Forget vampires, serial killers, zombies and unstoppable viruses: there's nothing that scares me more than the notion of losing my mind. It's one thing to face a serious health crisis, but another thing entirely to lose your grip on reality to such a degree that you don't even know what sort of crisis you're facing. It's a real-life horror that many of us have witnessed on a personal level, as loved ones have fallen prey to Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. Mike Testin's psychological thriller Dementia exploits the more unsettling aspects of the condition with crude effectiveness, but it's telling that the film becomes less frightening as it shifts into more conventional horror movie territory.
George Lockhart (Gene Jones, The Hateful Eight) is an elderly Vietnam veteran who lives alone in an ordinary suburb. After he suffers a mild stroke, he's diagnosed with dementia and told that he probably needs to have someone looking after him. His son Jerry (Peter Cilella, Resolution) and granddaughter Shelby (Hassie Harrison, Southbound) initially talk about placing him in an assisted living home, but eventually agree to hire live-in nurse Michelle (Kristina Klebe, Tales of Halloween) to move in and take care of things.
However, Michelle seems to have a sinister agenda up her sleeve. She plays a series of increasingly nasty tricks on George, making him think his mind is in worse condition than it actually is. Additionally, she continually quizzes him about his time in Vietnam, asking him for suspiciously specific details about a particularly dark moment in his past. Meanwhile, George tries to persuade his son and granddaughter that he's being tortured by his nurse, but his statements are dismissed as the ravings of a dementia-addled mind.
The frustration George feels mirrors the frustration real dementia victims must feel: trying to persuade your loved ones that something is wrong and being ignored or dismissed has to be an unbearably painful thing. That material is the film's most effective stuff, with Michelle serving as a stand-in for dementia's cruel side effects and poor, sad George beginning to doubt his own sanity. As the film enters its second half, the mind games are set aside and the film moves to more straightforward (and more violent) cat-and-mouse territory.
Recently, I read an interview with a horror filmmaker who observed that the questions of a horror film are usually more interesting than the answers. That's certainly true in this case. Dementia's effectiveness is directly tied to its willingness to keep things ambiguous about how much of what we're seeing is real, what Michelle ultimately wants and what secrets George may be hiding. Once it starts answering those questions, it starts to feel curiously bland. Testin's staging is competent, but it's disappointing to see the film's unique ideas replaced by generic ones. Such is the nature of horror/thrillers: there are tons of compelling starting points, but not quite as many compelling destinations.
Gene Jones' performance is easily the high point of the film, and nearly rich enough to redeem the many missteps of the last act. George isn't merely a victim, but a complicated man with a troubled past. Jones certainly makes us feel his increasing despair, but also hints at a long-dormant dark side that makes us wary of giving him too much of our sympathy. The black-and-white flashbacks to the character's past are pretty clumsy (and a big, exposition-filled speech during the climax is almost incomprehensible due to the overbearing soundtrack), but everything Jones serves up feels real. As in The Sacrament, he's consistently more interesting than the rest of the movie. Jones has shined in small roles for Quentin Tarantino and The Coen Brothers, but the man deserves a starring role in a film that matches his talent. Too much of Dementia is forgettable.
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 90 minutes
Release Year: 2015