Following up his 2013 feature filmmaking debut Jug Face, writer/director Chad Crawford Kinkle has returned to the horror genre with his sophomore film Dementer. From the press release, Dementer “follows Katie, a young woman who flees a backwoods cult and takes a job at a care center for special needs adults in her determination to do some good with her life. But despite her best intentions, Katie can’t escape the signs that ‘the devils’ are coming for Stephanie, a woman with Down syndrome she cares for, who keeps getting sicker despite Katie’s rituals to ward off evil spirits.”
Costarring Brandy Edmiston, Eller Hall, and indie horror icon Larry Fessenden, Dementer is a gritty, haunting tale anchored by a sterling lead performance by actress Katie Groshong, and is well worth seeking out in this writer’s opinion.
To celebrate Dementer’s release today, Mr. Kinkle was kind enough to chat with Bloody Disgusting about the film’s inspiration, its cast, and its astonishingly grim finale.
Mr. Kinkle! How exactly did this film come about? Was Dementer always going to be your follow-up to Jugface, or was this a relatively new project for you to have tackled and developed?
It was definitely a new project. I had written multiple scripts after Jug Face, I had two adaptations not go. Then had directing gigs not happen. I got pretty frustrated with everything. I’d been living in Tennessee this whole time, and I ended up moving to L.A. for a year, and that didn’t go well. So we moved back to Nashville, and I was pretty crushed about it all. I was thinking, “Okay, I need to make a film this year, and I need to be able to do everything.”
When I’d moved to L.A., I realized – “Oh! To get my next feature made, a more expensive feature, I was going to have to rely on networking and contacts and relationships to get this big a project off the ground.” I felt like, when I left L.A., that I lost those. So I realized that I needed to make something myself, and that it needed to be something that wasn’t standard fare. Even if it was going to be cheap, it had to have an energy to it. Something that would catch people’s attention.
For a few years, I had just toyed with the idea of making a film with my sister Stephanie. She has Down syndrome. A few years before, I had been to the Sundance Film Festival. I had watched the movie The Tribe, which was set in a school for the deaf. It’s all non-actors, doing sign language, with no subtitles. But you follow the movie, and it’s really immersive in this environment. When I watched it, I thought “Oh, man, this reminds me of my sister’s world, when she’s at this skills center.” I thought it would be a really interesting environment just to shoot a movie in. Since all I ever write is horror, I wondered what that would even be like, to do a horror film with my sister.
So the idea just stuck in my brain, even though I didn’t know what it would look like at all, or how I would accomplish it. I realized this would be a project I would have to pay for myself and do on the cheap. I was [originally] going to do a docudrama, or a mock documentary, where it was going to be about my sister, something she was involved with. I was going to be a character in this documentary, her brother investigating a thing that had happened. Eventually, I just thought that it was going to be too big of an idea, take too long, and I needed to write a story that I could shoot in fourteen days.
I realized with my sister, since her case of Down is so severe, she’s not going to be able to do too much. If this was going to be a standard feature, the audience is going to emotionally follow a main character. I realized that I couldn’t have it be my sister, it had to be another character. And my sister would be the next lead character.
So I came up with a concept about this girl who is looking to do good with her life, she’s compelled to help people, and she gets a job as an aide in the center where my sister is. That was the perfect setup for me to do this low budget feature.
There have been films, horror and otherwise, that have employed people with disabilities in such a way that has been exploitative. This film surely is not that. What care was taken by you, both in conceiving the film and ultimately executing it, to make certain that was the case?
I never really thought about it too much. I knew that my approach to most any story that I ever write … I’m always looking for the truth about the situation or the characters. Even with my previous film Jug Face, those characters do some very bad things, but they are complex characters. I always feel like, if I go into it with my being in their shoes, that I’ll write it in such a way that won’t be exploitative. Of course, I’ve seen movies where people have Down, and they’re supernatural, or they’re demonic themselves, or whatever. I wasn’t going to do that. I knew that the horror was not going to come from them. The supernatural wasn’t coming from them, it was coming from the exterior.
