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{Chattanooga Film Fest} Dementer Review- You Can’t Outrun Your Past

Chad Crawford Kinkle’s Dementer feels like the best found footage film without the shaky cam and cheap tricks but with the realism.

I’ve been on a bit of a documentary kick lately. Films like Antrum: The Deadliest Film Ever Made have me thinking about the occult and the power of persuasion. Where do demons begin, and manipulation end? Are they the same? Does it matter if you’ve been brainwashed to believe something that isn’t real if the end result is the same? Dementer uses that as its central conceit in such an unsettling way, you begin to wonder who is controlling who. Such is the effectiveness of Chad Crawford Kinkle’s film, which leaves you uneasy and unsatisfied but in a good way.

Katie has just escaped a backwoods cult and wants to move on. After taking a job at a home for special needs adults, she realizes she must face her past to protect someone else’s future. She may have escaped the cult, but that doesn’t mean they are done haunting her. Like the best horror movies of this type, you are just as in the dark as Katie is as to what’s happening. Right from the beginning, you are put on edge with an extended montage of quick cuts and noise. The sequence is harrowing and sets the tone for what’s to come. Clearly, Katie is running from something horrific, and she desperately needs a fresh start. Unfortunately for everyone, it isn’t as easy as starting over.

Something terrible happened to Katie. She is nervous and fidgety from the opening moments, and it only gets worse from there. Quickly she descends into madness either from lack of sleep or something more sinister. Flashbacks or waking nightmares plague her constantly. Shortly after starting work at the home, she becomes convinced one of her charges, Stephanie, is being assaulted by an otherworldly entity she calls “the devils”. Stephanie’s mysterious illness confounds doctors and her caregivers but not Katie.

Working with the adults triggers something in Katie. An intense need to protect them and overwhelming paranoia. Their innocence and vulnerability make her increasingly more anxious, causing more and more horrific flashbacks. They are bloody emotional memories interlaced with bell ringing and reverent sermons. Katie has more and more trouble distinguishing reality from memory, and by the time we see physical proof of the cult’s abuse, we have already fallen down the rabbit hole with her.

Putting her occult past to use, she begins a series of increasingly more bizarre and erratic exercises to save Stephanie. Her trauma makes her uniquely equipped to help Stephanie or so she thinks. For someone who is trying to do good, she does a lot of bad. Among those attempts to save Stephanie is a litany of animal sacrifices, some of which require live victims. Those who are squeamish about animal brutality should be wary. Things take a hard turn about halfway through. No actual violence is shown, but the special effects are good enough to make you squirm. Kinkle builds tension masterfully in one particular animal rescue scene that is hard to shake.

Chad Crawford Kinkle previously wrote and directed Jug Face (2013), which lives in a similar universe as Dementer. Jug Face features a pregnant teen running from a cult who wants to sacrifice her and her baby to a pit demon. Jug Face is more bizarre, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to find these cults stem from the same religion. Kinkle knows how to build this type of story. If you haven’t had a chance to see Jug Face, you can get it on Tubi and Vudu for free. The two films could easily serve as primers for each other. He relies heavily on atmosphere and mood rather than jump scares. Dread is his weapon of choice, and he wields it masterfully.

Performances by Larry Fessenden, who plays the fervent tongued cult leader Larry and Katie Groshong (Katie), are utterly believable. The former is a self-proclaimed prophet, and the latter is a scared woman trying to hold it together by doing insane things. Groshong’s strangely flat affect throughout sells that this woman has clung to the last vestiges of her sanity and barely escaped intact. Fessenden and Groshong both are on Jug Face as well further lending the odd familiarity these two films share.

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Utilizing a child’s toy and incessant bell-ringing Dementer programs the viewer right along with Katie. We are indoctrinated to expect certain things each time the bell rings, and we are never disappointed. Similar to John Carpenter’s Halloween or John Williams Jaws soundtrack, when you hear it, you start to sweat. Movies that use visuals as well as audio to propel the story create a more immersive experience. This immersion into Katie’s memories allows the viewer not just to see but feel what happened to her; what still may be happening to her, and it is terrifying. You half expect to begin keeping your diary of occult cures.

Rather than feel exploitive, Kinkle’s use of actual special needs adults, including his sister Stephanie roots the film in realism. Everyone from Katie’s co-workers to the other residents at the facility feel real because they are real. No one’s reactions are over the top or exaggerated. They aren’t dismissive either. The perfect balance of everyday life mixed with horrific memories keeps Dementer humming along. These are innocent people and hardworking caretakers who have been caught up in something weird.

Kinkle is no one-hit-wonder. He can craft a story that feels as if it is just through the looking glass. An alternate reality we can almost touch if we wanted too. In a world where Heaven’s Gate cults and David Koresh exists Larry’s occult group would be just another number. That means we are all susceptible. All it would take is one well-timed bell and a serendipitous encounter. If Dementer taught us anything, it is that you can’t outrun your past. Especially if it includes a charismatic hillbilly cult leader named Larry and his army of devils. Try to ignore the ringing in your ears…….

Courtesy of Smithland Films