Dementer [Knoxville Horror Film Festival Review]

The indie horror scene is thriving right now because there are so many filmmakers taking risks, writing their own rules, and coming up with new ideas. Chad Crawford Kinkle established his place in the community with 2013's eerie Jug Face. He solidifies it with Dementer, a horror film built around his sister Stephanie, who has Down Syndrome. The film manages to work up chills while simultaneously providing an engaging look at how the developmentally disabled are cared for.

Katie Groshong plays Katie, a young woman who appears to have escaped from some kind of cult run by a mysterious figure (Larry Fessenden). She gets a job with a program that cares for special needs individuals. Katie quickly becomes attached to Stephanie (Stephanie Kinkle), one of the residents. Disturbing flashbacks lead her to believe that devils may be coming through her to get to Stephanie.

To say more would require giving away things best left discovered naturally, but the question of whether Katie is helping Stephanie or a potential threat to her is central.

On a human level, Dementer takes viewers inside facilities that help the developmentally disabled. Kinkle uses other special needs adults as supporting players, and the film provides long-overdue positive representation. We see them enjoying friendships with each other and forming bonds with staff. Scenes inside a residential home show how far things have come from the days of institutionalization. The movie has palpable affection for those with developmental disabilities. It's nice to see such a positive portrayal.

On the level of horror, the film has little blood and gore, yet works up suspense with the power of its ideas, plus the foreboding atmosphere and tone Kinkle creates. For a long time, we are not really sure what Katie has endured. We are, however, certain that it was traumatizing and that it has left her emotionally unstable. Eventually we get a clearer picture, so we can see a thread that connects her to Stephanie.

As Dementer works toward its ending, the scarier aspects reveal themes related to how we perceive and treat those with special needs – not just Down Syndrome but other kinds of struggles, too, like intense trauma. These emerge in a thoughtful, provocative way. Plenty here will give you a spook. As an added bonus, you'll walk away with things to think about.

Dementer has a good central performance from Groshong and a suitably sinister musical score from Sean Spillane on top of everything else. Anyone with an interest in seeing a genuinely unsettling horror flick that also has some deep thoughts in its head should make a point to check this one out.

Dementer is unrated, but contains some blood, brief nudity, and language. The running time is 1 hour and 20 minutes.