his stock heavy Bruno ve Sota luring our gamin up to his penthouse, where a bartender has been waiting. The Gamin 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, heheh throb her insane mind... 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 ruthlessly beats that drunk who was harassing her, she just stands there and laughs! How refreshing, to say the least. She'd be right at home running with the Grande boys in TOUCH OF EVIL.

The score is great too: George Antheil's weird orchestral booziness and the wordless eerie whooping of a theremin welded to Marni Nixon's soaring vocals. 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 Ed Woodsy heaven to watch her open her mouth and then quickly close it while on stage, trying to lip sync to Marni Nixon's wordless and missing the cues, somehow her amateur actress shrugging it off to keep bopping around, maybe blushing just a tad, only makes the whole thing that much weirder. I mean, singers feeling out improvisations do that all the time, so why not the Gamin? And it helps soften her butch beatnik thug vibe just a smidgeon. She's still plenty creepy though, which helps. 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-- I mean dig, man, it's a real 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 Or are you afraid.... hmmm? Don't worry. John Parker is here... And he has so much to show you!


  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.

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

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

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

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

  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!

  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.

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


  12. Ed McMahon IS the narrator. In the old days we always wondered -- the Ed McMahon, Johnny's tippled sidekick ho turned up at 1:00 am in infomercials to tell us a big check was arriving for us from Publisher's Clearing House. Then one night in the 80s, my head exploded watching The Tonight Show as Carnac the Magnificent dared to ask the sidekick about Daughter of Horror, and McMahon admitted openly if sheephishly that, yes indeedy, t'was he!

  13. Just watched the non-narrated version, I liked it a lot that way

  14. This movie is way better than Ed Wood. I've watched Ed Wood, and this film, while not a classic by any means and at least 15 minutes too long, is way, way better than Ed Wood.


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