Due to the COVID-19 crisis, the 2020 version of the Chattanooga Film Festival went virtual, running from May 22-25. But even though all films and events had to be moved online, the programmers of one of the best genre film festivals in the U.S. managed to put together an impressive roster of movies.
Writer/director Chad Crawford Kinkle made a little bit of an indie splash back in 2013 with his first feature JUG FACE. That film was a folk horror tale about an insular backwoods community that had to sacrifice a member to appease some sort of unseen god and the disastrous consequences when the wrong person is sacrificed. The film benefited from strong performances and an all-consuming mood of inevitable doom. It is somewhat surprising that it took Kinkle almost seven years to get his second feature out in the world, but after watching DEMENTER, it becomes apparent why the film took so long to make. Unlike many other indie genre directors who debut with more experimental fare and then move on to bigger budgeted, more conventional movies, Kinkle has gone in reverse, crafting a movie with a mostly amateur cast that is an uncomfortable, challenging, ultimately very unnerving experience that is the exact opposite of a mainstream horror flick.
Katie (Katie Groshong) is a shell-shocked woman who has recently escaped from a cult. Despite physically surviving her ordeal, she is still plagued by waking nightmares of her time under the spell of the cult leader (Larry Fessenden…because of course). Attempting to take some sort of control of her life, she gets a job as an outpatient caregiver in a facility for developmentally challenged adults. When she is assigned to help Stephanie (Stephanie Krinkle, the director’s sister), a middle-aged woman living with Down Syndrome, Katie’s flashbacks to the cult become more severe in nature, causing scars on her back to bleed and giving her headaches. She attributes the intensity in her symptoms to being around Stephanie and becomes convinced that there are “devils” out to claim her charge because of her pure innocence. But how much can Katie trust herself when she falls into past traumas with no control? She clearly understands her past makes her something of a pariah in the regular world as she lies through her teeth to get and keep her job.
DEMENTER is at its best when it plays with the tension between Katie’s good intentions and her questionable sanity. Having escaped from a cult and trying to find stability, Katie is an inherently sympathetic character. Kinkle and Groshong clearly see her as deserving of sympathy and make the audience care for her, but the actions that she takes in an effort to save Stephanie gradually ramp up to the point where it is uncertain if Katie is doing more harm than good. That is where the film moves into very uncomfortable territory.
Kinkle’s use of his sister and several other adults with developmental disabilities is sure to strike some as exploitive. It is always a tricky ethical line for filmmakers to walk, but in DEMENTER, Kinkle never stumbles across that line into bad taste or exploitation of the cast. That said, the two halves of the movie (graphic horror and indie drama) never fully coalesce.
The cult horror aspect leans into similar folk horror territory to JUG FACE, but Kinkle never feels like he is repeating himself as DEMENTER feels more apocalyptic in Katie’s nightmares with a bloody woman running naked through a field and standing in front of a bonfire, streaks of blood across floors, and cult members slapping her around, all while Fessenden’s calm but sinister voice tells her how special she is. This stylized vision of Hell clashes with the almost cinéma vérité look at life for adults and their caregivers in group care homes, causing some tonal whiplash at times.
Kinkle does eventually bring the worlds together enough that he justifies the potentially controversial storytelling and casting choices. But while DEMENTER is a more empathetic, grounded film than JUG FACE, it is arguably the more unnerving experience. Those looking for a feel-good tale need not apply, but you have to admire the way Kinkle is not afraid to deliver on his grim, ultra-dark set-ups.