Dementer

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Dementer
"Very different in tone from the average horror film, Dementer prompts questions about how we measure mental capacity, social functioning and even individuality."

For some people, leaving a cult happens with a sudden flash of insight and is followed by intense feelings of anger about the experience of indoctrination. For most, however, it's the start of a lifelong process of adjusting one's patterns of thinking and wrestling with doubts, much like what people go through when recovering from a physical addiction. From the moment we meet Katie (Katie Groshong) it's clear that she's deeply troubled. We're made privy to her inner thoughts through a series of what might be flashbacks or might actually be hallucinations. On the outside, though, she seems disarmingly ordinary.

With the ageing population across most of the world putting care provision under serious pressure, it's a sad fact that less and less care is being taken to ensure the suitability of those working with vulnerable adults. Women, in particular, often find it easy to secure such roles because it's assumed that they will never have malign intent. Indeed, Katie genuinely wants to help Stephanie (Stephanie Kinkle), the woman with Down syndrome to whom she's assigned. Once their partnership has commenced, however, she starts to become increasingly convinced that something is wrong, and that Stephanie is under threat from devils who want to harm her. Could her presence have attracted some kind of danger to her client, or could she be losing control and becoming a danger herself?

Chad Crawford Kinkle created this film to improve the representation of developmentally disabled people and create a role for his sister. It's carefully structured so that the story can be told without requiring anything too challenging of her or causing her distress. A number of other people with Down syndrome appear as extras or in minor roles and the fact that their behaviour is completely natural, not really acted, gives the film a documentary feel in places, making its occult elements all the more disturbing. Stephanie's trusting nature and innate sweetness make her easy to like and also make her seem much more vulnerable than the teenage girls or cute children usually cast as potential victims in stories of this type. Her limited ability to communicate creates an additional layer of vulnerability as she can't report the strange things that start to happen around her.

By placing these developmentally disabled people alongside the increasingly disorientated Katie - not to mention Larry Fessenden's intense and disturbing cult leader, who becomes increasingly present inside her mind - Chad challenges assumptions about what it means to live with a difference like Down syndrome and emphasises how ordinary people like Stephanie are, as well as hinting at the risks they face in society at large even in the absence of dangers like these. Meanwhile, he layers on Satanic imagery and elements of occult ritual, which have real shock value in this setting. Everything is done by suggestion, with little visually explicit horror or gore, but nevertheless there are scenes that some viewers may find quite upsetting.

Very different in tone from the average horror film, Dementer prompts questions about how we measure mental capacity, social functioning and even individuality. Viewers are invited to fear for Stephanie but also to be aware that anyone - including themselves - can be psychologically vulnerable. Meanwhile, Groshong brings real conviction to a character whose humanity we can clearly see even when her behaviour is at its strangest and most disturbing. She's caught up in a tragedy of her own which only becomes fully visible close to the end - and by then it's much harder to identify any way out.

Reviewed on: 11 Oct 2019
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A woman who has recently fled a cult takes a job as a carer and becomes convinced that her charge is in danger from devils.

Director: Chad Crawford Kinkle

Writer: Chad Crawford Kinkle

Starring: Katie Groshong, Stephanie Kinkle, Larry Fessenden, Scott Hodges

Year: 2019

Runtime: 120 minutes

Country: US

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