Isolating in nature, mental disorders have long been fodder for suspense movies — a victim’s unreliable mind can be subtly led to dismiss evidence of malice.
Not that there’s anything subtle about Michelle (Kristina Klebe), the cruel live-in caregiver at the heart of Dementia, a sturdy debut feature from director Mike Testin. Placed in charge of George (Gene Jones), a former Vietnam P.O.W. suffering from symptoms of dementia after a stroke, she shows ill intent as soon as they’re alone, jabbing him with knockout hypodermics without warning or consent. (To underline her own growing madness, she later pulls the head off a Barbie doll.)
Naturally, George’s concerns are waved off as paranoia, but his estranged granddaughter, Shelby (Hassie Harrison), has her own suspicions about Michelle and investigates them separately, which wisely broadens the film’s conflict from a simple victim vs. victimizer setup. The scenes between Jones and Harrison stand out, as we see a man who’s starting to lose himself tentatively get to know a troubled granddaughter he’s barely met.
As a suspense film, Dementia is solid but unremarkable, even considering its ugly snarl of an ending. But hidden underneath, the film has all the elements for a compelling, sharp-edged family drama. It’s a shame the nasty nurse strangled that aspect in its crib.
Directed by Mike Testin
Opens December 4, IFC Center