Like you, I’m sure, I’ve learned to become more than suspicious of the Netflix “Recommended For You” list, and more often than not find myself wondering if whatever algorithm comes up with it really takes into consideration my prior viewing habits at all. Once in awhile, though — just once in awhile — the damn thing comes up trumps and scuttles my plans to quit paying attention to it altogether for at least a little bit longer. Last night was just such an occasion, as a 2015 indie horror flick from a director I’ve never heard of named Mike Testin found its way to the top of my recommendations and, having nothing else and/or better to do, I decided to give it a go, only to walk away from it 90 minutes later pleasantly surprised by the whole thing and reasonably eager to get off my ass and tell you good folks out there with free time on your hands to watch it, as well.
Mind you, Dementia is far from a perfect film, and probably isn’t worth a purchase on Blu-ray or DVD (where it’s available from IFC Films’ “IFC Midnight” label), but it’s definitely deserving of either a rental or a quick press of the red “play” arrow on Netflix — but let’s do things in the polite order of business here and talk about what does work before delving into what doesn’t. Sound fair? Okay, I’m glad you agree.
The setup at the heart of this movie is a fairly simple one — aging Vietnam vet George Lockhart (played by Gene Jones, who you may remember as the only good thing about Ti West’s The Sacrament) appears to be losing his marbles and, sure enough, when doctors confirm that he’s experiencing a form of early-onset dementia, his grown, largely estranged children Shebly (Hassie Harrison) and Jerry (Peter Cilella) go on the hunt for a live-in nurse to look after their old man because they don’t want to be bothered with the cantankerous geriatric bastard themselves. Their selection process seems a little less than rigorous, relying mostly on whoever is sent their way, but a young lady with seemingly good experience in the field named Michelle (Kristina Klebe, last referenced on this site for her role in the superb DePalma-esque thriller Proxy) absolutely wows ’em and gets the job. And, of course, right away she starts filling George’s head with all kinds of exquisite nonsense about himself and his past that simply can’t be true — or can it?
By the time Michelle starts adding physical abuse to her repetoire of torment, both our heads and George’s are so tied up in knots that, who knows? Either we come to believe that maybe the crotchety coot’s got it coming, or if he doesn’t, well — this is some seriously sick shit that’s going down. The two lead performances here are so damn good (and the same can be said of the always-awesome Richard Riehle, who turns up in one of his customary just-above-cameo-level roles) that they go a long way toward selling you on the idea that anything could be happening here and that either the patient or his nurse is a really warped effing sicko, but here’s the one big problem that prevents Dementia from moving into the “modern horror classic” ranks — screenwriter Meredith Berg’s script is more or less a gigantic black hole sucking anything remotely resembling suspense deep into its hungry maw and never letting it escape. You’ll know well before the flick hits the halfway point who Michelle really is, why she’s doing what she’s doing, and whether or not her actions are justified. And all the good acting in the world can’t do a damn thing to change that, unfortunately.
Not that Testin, his cast, and his crew aren’t to be commended for doing their level best to trick you into believing that maybe you’ve got it all wrong, of course. They most certainly are. And they really do convince you to hang onto your “come on, it can’t be so simple — can it?” sense of disbelief all the way through to the end. But when said end does arrive, along with said explanations, and it all does prove to be every bit as straightforward as you were afraid it might be, well — it really is a bit of a letdown, simply because any film this well-shot and well-acted deserves a better wrap-up than this one gives both itself and us.
Still, what the heck, I had a pretty good time with Dementia (how weird would that statement sound in any other context?), in spite of the fact that it may be guilty of promising at least a little bit more than it actually delivers — and if you go in fore-armed with the knowledge that, contrary to what may appear to be the case, everything really is exactly what it seems to be, chances are that you’ll find it to be plenty worth your while, as well.