By: Hawk Ripjaw (A Toast) –
Dementer is inspired by and structured around director Chad Crawford Kinkle’s sister Stephanie, who has Down Syndrome.
Katie (Katie Groshong) sits down nervously for her interview for a position at Skills Development Services, which helps adults with developmental disorders learn to be independent. She mentions that she’s never had a job like this, but she wants something where she can do good. She takes to the job quickly, finding strong friendships with the clients at the facility. She especially takes a liking to Stephanie (Stephanie Kinkle), feeling a connection to her.
Katie is plagued by headaches and nightmarish visions of when she was involved in a backwoods cult. She eventually managed to escape, though it appears the separation was not amicable. When Stephanie suddenly falls ill, Katie realizes that the cult has set her and Stephanie in their sights. With the voice of the cult leader (Larry Fessenden) constantly echoing in her dreams, she revisits a journal of hexes and mantras to try to protect Stephanie before she can be taken.
Dementer was shot in and around the facility that Stephanie and other adults with Down Syndrome live. Kinkle often just lets his camera run in these scenes, having them simply interact with each other and with Katie and the staff. In this way, the movie has an incredibly naturalistic feel, almost like a hybrid of documentary and scripted film. Refreshingly, nothing of Stephanie’s disability is directly involved with the horror elements. It’s often an easy go-to for a horror to use disability as a stereotype such as a catalyst for evil. Stephanie and her friends are portrayed as fun, creative, curious people.
Groshong’s performance feels very natural and nuanced. She’s anxious, but her nerves drive her with a sort of situational awareness that makes her an electrifying lead. All of this realism ends up amplifying the horror elements, allowing them to feel more at home in a realistic environment.
Coming in at a clean 80 minutes, it’s a slow burn that doesn’t feel laborious. For much of the first half of the film, very little happens beyond showing the lives of these adults and exhibiting some of Katie’s terrifying visions. That minimalism is effective, especially in how it delivers a drip-feed of information regarding Katie’s past. Flashbacks are shot in a dreamlike fashion, showing quick flashes of imagery while stingy dialogue offers only snippets of Katie’s life in the cult.
A major boost to the film’s mood comes courtesy of the score from Sean Spillane, whose main hook calls with eerie, tribal percussions and responds with moaning strings that tug at the gut. While not conventionally frightening, Dementer is drenched in unease and a lurking dread of not knowing exactly where Katie’s trauma is going to lead her.
In a year of excellent indie horror, Dementer is yet another creatively divergent entry. In directly involving supporting characters played by actors with Down Syndrome and a caretaker with a troubled past, it finds compassion and positivity for the developmentally disabled. Broadening its scope, it outlines the lack of visibility and effective care for those with a disability, as well as sufferers of trauma. That fact that it doesn’t showboat as a faux documentary almost makes the realistic elements more immersive, and that slight documentary feel, by the finale, is strikingly unnerving. It presents information but initially withholds the context, like turning essential puzzle pieces face down until it’s time to turn them back over. It breaks the mold in a way that few films of 2019 have even attempted.
Dementer (2019) Movie Drinking Game
Take a Drink: for every dream sequence/flashback.
Take a Drink: every time Larry Fessenden says “devils”
Do a Shot: every time Katie opens her notebook.