From Don’t Look Now to The Masque of the Red Death, physical disability has been a troublingly cheap way for horror directors to summon unease. A couple of freaky moments notwithstanding, Dementer – set largely in a care facility for people with Down’s syndrome – takes a more sober tack, and in the process adds an invigorating vérité jolt to this low-budget chiller that contrasts effectively with its occult side.
Katie (Katie Groshong) takes a job in a special-needs care home and, despite her strung-out demeanour, finds she has a natural affinity for the occupants. But when one of her patients, Stephanie (Stephanie Kinkle), comes down with a respiratory illness, it seems to kick Katie’s legs from under her. What she has been passing off as headaches to colleagues are actually flashbacks to a terrifying past experience: bursts of her fleeing naked across a field, and standing in some kind of Wiccan fire ceremony, as a sinister voice slowly counts upwards. Now, as Stephanie wheezes helplessly, could dark spirits be coming for her, too?
It’s not clear to what degree Dementer’s care facility scenes were scripted, but they have a freshness and verisimilitude that is unusual amid the often-codified mores of horror. Stephanie Kinkle is director Chad Crawford Kinkle’s sister – and presumably Katie’s solicitous attitude is what he would want to see in a carer. So when her private traumas mean that the book Katie starts doing things by is the kind covered in crazy pagan scrawls, the switch feels doubly dismaying. Leaving an oozing cow’s heart under someone’s bed presumably isn’t in the patients’ charter.
As the flashbacks intensify, the director cleaves to evocative impressionism over spelling out Katie’s full backstory. With the nature of her ordeal somewhat vague, this means her hijacking of Stephanie remains unsettling rather than frightening. But with Groshong’s steadfast interpretation hammering home how justified her character feels in her course of action, it’s a reminder that true horror resides in the mind.