Retro: our movie & TV vault... a fresh look
at neglected classics and cult favourites
A character designated only as 'the gamine' (Adrienne Barrett) wakes from a disturbed
sleep in an anonymous hotel room, part of the darkened noir city of nightmare. She is
already mad, we are told, one of the damned, and of "the tormented half-lit night
of the insane ... where there is no love, no hope," part of "a dream of madness
on a dark night." Wracked by guilt over her crimes, past and present, the gamine is
soon picked up by a pimp on behalf of a fat rich man (Bruno Ve Sota) and she shortly finds
herself in his penthouse. As events spiral out of control, and as her past catches up with
her, she becomes the hunted in a dark terror of murder, and mutilation...
A real cult curiosity, and originally made without dialogue, Daughter Of Horror first surfaced in 1955 under the title Dementia (not to be confused with Coppola's first film, Dementia 13, 1963). It was allegedly the only film by one John Parker (the son of a Portland theatre owner), a film made with his mother's money, and it's an unrepeated, independent, tour de force by a fledgling director. It's a status shared with such other, equally singular, films such as The Honeymoon Killers, and Carnival Of Souls (1962), the latter of which having an atmosphere similar to Parker's work.
But Daughter Of Horror was a production which had an unsteady birth: remarkably, from all accounts Parker at one point asked no less a person than Preston Sturges to help him out. A lot of the precise contribution made by credited participants is still debateable. For instance although Parker is the named director this title has also been attributed to his associate producer Bruno Ve Sota, playing the fat, greedy sexual predator in the film. Bearing a resemblance to Orson Welles in looks, even if not in talent, it was Ve Sota who helmed such titles as Female Jungle and The Brain Eaters at around the same time as Daughter Of Horror was made - although recent research makes his directorial presence in the present work less likely.
Parker's secretary plays the heroine; a particularly apt choice, as it was upon her original nightmare that his script was based. The film was shot on professional Hollywood sound stages as well as around Venice, California and indeed many will recognise the same location from the appearance of its distinctive colonnades a little later in Touch Of Evil. Daughter Of Horror utilised the skills of William C. Thompson, an Ed Wood regular although once again the record is uncertain, as it's even possible that a lot of the work was actually done by art students.
Once completed, much of its subject matter was seen as objectionable by the authorities, so much so that Parker was obliged to submit the film 10 times to the New York Censors in the space of a couple of years - hardly surprising, given the proscriptive code they were working to, which frowned on depictions of prostitution, pimping, police corruption, adultery, incest (implied here) and heroin addiction and in Daughter Of Horror much of it was, wrapped up in one disturbing package of Z-grade horror.
A financial failure, Parker's unique movie was eventually reduced slightly by cutting to taste, re-titled from Dementia to Daughter Of Horror and then given a gloating, demonic narrator (Ed McMahon, later famous through his association with Johnny Carson), the addition of which considerably raises the camp quotient. Until the arrival of DVD it has remained a film understandably hard to see and to most fans it remained visible at all only because of its brief appearance, on screen and poster, in The Blob (1958).
Parker's work is a striking example of what is best described as noir-gothic, in which the preoccupations of the crime genre are fused with those of low-rent horror as well as other sources, all melded in a way that only the freedom of cheap, independent movie making could aspire to. A good deal of the film's pleasure comes from picking out those threads which make up Parker's fevered inspiration. From expressionistic silent cinema - one can imagine the veteran German actor of that time for instance, Emil Jannings, who appeared gorging himself at the close of The Last Laugh, playing Daughter Of Horror's obese, rapacious, bon vivant) - or the influence of the contemporary noir movement in film, then at its height; the overripe narration and graveyard scenes which recall the cardboard deliriums of an Ed Wood script.
Finally the dreamlike nature of the film, the somnambulistic tension it inhabits, that leaves one never entirely sure what is real and what is not, recalls the disturbing irrationalities of the surrealists (there's a particularly Bu�uelian moment for instance when the gamine discovers a severed hand clutching an amulet in a drawer). Daughter Of Horror is a sound film throughout but as previously noted, apart from the occasional sound of blows and the maniacal laughter punctuating the action, McMahon's later ghoulish commentary has the only words we hear. The first release version lacks even this, relying upon image, mood and the logic of hallucination to carry the viewer along - an extraordinarily brave choice (whether dictated by budget or not) given the linear realism of much of Hollywood at the time. Whether one prefers that original version or the re-release, which offers more amusement to the modern viewer, is a matter of taste.
Filling in the long gaps between expository words is a noteworthy score by no less a composing figure than the avant garde George Antheil, as well as one Shorty Rogers, and his Giants, who offer their 'new concepts in modern sounds', at least in the climactic basement nightclub scene. (This is where, arguably as the most persecuted heroine in the whole of noir, the gamine is trapped and eventually betrayed by the entire audience, pointing en masse to her guilty presence.) A lot of Antheil's suitably atmospheric music is for wordless soprano. It's an eerie, otherworldly soundtrack, one that adds immensely to a film that's still unsettling today. Contrasted against the urban nightmare that makes up most of the film, Antheil's ethereal score is just another indication of the fractured and disorientating experience of both the gamine and, ultimately the audience.
A lot of the film's relatively short running time is taken up with incidents and settings firmly rooted in the generic familiarities of noir even if, in the last analysis, Daughter Of Horror is deliberately as mad as its central character and her experiences. The heroine's minimal, sign-lit hotel room for instance, the shabby shop fronts with their cheap advertising slogans, and the crowded, sleazy nightclub. The dark, wet streets with their disreputable inhabitants, the midget newspaper vendor, sleazy pimps, predacious businessmen and relentless insincere, crooked cops; the places where "the pulse of the neon lights are like a hammer in the brain... forcing you to remember your guilt."
But the unconscious excesses of such a universe are Parker's own. With singular effect, his film traverses the unstable moral and mental depths with the silent, helpless prowl of a cinematic sleepwalker. It's unable, or unwilling, for the audience or participants to find ultimate escape through dawn and the comforts of 'reality', expected after the usual paranoia and uncertainty of the genre. Particularly in its original edit, cheapness and all, Daughter Of Horror transforms the characteristic dream-like aspects of noir cinema into one, unbroken nightmare. And, as the narrator says, "In the mind of the insane you find a kind of truth."
The Kino region 1 edition is the one to have, as it offers both versions of the film, with restored picture quality, as well as an informative essay on the complicated production issues surrounding the film. The a2zCDs edition lacks these advantages but is at least re-mastered and looks acceptable, considering the provenance of the original materials. In either case, those who relish discovering the forgotten byways of cinéma maudit can be safely directed to this as a treat indeed.