I’ll be the first to admit I am afraid of many things...
...Still, it’s a rare experience to have something burrow a pit in my stomach and sit in the back of my brain, bleeding into everything and leaving behind a trail of masterful but deeply unsettling discomfort. It’s an odd catch-22 when you have to write about something so effective and well done it leaves you speechless. Yet here I sit with Chad Crawford Kinkle’s Chattanooga Film Fest offering, Dementer, at a loss for how to put the feeling of it into words.
I am certain of two things: I loved it, and I have almost never been so uncomfortable with a film in my entire life. The film follows a woman, Katie (Katie Groshong), who’s just left a backwoods cult and is looking for steady work. She starts a job at a care facility for disabled adults, and when she becomes convinced one of her charges, Stephanie (writer/director’s sister Stephanie Kinkle), is in danger, she goes to drastic lengths to protect her. The story alternates between Katie’s life in the cult and her life as a caregiver, through flashback and Katie’s own visions as she reconciles the horrors she left behind with the calm life she’s building for herself. What unfolds is a kind of cult horror unlike any other I’ve seen.
From the second this film starts ‘til credits roll we are enveloped in a sense of near-suffocating dread thanks to breathtaking sound design and score. Films like this, with scores like this, make me realize why I love movies in the first place, and make me grateful I have a platform to call them out on. And when I say “breathtaking” I mean breathtaking. I don’t think I breathed a full breath any of the 80-minute runtime. We’re put on edge immediately, and either we balance, or we tumble over, there is no backing to safer footing.
Dementer is so deeply unsettling in part because there are so many unanswered questions lingering under the surface. Did Katie escape the cult or was she sent out for something? Is Stephanie actually in danger? By whose hand? Who are “the devils” Katie is trying to protect everyone from? What kind of cult did she leave? Ordinarily this last question would be virtually irrelevant. In the horror world all we need to know about cults is that they’re Bad News, no matter what their philosophy is. The only reason it might be worth examining here is because of something that happens in the last twenty minutes or so of the film during one of Katie’s flashbacks and, if I saw what I think I saw, the implications that might have on the way we read the rest of the film and everything preceding that moment.
Stellar sound design and ambiguity isn’t all Dementer has to offer. The cinematography, especially in the Lynchian last twenty minutes, pulls us in and imbalances us along with Katie so that we aren’t always immediately sure what’s happening in real time and what’s only in her head. And, the cast of the care home is entirely disabled people, not able-bodied people playing a role. There may come a time when you tire of me mentioning it, dear reader, but I won’t stop until it’s so commonplace to do so would be exhausting. Horror is the only place I’ve seen a real uptick in casting disabled actors, and, as a disabled horror fan, I find every instance of it worthy at least of mention.
Chad Crawford Kinkle proves he is not one to be overlooked with this sophomore follow-up to Jug Face. Masterfully building tension on par with current horror heavyweights Mike Flanagan and Ari Aster, Kinkle is not afraid to force viewers to confront trauma alongside his protagonists, even when the way through it isn’t always clear. Sometimes the devils we’re trying to outrun aren’t behind us at all. They’re inside, making us doubt the very fabric of our sanity. And how do you fight something that’s fueled by tearing you apart? Dementer is one unseemly examination of trauma and healing not to be missed.
Dementer is currently playing at the online digital version of Chattanooga Film Festival. The festival is only open to U.S. residents, so if you'd like to attend, get your badges at chattfilmfest.org/badges. The festival will be ongoing from now through May 24th.
By Katelyn Nelson
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