Everyone, including my parents, and everyone that gave me permission, was relying on the fact that I wouldn’t handle it in an exploitative way. You could very easily push scenarios that would be inappropriate. Of course I wasn’t going to do that, because I love my sister, and I’ve been a part of this community for forever because of my sister. They know me, they know my family.
When you watch the film … it’s pretty clear that I handled them just as they are. That was always my goal, was to just shoot them and show them as they are, and that would be enough.
The film deals with its lead character’s trauma in such a way that we’re in her shoes the entire time, living through her hardships step by step. But, without spoilers, we wind up in a place that makes us wonder whether or not she was a protector, or a potential threat all along. What was your intention, beyond telling an engaging story, in playing with that sort of ambiguity with where the audience’s sympathies and trust should lie when it comes to our lead?
It’s funny, when I start thinking about my motivations for writing scripts. With Jug Face, it was really clear to me because I had just had a child and realized that my life was not my own anymore. “I can’t just go out and party all the time. It’s important that I sacrifice parts of myself.” That was the genesis feeling that went into that movie.
With this one, I didn’t exactly know, other than … a lot of times, people care so much, that they end up hurting. That was kind of on my brain. “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”
So I wrote the script. I was very uncomfortable with how it ended. I’d pitched it to Katie as an “up” ending, as a redemption story, which did not happen. So I’d written the ending that’s in the movie, and then I went to go do yoga. Of course, in yoga, you’re supposed to be chilled out and not thinking about anything. Your mind is supposed to be empty. But then it just kinda hit me, [that the story] is kind of my reaction to Twitter, and to social media in general, and how people take small bits of information … they’re very passionate about doing something good, but they don’t understand the ideas behind these little bits of information. And that implemented wrong, could be hurtful. I was just laying there on the mat, like “Oh, okay. It’s how I feel about Twitter.” Of course, no one would ever get that, but that’s what it kinda was for me.
Speaking of ambiguity – your previous film Jug Face has a much more concrete relationship with its supernatural elements. Is it fair to say that Dementer is a bit more abstract, and may not actually be a tale of the supernatural at all? What was the aim in finding that sort of balance with this story?
Even with Jug Face, there are things that people went about, that I “didn’t explain anything”. Even though I felt like I did. Where I land is, if it’s appropriate for the flow of the story, I’m going to tell you. I’m going to explain it. I felt that there was more time in Jug Face to explain things, and we did a little bit with the credit sequence. With Dementer, it’s more about a character with a fractured mind. The power of it is following along and seeing in her mind what she knows, when she knows it. So there was just no real time to explain something concretely. I knew, even when I was writing it, that I was doing it on a very intuitive level. There were things in it that I didn’t really even understand logically. They felt right, and so I left them in.
I realized that I was putting things together like a poem, and not exactly how a traditional narrative feature would work. It’s definitely abstract. Since we’re following someone with a fractured mind, it felt like you wouldn’t need to know.
Could you talk a bit about the casting in the film? Katie Groshong is marvelous in the lead, and each of the cast members gives a very good, very believable performance.
When I had just come up with the concept, I was wondering who could play this [lead character]. The first actual filmmaker I told about the film was Lucky McKee, and he was like “Man, that sounds beautiful, you should make it.” The second idea was, “Who am I going to get to play this character?” Because I can’t just have anybody come into this scenario with my sister. It’s obviously my sister, it’s in my hometown. And I knew Katie from shooting my first professional short, Organ Grinder. She was the lead, and she was also in Jug Face. So I knew her acting ability, and what kind of sweet, caring person she was. I knew I could bring her into that environment, and she would be perfect with Stephanie. Two, I knew she was wild enough to do the crazy stuff in the movie. People had recommended that I go with a more known actress, but I was adamant against it. It was almost like Katie or nothing. I knew she was perfect for it.
