Dementer opens with a grainy montage. A woman is dancing naked in front of a fire. A distorted voice is babbling. There’s a close up of a dog barking. Another, or maybe the same, woman is being chased through a field by a car. Larry (Larry Fessenden) counts up from 1. Through it all, a coin clangs repeatedly. Larry reaches 13, and the title credits run. The montage lasts for an anxiety inducing two minutes, and director-writer Chad Crawford Kinkle does good work keeping that feeling throughout the film’s eighty-minute runtime.
After the credits, Katie (Katie Groshong), who may be the woman who’d been dancing in front of the fire, interviews for a job at a home for special needs adults, which she gets. The story follows her through her orientation, introducing both Katie and the audience to the clients and her responsibilities. All of this is interspersed with flashbacks to that grainy opening sequence, effectively heralded in by the return of that clanging coin. The juxtaposition of the bright, soothing home with the insanity of her PTSD flashbacks is outstanding.
The coin noise is an excellent audio cue. Like the gate squeaking open before each demon attack in Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell, the clanging coin tips the audience that the horror is coming back. Better yet, Kinkle makes you wait for it, stretching those moments as Katie tries to find somewhere safe to hide.
Immediate problems stack on top of her PTSD when she gets to her second work site—a group home. One of her three clients, Stephanie (Stephanie Kinkle, sister of writer-director Chad) vomits on Katie’s first night, and Katie suspects that Stephanie is being attacked by a devil. Katies tries to implement what Larry taught her to ward off the evil. He whispers things like, “Their entrance must be blocked by something that was once part of the living” in her flashbacks and she obeys.
Until the very end of Dementer, Kinkle keeps viewers guessing about what’s actually happening. Stephanie’s symptoms seem pretty low-grade, but Katie’s disgusting attempts to cure her are having no effect. Whether or not there’s actual a demon latched onto Stephanie, Katie’s reactions are real in the world of the film.
Kinkle strives for realism in a number of other ways as well. All of the performances are naturalistic, meaning that they aren’t stylized. People misspeak and stumble. The characters almost all have the same first name of the actor playing them. Stephanie, both the character and the performer, has Downs Syndrome, and as far as I can tell, everyone else with a disability is played by a person with that disability as well. Presumably Kinkle made this choice because Scarlett Johansson couldn’t fit the roles into her busy schedule of playing any tree. The true-to-life performances amp up the fear factor. The characters feel like real people, and viewers don’t want anything bad to happen to them.
Dementer really puts those breathing characters in jeopardy too, despite the shoe-string budget. It’s There aren’t points where the low-grade effects kill the movie because Kinkle shoots them smartly. There aren’t close ups on the gore, but rather brief shots strobed between easier to shoot silhouettes creeping down dark hallways all set to the coin jangling. So many other films have closeups of poorly rendered monsters and wounds, when they could dodge around the budget problem with smart creative choices as Kinkle does.
Dementer also succeeds by featuring people with disabilities as something other than monsters or wall paper. It’s a huge step forward for horror, which as a genre has a history of further marginalizing people with disabilities by making them either monsters or victims so annoying they maybe kind of deserve the chainsawing they got. (Looking at you for both, Texas Chainsaw Massacre.) Kinkle’s commitment to giving a voice to traditionally marginalized people is admirable, as is this film.
Wicked Rating – 7/10
Director: Chad Crawford Kinkle
Writer: Chad Crawford Kinkle
Stars: Katie Groshong, Stephanie Kinkle, Larry Fessenden
Release Date: October 10, 2019 (Nashville Film Festival)
Studio/Production Company: Smithland Films
Runtime: 80 minutes