Trauma can be a difficult thing to escape, and even if we remove ourselves from the environment it occurred in it can follow us and affect us long after the trauma itself is gone. Dementer is a stark examination of the lingering wounds that result from past trauma, and how those wounds never really heal.
Dementer is the story of Katie, a woman with something of a secret past. We never learn the exact details of her life prior to the events of the film, and all we do know is told through brief and chaotic flashbacks, but we see enough to ascertain it involved some kind of cult that resulted in archaic symbols being carved into her back. At the beginning of the film Katie takes up a job as a caretaker at a home for the intellectually disabled, and seems to be not only quite good at it but also to find a measure of joy in it. All is not as it seems, however, and soon things begin to fall apart.
The film has a very minimalist aesthetic to it, not only in set design (much of the film takes places either in a regular suburban home or a group home) but also in the cinematography as well. It resembles, more than anything, a documentary. And while it gives the film an unsettling feel, it is also the film’s greatest weakness: there were moments when it felt as if a voiceover was about to begin and the film would cut to someone speaking to an interviewer off camera. It was somewhat distracting to say the least and unfortunately held the film back from being a truly immersive experience. Which is a shame, because the performances in this movie are actually quite good. Katie Groshong delivers a solid lead performance of someone struggling under the weight of their dark past and carries the film across the finish line, successfully selling the character to the audience. The supporting cast, especially Stephanie Kinkle as a girl Katie is taking care of, do a fantastic job of propelling the story along and working with Groshong to tell that story. Genre film favorite Larry Fessenden is almost woefully underused as the leader of the cult Katie escaped from, but it could easily be argued that in this case less is more and Fessenden does fine with what he has. There are times in the movie when cast members are clearly just reciting lines but it’s nothing you’re going to turn the movie off over.
Writer and director Chad Crawford Kinkle, who also wrote and directed the criminally underrated Jug Face, seems to be aiming for a film that is deliberately sparse when it comes to narrative, and for a while it works. As things begin to spiral out of control for our protagonist, there is a certain horror to not understanding what is going on. But in the end when it becomes clear that she knows exactly what is going on and we the audience don’t, it becomes somewhat frustrating. Kinkle demonstrated in Jug Face he is perfectly capable of creating a simple but compelling mythos for his films; however a lot of the time Dementer just feels muddled. We’re seeing terrible things happen, we’re afraid of more terrible things happening, but we’re never given any real explanation as to why those things are happening. There’s lots of weird ominous imagery and sound clips that are quite good at building atmosphere but ultimately go nowhere. I’m not necessarily opposed to spooky imagery being put into a movie just for the sake of being spooky, but in this case it feels directionless and without purpose.
If you’re looking for a movie to watch this Halloween season, you could do worse than Dementer. And I mean that in the purest sense of the phrase. By no means is it a bad movie but it’s not quite everything it could be, especially when the director’s pedigree is taken into account. There are a lot of interesting ideas in the film that unfortunately never pan out, and in the end we get something that feels not all the way cooked but is still edible.