Daughter of Horror

Daughter of Horror

By Greg Woods 

In the fifth issue of my publication, The Eclectic Screening Room, I reviewed Kino’s DVD release of the 1955 movie Daughter of Horror, packaged with the original 1953 version, Dementia (it was re-released in 1955 under the title Daughter of Horror with slight changes to the film, but Dementia was a far more accurate title). So taken was I with this film, that I had hoped to share it with an audience. In the summer of 2006, the 1955 version (long in the public domain) was the second feature of my “Indoor Drive-In” double bill, the very first of my monthly screenings at the Toronto based Centre for the Arts, and was delighted to find that the audience was just as receptive to the movie as I have been.

Fifty years on, Daughter of Horror (or, Dementia) is for me the granddaddy (or is that grandmother?) of indie horror. This film represents what independent truly stands for: reshaping existing forms into something wholly unique, and innovation with one’s limited resources. Its story is full of visceral horror, a chiaroscuro canvas out of film noir, and a fragmented dream-like structure owing more to underground experimental films than anything else in American narrative cinema. If you can imagine a marriage of B-movie horror directed by Fritz Lang and Maya Deren, then one gets a sense of this film’s unique feel.

The story thread concerns a woman who stabs a rich, gluttonous man after an evening together, once he makes advances at her. When the body falls from his high rise, she recalls his hand grabbing her amulet, and then runs down to remove the incriminating jewelry from his claw by cutting off his forearm! We also learn the woman’s violent environment, from moments as subtle as a neighbouring domestic dispute (which is treated with casualness by all parties), to elaborate scenes, such as the stunning sequence in the graveyard, which is my favourite part of the film. She and a black-cowled figure (Death?) view her parents’ graves, and suddenly in this location, we see apparitions of her drunken father shooting his adulterous wife, and the woman in turn stabs her father. This scene tells much about her psychological past, but also encompasses the film’s trend of letting dream-like occurrences sneak into the narrative. (This sequence even has living room and bedroom furniture in the cemetery!)

The film’s entire hour could be set in the woman’s mind, as similarly irrational moments occur, from her constantly being “followed” by a blowing newspaper with the headlines “MYSTERIOUS STABBING,” to an encounter with a man missing a forearm. The narrative owes more to 1940’s avant garde “trance films” than matinee horror, as these elliptical works of Maya Deren and others, feature a character in a dreamlike state, with encounters more figurative than realistic. In Daughter of Horror, the physical and psychological worlds all exist in one fleeting impulse of the protagonist’s damaged brain.

In its original release, Dementia was shown without dialogue (only music and rubbery sound effects on the soundtrack). Thus the story (and all of its Freudian subtext) is communicated visually. However, this and its structure likely baffled many exhibitors of commercial mainstream cinema, causing its disappearance and rebirth two years later as Daughter of Horror.

Although the new version leaves the visual experience intact (except for a silly insert that truncates the masterful opening shot), it is made more accessible (or more bewildering) for the masses with narration by…Ed McMahon! The voiceover consists of such dime novel dialogue as “Let me take you by the arm to show you the bed of evil you sprang from,” yet thankfully, the visual experience overpowers the limp narration.

“This film represents what independent truly stands for: reshaping existing forms into something wholly unique, and innovation with one’s limited resources.”

The spacey narration is just one facet of its odd-duck history. The superb, shadowy cinematography is by William C. Thompson, who was the cameraman for, of all things, Dwain Esper’s infamous 1934 scare film Maniac, and Ed Wood’s immortal Plan 9 From Outer Space. This is a Grade Z movie that nonetheless emerges as “ART”–an unlikely collaboration by some fledgling filmmakers who succeeded with one of the most unusual narrative films ever made in America.

In true indie-underground tradition, Dementia/ Daughter of Horror has an unusual history further adding to its enigma and uniqueness. In addition to the strange way this film has been repackaged, another curiosity surrounds its maker. Writer-producer-director John Parker was allegedly a theatre owner who wanted to break into the movie business (his secretary Adrienne Barrett is the leading lady). Yet after making a film so arresting, Parker was never heard from again–perhaps the haphazard handling of this gem discouraged him from trying another. However it has been suggested that John Parker is really an alias for the film’s co-star (and associate producer) Bruno VeSota, who plays the rich, murdered man. This burly, pruned-faced actor was a familiar player in such B-movie classics as Attack of the Giant Leeches, yet also directed some interesting little films. The Lawrence Tierney noir Female Jungle, the Heinlein adaptation of The Brain Eaters and the bizarre sci-fi spoof Invasion of the Star Creatures, all directed by VeSota, are graced with unusual framing and visual devices, yet none are as fully captivating as Dementia-Daughter of Horror. Still, this is a pretty good argument, and I may believe it.

Admittedly, Adrienne Barrett may not have the acting prowess to carry such a difficult role, but the use of an unschooled actor makes the character appear more vulnerable, more human. The film’s use of non-actors, its technical crudity, and sweaty Bohemian atmosphere (also helped by Shorty Rogers’ score) add to the underground milieu, making this picture feel more like something from our backyard than an antiseptic Hollywood back lot. Half a century later, Daughter of Horror retains its power and unique approach. It upholds the sensibilities of independent filmmaking, while searching for ways to expand the boundaries of commercial narrative.

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