Dementer (2020)

The dread comes early in Dementer. Opening with a psychedelic barrage of panicky snatches from an impressionistic sequence of events (a bonfire, a barking dog, a naked woman fleeing a vehicle, a grey-haired figure groping about in a room), all choreographed to the sound of a menacing male voice counting up to 13, and to the discordancies of Sean Spillane’s terrifying score, this second feature from writer/director Chad Crawford Kinkle (Jug Face, 2013) presents itself from the outset as a fragmented narrative of horrors that must somehow be put back together to make sense, even to become whole again. 

Certainly these fragments haunt the protagonist Katie (Katie Groshong), a nervous woman, herself broken, who has just talked her way into a job working with special needs adults. Katie carefully keeps her own special needs under the radar: she is living out of her car (while pretending otherwise), and remains quiet about the backroad cult community that she has recently left, even if she has brought with her a serious case of PTSD, and some very literal scars hidden under her shirt to complement the more metaphorical ones. She is constantly, irrationally triggered by her surroundings, especially by her new ward Stephanie (played by the director’s sister Stephanie Kinkle, who has Down Syndrome) – and although Katie quickly proves both popular and adept in her caring rôle, the headaches and dazed blackouts do not go unnoticed by her no-nonsense colleague Brandy (Brandy Edmiston), who starts seeing trouble ahead. 

Katie’s half-forgotten past, returning to her in frequent, alarming flashbacks (and featuring the great actor/filmmaker Larry Fessenden as the cult’s creepy leader), will not let her go – and so Dementer becomes a film about the overwhelming, undermining grip of trauma. As our hapless, hallucinating heroine becomes fixated on the idea that Stephanie’s sudden illness is a sign of approaching demons, Kinkle crafts great tension from our uncertainty of whether Katie is, in her way, providing a cure for Stephanie, or is herself the sickness. Either way, she is a complex figure, a survivor who is all at once damaged victim and cunning abuser – and her strange ritualistic behaviours serve to initiate us into her warped worldview, and leave us in a state of doubt that is akin to the psychological limbo in which she has herself become stuck.

Dementer is a low-budget indie that eschews spectacle or graphic horror for the more nuanced, creeping apprehension that it cultivates in the viewer. For even as it follows its protagonist getting to grips with a new position of responsibility, the film ever so slowly pieces together what Katie did and of what she is capable. In the absence of monstrous costumes or whizz-bang effects, the real star here is Kinkle’s editing, as the past is made constantly, jarringly to encroach on the present (much as frenetic freakouts irrupt into the film’s realism), informing the narrative trajectory in increasingly distressing ways.

The final words, “You will not remember this,” might be selling the film short – but they also cast us as a brainwasher’s unwitting subjects, caught in Dementer‘s mesmeric spell and oblivious to its malign, manipulative influence on our own impressionable psyches. For perhaps, by submitting ourselves to this film’s cultic visions and sacrificial rites, we too might be letting the devil in.

© Anton Bitel