Interview : Chad Crawford Kinkle on Dementer

Dementer is writer/director Chad Crawford Kinkle’s second feature film, the long-awaited follow-up to 2013’s Jug Face. Starring his own sister Stephanie Kinkle in a major role, Dementer follows a woman (Katie Groshong) who finds work at a care centre for adults with special needs after fleeing a cult.

The film follows Katie, a young woman who flees a backwoods cult and takes a job at a care center for special needs adults in her determination to do some good with her life. But despite her best intentions, Katie can’t escape the signs that “the devils” are coming for Stephanie, a woman with Down syndrome she cares for, who keeps getting sicker despite Katie’s rituals to ward off evil spirits.

The horror genre is not often a kind place for disability representation – but for Chad, finding the right story to tell that featured his sister without exploiting her was utterly important. I had the pleasure of discussing Dementer with Chad ahead of its release on March 2nd.

Congratulations on Dementer’s release! I remember seeing Jug Face back when it first came out, and it’s been a while since then. It’s nice to see a follow-up.

Chad: Yeah, it’s been a little too long. But that’s how it goes sometimes, I guess.

So, the genesis of Dementer was partly a dream your mother had?

Chad: I’d thought of the idea beforehand. I’ve always thought about doing a project with my sister, ever since I was in film school in the 90s. Nothing ever really felt right, because I didn’t want to do a documentary about her. While she is special, her life hasn’t had these events in it that would warrant some kind of long narrative piece. But it’s always been in the back of my mind, and I’ve just never had the right opportunity. 

Then, I watched this movie called The Tribe. It’s all set in a school for the deaf, and it’s all sign language. I know the director used all non-actors for it, and seeing that movie was very inspiring. I was like, hang on, shooting something in my sister’s world that she actually lives in could be really captivating like this movie, and I could use non-actors just like he did. But he actually rehearsed for three months; we got zero rehearsals. So he had a big upper hand in that! 

Once I started, I wondered what kind of movie would this actually be? Would it be a horror movie? Because that’s what I do. And these two elements combining in my mind really had some electricity behind it. Obviously, I wanted to avoid exploiting my sister. And it just so happened that my mom said to me, “I had this dream last night, and you had made a movie with your sister and everybody liked it”.

So I said, “I do have an idea for a movie, and I don’t know if anyone’s going to like it, but I have an idea”. Later, when I was actually making this movie, she got a little bit worried. She wasn’t worried that I would do something; she was worried that I would be mad if Stephanie messed it up. That’s what she worried about.

So I built a script around the things that my sister does, her normal behaviours. I sort of protected myself in that I could allow her to do things that I wouldn’t even think she would do, and also be able to get the story elements that I needed, with knowing her behaviour.

I’ve been so interested in your decision to go that way, because I feel that horror as a genre so often only involves people with disabilities in the sense that their disability is the source of the horror. They’re always the other. I think working with non-actors helped a lot in avoiding that.

Chad: Yeah, they’re the more grounding thing in the movie. They’re the norm. It’s the classic ‘normal people are the ones you have to worry about’. I’ve grown up watching horror movies and seeing people with Down Syndrome being supernatural somehow, having psychic abilities or being some kind of monster. And of course, it was never my intention to do something like that. It didn’t feel right to do anything like that. It’s more the horror and weirdness coming from the outside.

You have the fantastic Larry Fessenden in there. Obviously, he’s a horror icon – how did you go about getting him involved?

Chad: Well, he was in my first feature Jug Face as well. After I made Jug Face, Larry was my favourite thing about that whole shoot. He was an idol of mine beforehand. I remember getting the email from the producer saying, “I’ve sent the script to Larry, and he’ll play either the potter or the father”. I remember just being so blown away by it – I just couldn’t believe it.

So we’ve stayed in touch the whole time since then, and I’ve always wanted to do another movie with Larry. I mean, the character’s name is Larry. I had nobody else in mind to play this role. At the time, he was editing Depraved, so he was deep into his own creative process, and he hates to fly to begin with. I kept pushing back shooting his scenes, and he ended up being able to make time for us and come down to shoot for a couple of days.

His voice-overs in particular really add a lot to the atmosphere.

Chad: We recorded those one day while we were on set. The set that day was an abandoned-looking house where the cult kids live. It’s actually owned by one of my best friends here; he owns a bunch of fixer-uppers that make perfect settings for our movies.

With Larry, we sat in my car for about half an hour and he read through the lines with the audio guy in the back seat. We just talked about him delivering the lines and how to deliver them, and it was just so funny that something so powerful in the movie is something we did in the back of a car.

