Note: This review pertains to the original version of the film which is sans Ed McMahon's narration, incorporated later by Jack H. Harris in his own version titled "Daughter of Horror".
Very little is known about John Parker, the creator of this fine American experimental film, "Dementia" (1955). According to IMDB this is his only feature length film, if you can even call it that, with its odd 56 minutes length. Apparently this film gained more recognition after footage from it was used in the theatre scene in the popular horror film "The Blob" in 1958.
"Dementia" is almost as off-the-wall as any avant-garde surrealist film. It begins on an unsettling note, as the camera zooms in on a hotel room with the neon sign of 'Hotel' flashing on and off. The place seems to be located in some shady part of town where vagrants and drunks roam the streets. A woman credited as The Gamin (Adrienne Barrett), is writhing in bed, possibly having a nightmare. And this first scene kicks off the fever dream that promises to engulf the audience just as the ocean waves in the dream sequence engulf The Gamin!
Mysterious things happen hence, as the woman walks the streets and experiences a series of oddities that begin with a newspaper that constantly keeps getting blown in her direction and lands at her feet despite her attempts at getting rid of it, forcing her to read the glaring headlines about an incident of murder by stabbing! There is no dialog. This is a silent film, but we do hear the sounds of laughter and sobbing. There is a sense of constant dread throughout, accentuated by a high pitched, eerie, operatic singing in the only musical score (composed by George Antheil) that dominates in the film's modest running time. The black and white visuals are excellent. However, in some bits there is a visible lack of polish in the picture of the finished product, thus giving off a B-movie aura, a la the films of Ed Wood Jr., but that is hardly a complaint.
"Dementia" is a stylized, eclectic blend that brings together elements of film noir, surreal psychological thrillers, horror/ghost stories and even expressionist cinema. What happens on screen is not completely confounding. It is a rather straightforward series of events in the context of the story which obviously incorporates dream logic and supernatural elements as well.
This woman in her strange journey encounters abusive drunks, a shady pimp, a fat wealthy man (Bruno Vesota) who lustfully eyes women and several other characters that add to the intrigue. An excellent scene in a cemetery chronicles the fates of the mother and the father of the protagonist, narrated by a person wearing a black mask. The black mask is a recurring motif. It reappears in a scene in which several people with black masks gather around a corpse. It is not clear if they are faceless onlookers in the dream universe or if they are supernatural beings (angels of death?) who are there to claim the soul of the dead.
A noteworthy aspect is the condescending air borne by the fat wealthy man. Knowing that he is an all-powerful, influential person who also seems to be immoral and wicked, perhaps an evil force, could he be representing the Devil himself? At one point of time you see him indulging in excess, gorging on food, stuffing himself like a pig (the sin of gluttony?). You can't help but cringe in disgust as well as let out a nervous chuckle during a sickening act and the event that follows owing to the rigor mortis of a corpse. It all continues in its unnerving glory and culminates into a downright spine-chilling climax in a Jazz nightclub, a truly maddening sequence that reminds us of the kind of stuff that makes for good goosebump inducing nightmares!
Adrienne Barrett's performance leaves a little to be desired though. At times she is quite convincing and drives home her possible dementedness and paranoia. But there are other times when her emoting seems forced or half-baked. And that's a pity because practically the entire film lies on her shoulders, what with a film lacking in dialog the onus of successfully conveying emotions lies on the actors' expressions.
"Dementia" may be slightly patchy but it deserves to be elevated from its depths of obscurity simply for almost matching up to the standards of genuinely thrilling grisly and hallucinatory imagery made more popular by some bigger filmmakers. Do venture into The Gamin's demented world. It is a joyride in the mouth of madness.
A word of caution: Avoid the aforementioned Jack H. Harris version, "Daughter of Horror" which has the voiceover narration that is reportedly quite cheesy and ruins the film. Stick to the original version sans the narration.