Classic Review: Daughter of Horror (1955)

Daughter of Horror Large

Director: Uncredited

Starring: Adrienne Barrett, Bruno VeSota, Ben Roseman

Release Date: 22nd December 1955

If you’ve heard at all of Daughter of Horror (1955), it will be as the movie Steve McQueen and his pals are watching when The Blob (1958) bursts through their silver screen, sending the audience scattering into the street. Above, on the marquee: “MIDNIGHT SPOOK SHOW: ‘DAUGHTER OF HORROR’ plus BELA LUGOSI.” I don’t know which of Lugosi’s films the Blob stopped everyone from seeing (I like to think it was 1953’s Glenda or Glenda), but Daughter of Horror is as far from the traditional Lugosi or Karloff horror films as you can get.

Daughter of Horror is the better known, relatively speaking, version of a film which started life as Dementia, made in 1953, that queer, sultry summer they executed the Rosenbergs. Dementia failed to make it pass the New York Board of Censors, such was its unusual content, but in 1955, with around two minutes of footage cut, and a more audience-friendly title, Daughter of Horror received a very limited release before vanishing again, surfacing occasionally at college screenings or art house theaters; one IMDB user reports encountering the film when a theater accidentally showed Dementia in 1972 instead of the intended Dementia 13 (1963), the one-off performance remaining in that viewer’s memory for years afterwards.

For Daughter of Horror is not a film easily forgotten. No dialogue is spoken during its 54 minute running time, although, unlike the original Dementia, we have a melodramatic narration, chewed up and spat out by Ed McMahon, later to enter the American television hall of fame as Johnny Carson’s sidekick for 30 years of The Tonight Show. The narration was a sop to the censors, concerned audiences wouldn’t be able to fathom the onscreen events, and though McMahon adds a certain brutal giddiness to proceedings, pronouncements such as “Let me show you the bed of evil you sprang from!” and “Guilty! Mad with guilt and the devils who’ve taken possession of you,” often detract from the film’s serious intent.

We open at a hotel which looks like a discarded Edward Hopper sketch. Here, a woman identified in the credits as ‘The Gamin’ (Adrienne Barrett) awakes from a nightmare of drowning, only to find her reality – and this is her reality, not ours – offering little more in the way of comfort. She leaves her shabby room, only to recoil at a policeman leading away a drunken man who has clearly beaten his bruised wife. The wife retreats to her room, rejecting the consoling landlady who we assume called the police in the first place. This unhappy cameo sets the tone for night in which the Gamin encounters drunkenness, greed, moral squalor and violence both sexual and physical. The Gamin is as much a part of this world as the sordid characters she meets; she carries a switchblade, and through a newspaper she buys from a dwarf (Angelo Rossito), it is strongly implied the Gamin is behind the ‘Mysterious Stabbing’ referred to in the newspaper headline.

The Gamin is forcibly persuaded by a pimp (Richard Barron, billed as ‘Evil One’) to act as escort for Rich Man (Bruno VeSota, later to appear in several Roger Corman productions). The pair visit various downtown dives, with The Gamin’s mood swinging from happiness to disgust and back again. During the ride to Rich Man’s hotel, the Gamin suffers a flashback in which we learn her abusive father shot her lush of a louche mother for conducting an affair; as retribution, the Gamin kills her father by stabbing him in the back (this is the sequence familiar from The Blob). These events are re-enacted in a graveyard presided over by a sinister figure in a suit, his head blackened and featureless, perhaps representing the Gamin’s warped conscience.

The Rich Man leads the Gamin to his luxurious top floor apartment and plays the piano while she pours out a drink. Rejecting both her drink and company, Rich Man instead consumes a meal of fried chicken, in one of the most unpleasant culinary scenes in Hollywood history. Turning his attention to the Gamin, she now rejects him and knifes Rich Man in his bulging stomach, before pushing him out of the window to his death.

More blank-faced ghouls surround the body as the Gamin attempts to retrieve her distinctive pendant from the Rich Man’s fist. Eventually, she hacks the hand from his arm, and flees the scene, only to be hunted down by the police in the form of the Enforcer (Ben Roseman), identical in appearance to her murdered father.

The Gamin finds refuge of a sort when Evil One drags her into a jazz club underworld of the sort Jack Kerouac and Hubert Selby Jnr immortalized in print. The Gamin dances to Shorty Rogers and his Giants (later to provide the soundtrack for, among many others, The Looney Looney Looney Bugs Bunny Movie [1981]) and appears happy, but her father/the Enforcer has closed in. The crowd turn on the Gamin, laughing and pointing as the reanimated Rich Man appears at the window, laughing and pointing…

Awaking from her nightmare, the Gamin gets up from her hotel bed, and notices the chain of her pendant hanging from a chest of drawers. She opens the drawer…and her nightmare continues.

This synopsis doesn’t really come close to describing the experience of Daughter of Horror. Shot in an expressionistic fashion harking back to the silent era of film, and in particular The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919), it’s one of the few films, along with Caligari, to effectively put across psychosis as felt by its sufferer. Daughter of Horror was the brainchild of John Parker, about whom almost nothing is known, likewise Adrienne Barret, whose hypnotic performance lands somewhere between amateurish and accomplished; one rumor has it Barret was Parker’s secretary and Parker’s script is based on a dream Barret experienced.

The soundtrack is complimented by a theramin-like, wordless vocal from Marni Nixon (The King and I [1956], West Side Story [1961], My Fair Lady [1964]), and is a large part of the film’s twisted, imbalanced outlook on the world; allied with Parker’s at times startling direction (the shots of the expensive hotel’s lobby are worthy of Alain Renais) and William C Thompson’s cinematography (Thompson also worked on…Glen and Glenda), this makes for a compelling journey through not only the imbalanced mind of the Gamin, but of cinema itself. Daughter of Horror is Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) remade as a crime film noir by Ed Wood, with a dose of Touch of Evil (1958) era Orson Welles (to whom Bruno VeSota bears a passing resemblance) and even this melange of references only begins to come close to the haunting, hurting atmosphere of this unique film.