It seems like if you get the right people, it doesn’t necessarily matter how you go about it – they’ve got the spark.  

Chad: Well, yeah. Someone asked me about Larry, did we talk a lot about the character? And I was like, not really. Hardly. I think he got what I needed for the role. He knows horror movies, and he knew what I was going for. I didn’t have to coax him hardly at all to be creepy.

A lot of Dementer is shot in a faux-documentary style, particularly in the group home. How did you find that compared to shooting in a more traditional cinematic style?

Chad: With Jug Face, we had a full camera crew, camera people, dollies, cranes. For this I knew I was going to have to operate the camera. On Jug Face I had storyboards, and we had to do things in a very traditional manner. Here, I had less time and was going to have to be the cameraman, so I didn’t have the ability to set up shots like you normally would. So, I didn’t even use storyboards after the first day.

I realised that getting them to do the things I needed exactly as they were written was probably not going to happen. So I needed to capture the essence of the same note for the story beat and just be willing to be flexible. On Jug Face, one of the things I did learn was that a lot of the time, I didn’t go with my gut feelings about an opportunity for a better shot, etc. So this project was the complete opposite, where you’re flying by the seat of your pants and looking for inspiration the whole time.

I knew what shots I needed to cover, but I’m also looking for anything that’s better; really watching the scene and reacting in real time. Since I’m the cameraman, I don’t have to explain that to somebody else. If I had been, it’d be very difficult to do this style of shooting and get what I want. I’m the one pulling the focus, I’m the one racking when I feel it needs to happen. That did allow us to just continually keep shooting, and it was pretty organic.

The way the script was written and the whole project in general just fit really well. If we’d tried to come in there and shoot with a full camera crew, it would have been stale and wouldn’t have felt right, because I was going for intimacy. So it just needs to be me, the camera and the subject. That really worked in our favour.

It’s interesting how the elements can just end up falling together in the way they need to without that necessarily being your plan.

Chad: One of the inspirations I had for that sort of shooting style was the Lars von Trier film The Idiots. It’s a movie about this group of people that pretend to have disabilities, and they live in this film together to escape from reality. I remember seeing that at a festival, and that night I’d been partying a lot at that point, so I wasn’t quite in my right mind. It was Danish, and there were no subtitles – instead, they gave you headphones and someone translated it live. It made it feel so real. There’s even a live sex scene where they used real porn stars to shoot it.

The funny thing is, there’s a movie called Subspecies by Full Moon Video, and it’s a vampire series. The guy they used for the vampire, I’ve never seen what he looks like without the makeup on. But in The Idiots, one of the fathers of a girl who’s in the home comes to get her out, and I realised, “oh my god. That’s the vampire from Subspecies. That’s how I know it’s not real”.

It’s incredible what kind of people will pop up out of nowhere in horror and horror-adjacent movies when you’re least expecting it. It’s a small world!

Chad: Yeah, same with Larry. He’s been around and in so many films, it’s clear to me that he’s like the godfather of independent horror cinema – at least for my generation, particularly. I’m sure he said that about other people that are older than him.

Oh, for sure. Every generation has their equivalent. As you said earlier, it was a long road to get your second feature out. In independent filmmaking, it often seems to be a lot of laying the groundwork for what you’re wanting to do with the hopes of being able to actually do it eventually. Has Dementer been your main focus since Jug Face, or have you been trying to dabble in a variety of projects?

Chad: After Jug Face, I had numerous scripts that I tried to get funding for and they didn’t go anywhere. I had adaptations that feel through and directing gigs for movies that just fell through. I wasn’t living in Los Angeles, and that may not have been the reason why, but I felt like I needed to be there. 

So I actually did move to LA for a year, and that didn’t go great, so I ended up moving back to Tennessee. At that point, I knew I had to have another movie, and I’d have to do it myself. For this movie, I self-funded it as well. So yeah, with independent filmmaking, sometimes you have to do everything yourself: find the money, direct, edit, do everything you possibly can to get it made. 

In particular with this movie, if you were to go to different finance people and say, “this guy wants to make a horror movie with his sister and she has Down syndrome”, they would just laugh at you and say “we’re not going to risk our money on that”. But for me, the idea just felt right. I felt like it had legs. I was willing to risk everything, my money, my reputation, to go on this journey with my sister because I thought it’d be such a cool project to do with her.

DEMENTER is now available on digital streaming platforms.

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