'Dementia': Film Review

Dementia Still 1 - H 2015
Courtesy of IFC Films
An emotionally resonant chiller.

An elderly man suffering from dementia may or may not be being victimized by his live-in nurse in Mike Testin's psychological thriller.

The specters of elder abuse and dementia add a haunting resonance to Mike Testin's debut horror film about an elderly man whose live-in nurse may or may not be tormenting him. Character actor Gene Jones (soon to be seen in The Hateful Eight) delivers a standout leading turn in Dementia, a psychological thriller that, although it falls apart in its final act, provides some truly chilling moments along the way.

After a brief prologue set in 1974 Vietnam, we're introduced to the elderly war hero George, the sort of crotchety old man who thinks nothing of pointing a loaded gun at some teenagers bullying a hapless kid. Immediately afterward, he suffers a stroke that results in a diagnosis of dementia.

His estranged son Jerry (Peter Cilella) and granddaughter Shelby (Hassie Harrison) think that it would be best for him to go to an assisted living facility. But an alternative arrives in the form of Michelle (Kristina Klebe), a nurse from the hospital who stops by to check up on him. She informs the family that a live-in nurse would be just as affordable (one of the many plot points that require a suspension of disbelief) and is promptly asked to fill the position.

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George, who due to his condition suffers from nightmarish visions related to his experiences as a POW, proves a less than cooperative patient.

"I'd rather be dead than a Jello eater," he informs his caregiver.

His mental condition seems to deteriorate, as evidenced by his waking up one morning covered in blood, followed by the discovery of his decapitated cat on the kitchen floor. But is he truly going crazy, or is his nurse, who's all too eager to stick syringes filled with tranquilizing drugs into him, torturing him for reasons of her own?

Meredith Berg's screenplay overly complicates things by eventually providing an explanation that is both obvious and melodramatically over-the-top. Rather than relying on baroque plotting, the film would have been far scarier if it had simply explored the terrifying themes of losing one's faculties and being dependent on a caregiver who may be secretly sadistic.

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The pic is compelling for the most part, with Jones' riveting performance as the alternately sympathetic and nasty protagonist anchoring the proceedings. The supporting cast is equally effective, with Harrison particularly impressive as the young woman who begins to smell something fishy about her grandfather's seemingly perfect nurse. 

Much like growing old, this shudder-inducing tale definitely isn't for sissies.

Production: Boulderlight Pictures

Distributor: IFC Midnight

Cast: Gene Jones, Kristina Klebe, Peter Cillela, Hassie Harrison, Richard Riehle

Director/director of photography: Mike Testin

Screenwriter: Meredith Berg

Producers: J.D. Lifshitz, Raphael Margules

Executive producers: Jeffrey Greenstein, Jonathan Yunger

Production designer: Morgan McShea

Editor: Brody Gusar

Costume designers: Julia Laftsidis, Alexandra Sema

Composer: Jason Turbin

Casting: Kristina Klebe

Not rated, 90 minutes.