So I called her up, and I just said “Katie, I’ve got this script. I haven’t written it, but here’s what it’s about.” But [at the time] it had an “up” ending. So it was funny to have her read the script later on and be like, “You didn’t tell me that’s what was going to happen!” But she loved it.
But with the rest of the cast … a huge inspiration was just exploring the world my sister is in, so I wanted it to feel as real as possible. So I knew I couldn’t really cast actors to be the other aides, because they’re not going to know what to do in that environment. And Stephanie and the other clients are not going to know how to react to the actors, because they’re going to know that they’re not supposed to be there. I knew I’d have to get the people that actually work at the center to be in it. Once I got permission to make the movie there, then I started telling people that I needed them to play their actual role there in the movie.
When did you come to the decision to have the characters share their actors’ names?
It became very clear that I should just use their real names. My sister is not going to react to somebody being called by something other than their real name. So for simplicity’s sake, we just [used their actual names].
And Larry [Fessenden] was always Larry. That was another piece of the puzzle. I just had to have Larry, I wanted nobody else.
What made you think of Mr. Fessenden for this role?
Ever since Jug Face, I’ve said he was my favorite thing about making that movie. We’ve stayed in touch the whole time, and I just wanted to make another movie with him. He’s just perfect for this charismatic cult leader guy. I knew he would understand what I was trying to do with the movie. I knew that he would appreciate what kind of movie it was, this almost experimental film with a filmmaker making a horror movie with his Down Syndrome sister. I knew he would get the content and what I was really going for, easily.
He was editing Depraved at the time, so I had to pull him away from that so he could come down for a couple of days to shoot. I’m very thankful for his participation with this movie.
I was very happy to see Sean Spillane encoring from Jug Face, and he does great work in this film. Was it always your intention to collaborate with him again for this feature?
He was the first on my mind, of course. Working with the music in Jug Face was very rewarding. It was a really cool creative experience working with Sean, so I thought of him for Dementer. So we started working on it, and it took me forever to tell him the proper reference for the score. I was telling him “fairy tale music”, “fantasy stuff”. I was all over the place. I couldn’t really decide or vocalize what it needed to be. In the end, I just said Under the Skin. He then wrote the theme perfectly, along with two other tracks that were variations on the same theme. He didn’t have time to do every scene, but he gave me these three different pieces and just told me “Go for it.” So I started with that opening scene, and started sampling his theme and changing it up to fit what I was doing. I did the whole movie that way, treating the score more as a sound design.
With the film’s ending, we have what feels like a definitive final beat, and yet viewers are still left to puzzle over where we’ve been left with the character and this story. Was there ever a time when the film’s ending was a bit more concrete, or was ending it on a note of dread-inducing ambiguity the plan the entire time?
When I do an outline … a lot of times, I won’t outline the last scene. I’ll just have a feeling about how it’s going to turn out. Even with Jug Face, I didn’t know what was going to happen in the end. But even with this, I kinda felt it would be bad. I was hoping Katie would figure out what was going on, and that she would be able to stop it. But when I wrote it, the first ending I wrote is exactly what’s in the movie. I thought, “Aw, man, I can’t believe I’m going to do this.” So I wrote two more versions of it … but it was very clear that the ending you see in the movie was the correct ending. So it was always supposed to be not exactly clear exactly what had happened, because it wasn’t clear to the main character, either. And I knew that was going to be the most upsetting thing to do to the audience, as well.
Leaving the final word with you – what is Dementer, and why should Bloody Disgusting readers make certain to give this film a shot and check it out this week?
Dementer is almost unlike anything you’ve ever seen. It’s a psychological horror film that follows someone with a fractured mind, and you are positioned alongside her in this terrible journey. It’s a real experience that many horror fans have never seen, and an environment that they’ve never been exposed to before.
Dementer is now available on digital platforms from Dark Star Pictures.