On paper, Dementia, a new thriller-horror directed by Mike Testin, reads like another take on the evil nurse archetype, epitomized so terrifyingly by Kathy Bates’ Annie Wilkes in Misery. The comparison turns out to be unfair—to Misery, that is. Dementia is an innocuous film that’s largely devoid of true suspense or chills. While a few cheap scenes of blood and gore are sprinkled throughout for good measure, and a nice twist-in-a-twist toward the end piques audience interest, it proves too little, too late.
George (Gene Jones), a Vietnam veteran, is the grumpy old man of his sunny Southern California neighborhood. He’s so cantankerous, in fact, that he shoots a gun in the air to stop kids from bullying another boy. Though his mental faculties are already questionable, George has a stroke on his front lawn and wakes in a hospital room with his estranged son Jerry (Peter Cilella) and granddaughter Shelby (Hassie Harrison) at his bedside. The father-son relationship is icy at best, but Shelby seems eager to connect with George, whom she hasn’t seen since she was a little girl.
There’s a period of detente while Shelby and Jerry take care of George at home, but they need to talk about options for care. It’s a difficult discussion, compounded by George’s confusion and flashbacks to his time in Vietnam. Jerry’s eager to find an assisted living facility, but George wants to remain at home. Just when they’re at an impasse, the bell rings and it’s Michelle (Kristina Klebe), a nurse with a sweet disposition sent by the hospital to check up on George. This plot point in Meredith Berg’s script is probably the most difficult to swallow—when does a nurse appear unannounced on your doorstep? What magical health care system is this?
Shelby, played captivatingly by Harrison, asks if Michelle would be interested in working as a live-in nurse for her grandfather, and unwittingly sets the nefarious Florence Nightingale’s wheels in motion. As soon as Shelby and Jerry leave for their hotel, Michelle wastes no time with a big syringe, injecting George with something the doctor didn’t order. Just like that, George becomes a victim of elder abuse and a prisoner in his own home; there’s absolutely no buildup of suspense. The film then falls into a familiar pattern of taunting, torture and blaming the victim. George is more coherent and aware than most people think, but Michelle convinces everyone that his dementia has severely impaired his faculties.
The film includes several scenes in which the characters’ actions—or Testin’s direction choices—are confusing or just plain ridiculous. Not to give too much away, but there’s one scene in which George wakes up in a pool of blood (not his) on his bed. Shelby finally begins to realize that something’s not quite right with nurse Michelle, so she wants to talk with George alone. They sit down to chat on the edge of the bloody bed, which horrified her just a few minutes earlier. Though she really seems to care for her grandfather, Shelby pilfers a necklace from his drawer seemingly out of the blue. Meanwhile, Michelle, who has the crazy, glazed eyes of a psychopath, rips a doll’s head off at the checkout of a hardware store. It’s not at all subtle and pushes the edge of camp.
Most of the action in Dementia happens inside a beautiful old Craftsman home, and Testin, who has an extensive background as a cinematographer and served as his own DP on this film, evokes the sadness and history inside by capturing darker tones and hues. Jason Turbin’s score becomes obtrusive—much too loud—during the climax, to the point of distracting us away from the dialogue.
Any horror or suspense film worth its salt raises the audience’s hackles at least once, but Dementia is a wimpy psychological thriller. The medical condition itself is already an inherently scary one for its victims and their families, and Berg’s script and Testin’s direction don’t capitalize on that fact; it’s a missed opportunity given Jones’ masterful performance. Even George’s flashbacks to the Vietnam era hint at something tragic, and one of his nightmares is admittedly gross, but the scenes are so disjointed that the audience isn’t sure what exactly to take away from them. Still, perhaps this was Testin’s point: Confusion and impaired reasoning are, after all, characteristics of dementia, and the film certainly lives up to its name.
Director: Mike Testin
Writer: Meredith Berg
Starring: Gene Jones, Kristina Klebe, Peter Cillela and Hassie Harrison
Release Date: December 4 in theaters and VOD
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.