Please note that there are content warnings for this film for animal cruelty and flashing lights.
Dementer takes the term “slow burn” to a new level, putting its audience on edge from the very first frame while hypnotizing them at the same time. The viewer knows that something terrible is coming — or perhaps has already arrived — but the film’s infernal patience stretches the tension out to an almost unbearable degree. Written and directed by Chad Crawford Kinkle, Dementer combines naturalistic performances and cinematography with unsettling imagery and sound design to create an unforgettable nightmare.
The film is shot cinéma vérité style and follows Katie (Katie Groshong), a troubled woman living in her car and surviving by taking on odd jobs. After a disconcerting opening scene punctuated by discordant music and eerie mutterings, the viewer sees Katie as she applies to be a caretaker at a center for disabled adults. She states in the job interview that she’s looking for a position where she can make a difference in the world, and Katie’s openness and nervous desperation make the viewer believe her. She seems warm and genuine, interacting with the center’s clients with a cheery, empathetic demeanor. She meets several people with developmental disabilities and quickly fixates on one client in particular: Stephanie (Stephanie Kinkle, Chad Crawford Kinkle’s sister), a woman with Down syndrome who appears to have a connection to Katie’s frightening visions.
In addition to writing and directing Dementer, Kinkle also served as editor and sole camera operator on the film. The end result is an intensely personal and idiosyncratic vision that feels like Kinkle has invited viewers into both his daily reality and his nightly dreamscape. The pace of the film is slow and the handheld camera feels detached, as if the viewer is watching a documentary about the lives of developmentally disabled people through the experiences of a new caretaker. The cast is predominantly amateur and all the clients are played by disabled people. As Katie’s co-worker Brandy (Brandy Edmiston) walks her through the daily routine and introduces her to all the clients, there’s a strong sense of ordinariness to the proceedings. There is never an air of exploitation or sensationalism. This is clearly an environment that Kinkle knows intimately, and he presents life at the center as it is: just as normal as life everywhere else.
Dementer provides little backstory for its lead character, showing only cryptic flashbacks that raise more questions than they answer. Katie appears to have escaped from a cult. She is plagued by headaches that accompany memories of her time in the cult: sometimes she sees or hears flashes of cult leader Larry (Larry Fessenden) teaching her arcane rituals designed to keep “the devils” away, while at other times she remembers physical and psychological abuse at the hands of the other cult members. It is an illuminating examination of the different ways that cults ensnare people — love bombing, alienating members from their loved ones, threats, and abuse — and an intriguing exploration of PTSD. Even though Katie seems to have physically escaped Larry and her other abusers, she can’t escape the trauma of her time in the cult.
Katie still believes much of what Larry taught her, and she becomes convinced that Stephanie is in danger. She consults a notebook for ways to keep the devils away from Stephanie, sketching eerie symbols all over the pages and muttering incantations to herself. It is in these scenes that Dementer‘s naturalism becomes most frightening. Katie takes increasingly disturbing steps in order to protect Stephanie, performing bizarre and bloody rituals. Seeing these horrific folk horror elements unfold documentary-style turns ordinary life into a liminal space, forcing the viewer to recognize the shadows that exist in broad daylight.
Sean Spillane’s skin-crawling score emphasizes these ever-present shadows and Katie’s lingering trauma. He uses low drumbeats and clinking metallic noises as an unsettling metronome that echoes the terrifying mind control that Katie underwent during her time in the cult. Discordant strings emphasize Dementer‘s diabolical patience: scenes are often punctuated by the sound of someone drawing a bow slowly and far too roughly across a string, fraying the viewer’s nerves but never pushing them over the edge. The sound design is equally terrifying, as layered whispers and guttural mutterings lend a sense of unreality as Katie succumbs to her visions.
By the end of the film, it’s hard to tell how much is real and how much is in Katie’s head. The viewer doubts their own eyes and ears, wondering if they really saw that shadowy figure in the corner or heard those words spoken backwards. This haunting film leaves the viewer just as disoriented as Katie and Stephanie are as they try to escape the devils that plague them. Each woman is vulnerable in her own way: Katie as the victim of a cult and Stephanie as a disabled person whose trusted caretaker turns out to be less trustworthy than she thought.
Dementer is a fascinating horror film that feels like a documentary about a fever dream. It explores trauma and questions reality in surprising and unsettling ways. This film is challenging, troubling, and impossible to forget.
Dementer is now available to stream on VOD. Watch the trailer here.