Written by: Meredith Berg
Directed by: Mike Testin
Starring: Gene Jones, Kristina Klebe, and Hassie Harrison
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Let the memory games begin.
Dementia is a fine example of a “_____ from hell film” because it really wants you to believe that’s all it is. You’ve seen this sort of thing so many times—especially during the 90s, bless them—that you almost grow complacent with what’s unfolding on the screen. It ticks off all the plot points and makes itself so obvious that you can’t help but feel like you’ve been here and done this so many times—and then it pulls the rug out from underneath you in the final minutes. That’s your capsule review if you’re looking for a recommendation—it’s kind of hard to tiptoe around the spoilers for this one, so the very end of this movie will be referenced in vague terms if you’re looking to go in unspoiled.
In this case, we’re dealing with the live-in nurse from hell in Michelle Anderson (Kristina Klebe), who arrives to check up on Vietnam veteran George Lockhart (Gene Jones). He’s recovering from a recent stroke and is showing early signs of dementia, and his estranged son (Peter Cilella) and granddaughter (Hassie Harrison) don’t have the time nor the means to attend to him. Michelle seems like a godsend, at least publically—see, as soon as George’s family leaves, she’s quick to ruthlessly administer sedatives and probe him about his service in the war, almost as if she’s prying for pertinent information. Convinced she’s going to kill him, George pleads with both his son and granddaughter to help, but only the latter grows suspicious of Michelle, and, even then, it may be too late.
Screenwriter Meredith Berg and director Mike Testin deftly walk through the expected paces for this sort of thing, giving the viewers the impression that they’re always a step ahead. Of course Michelle is an almost cartoonish bitch who can barely conceal her sinister intentions the minute she’s alone with George. She’s so obviously up to no good from the moment she strolls in and claims to be from the hospital, something George immediately refutes—sure, she dismisses as a byproduct of his growing dementia, but the audience knows better. You can practically see the deception in her eyes.
However, just as Michelle preys on George’s unsuspecting family, so too does the script prey upon the audience’s familiarity with this sort of story. It’s almost too obvious, especially when it trawls through Michelle and George’s various, scattered memories, allowing you to connect the dots fairly easily and figure out just why Michelle has targeted this seemingly random vet. That’s the big question resting at the heart of Dementia, and, even though it seems to tip its hand too early, this almost seems like a purposeful setup because—unlike similar junk thrillers—this film isn’t preoccupied with its trashy pleasures or cheap, twisting, turning thrills. No matter how much it presents itself as a lurid page-turner (and Klebe’s delightfully unhinged performance sometimes points in the direction of camp), Dementia has other things on its mind.
For one thing, there’s something cleverly off-center about Klebe’s performance. There are times when she acts with such sincerity towards George that you wonder just what her deal is. Furthermore, a faint hint of some repressed pain is perceptible in her eyes, almost as if she’s not quite sure how strong her convictions are. If there’s any element of the film that keeps you questioning if everything really is what it seems, it’s Klebe’s nuanced performance. You want so much to hate her and delight in her eventual comeuppance, but her slight sympathetic side tugs at your conscience—even as she’s ripping the heads off of dolls in an almost comical display of her psychosis.
Slowly but surely, Dementia becomes more about its characters than its pulpy thrills. What’s most interesting is bond that develops between George and his granddaughter despite her father’s wishes. Since George was such a drunken lout of a father, Jerry is understandably concerned about Shelby’s attempts to get close to a grandfather she’s never really known. He fears she’ll eventually be let down, a concern that starts to grow within the audience as Shelby discovers more about a man whose history is disturbing at best (and downright horrifying at worst). Jones, too, delivers a compelling performance as a broken man who can’t endure much more—he sort of perfectly embodies that older, problematic family member you love despite their failings, especially since George seems so genuinely committed to atone for his past mistakes.
Because the character work here is so strong, the eventual tension and jolts are that much more impactful . Michelle’s treatment of George takes some ghastly, grisly turns (dolls’ heads aren’t the only thing she’s fond of removing from a body), and her psychological manipulations are even more twisted. Every interaction between the two becomes a tense battle of wills, including her attempt to have him recall a recipe for making tea, which is surely the sign of an effective thriller. In this one, seemingly innocuous moment, Testin captures the frustration, anger, and paranoia at stake in Dementia, a film that evolves from its “nurse from hell” premise into a genuinely gripping dramatic thriller.
That evolution occurs rather gradually—it’s not until the very end that Testin and Berg really reveal their hands. To the end, they’ve positioned Shelby as an audience proxy—she’s the one eventually skulking about, following Michelle in an attempt to discover the nurse’s true motives. Most of what she learns is exactly revelatory to a sharp viewer who has already pieced it together, but, again, that hardly seems to be the point: the script wants you to think you’ve got it all figured out before it springs a climactic gut-punch that turns the entire film on its head. Loyalties and sympathies shift about in topsy-turvy fashion as both Shelby and the audience must reckon with the harsh truth that true horror and evil wears many faces—including, sometimes, a family member’s.
Dementia pulls no punches with this upending climax, which plays off of the audience’s expectation of comeuppance and bloodlust before cleverly redirecting it into an uneasy non-resolution. You’re left reeling and scrambling for some kind of conclusion just as the film cuts to its end credits. There’s a sense of earned frustration in the ambiguity here—so many of these cheap, junky thrillers lead the audience toward an obvious, assured bursts of violence, but this one isn’t afraid to leave them fumbling at a complex, untidy situation. Usually, a “nurse from hell” movie wants you to delight in watching said nurse have her guts ripped out; this one leaves the audience with an unsettling question and no answers.
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