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“DEMENTER” Writer/Director Chad Crawford Kinkle Talks Inspiration, Frustration, And Disability Representation

Friday, March 5, 2021 | Interviews

By RACHEL REEVES 

In 2013, writer/director Chad Crawford Kinkle made waves in the indie horror community with his unique, backwoods cult film Jug Face. Led by sharp performances and a visceral, well-crafted story, the film’s popularity has continued to simmer and gain new fans with every passing year. Once again returning to the horror genre, Kinkle is back with his latest film, DEMENTER. While similar threads unite both films, DEMENTER is a new and unique story unlike anything you’ve seen before. 

A deeply personal film, DEMENTER follows a young woman named Katie (portrayed by Katie Groshong). After escaping a backwoods cult led by none other than Larry Fessenden (Depraved), Katie attempts to start her life over by applying for a job at a care center for special needs adults. However, Katie quickly realizes that while you can take the girl out of the backwoods cult, it’s not quite as easy to take the backwoods cult out of the girl. When a woman with Down syndrome (played by Kinkle’s real-life sister, Stephanie) under Katie’s care begins to experience strange phenomena, she finds that danger may be closer than she ever imagined.

To celebrate the film’s recent release on VOD, we sat down (virtually) with Kinkle to chat all about DEMENTER, working with his own sibling, the importance of empathetic representation in film, and so much more.

Tell us a little bit about your inspiration for the film and why this was a story that you wanted to tell.

A long time ago, someone told my mom that every child deserves the chance to leave home. My mom looked at this person like they were crazy because my sister has a very severe case of Down’s. There’s very few words she can actually say. She needs people to brush her teeth and help her get dressed. It’s a very high level of care. So, my mom thought that was the dumbest thing she had ever heard. But what was funny was, once my sister was in her 30s, she began to have all these behavior problems. She can be very stubborn in general, but she began acting out in a lot of different ways. We really didn’t know what it was. Finally, an opening came up for her to go to this group house with two other clients. She had already been going to this skills center since she was in her 20s. After school, they all kind of transition to this one place in the community. She would also be protected if anything happened to me or my parents. She’d be protected by the state. At this time my mom was in her 60s so she thought, ‘Well, maybe it is time.’ She’s had to take care of her for 35 years of her life, hand and foot. That’s really tough. So they agreed to it. And what’s funny is that all these behavioral problems with my sister went away. She was just sick of living with my family. So, the inspiration for the film was that my sister moved into this new kind of world. I’ve gone to many events there and it’s been a big part of my life.

I went to film school in the ’90s and kind of always thought about doing a project with my sister. But, I didn’t want to just do a documentary on her and make people feel sorry for her for some reason. Eventually, I found myself watching this movie The Tribe at Sundance. I knew they had used all non-actors and they used all these kids who were at this school for the deaf. And the film was all in sign language. As I was watching it I thought, ‘What if I did a movie in my sister’s world?’ And what if it was a horror movie? How can I even do that? What is that going to look like? I was scared to even verbalize it to people. 

After Jug Face, I had many scripts and many director gigs that never went all the way. I felt like they weren’t really happening because I wasn’t living in L.A. So I decided to move to L.A. and drug my wife and daughter out there with me. It became very clear within the first year that this wasn’t going to be a good fit for my wife and daughter. Even though I was making headway, I wasn’t making headway quick enough. So, we moved back to Nashville, and I was really crushed. I knew I needed another movie bad, but I also knew that I was going to have to do it myself. It couldn’t be just another haunted house movie or something either. It really needed to stick out. So, what unique thing do I have to offer? I just thought, maybe I should actually do this idea with my sister. What do I have to lose? I felt like I had already lost everything connection-wise and the momentum from my first movie. I thought it would be cool too. Even if it didn’t come out, it would be a cool experience that I could do with my sister. I could also let people into her world. I knew it was going to be a feature. It was going to be quick, just 14 days. I’m going to be the cameraman because I can’t just have a crew of people in there. It would be too startling to have a crew of strangers around.  Then the idea just came to me naturally. Stephanie couldn’t be the main character and I was having to write around her normal behaviors. The main character was going to have to be someone else coming in. A character coming in, getting a job at the center as an aide. That’s the next closest person to my sister and other special needs adults. That’s how the idea spawned.

Horror has not always had the best track record when it comes to disability representation in film. Because of that, were you nervous about getting permission to film? Did you get push-back from anyone?

I said to myself, if I can’t get permission to shoot it at the skills center, then I can’t make it. It’s not going to feel right. So, once I had the concept, I went to the people who ran the skills center and they were really thrilled. They felt like I was going to show people like my sister in a way they’d never been shown before. Very naturalistic and give them real screen time. I got no push-back. 

For every client (they call them clients), we had to have the families or guardians sign a waiver giving permission for us to film. There was only one person who we didn’t get a signature for. As you would think, some folks were like ‘I don’t want my child who has a disability being in a horror movie.’ That sounds like the worst set-up ever, but, everybody there knew me already. They knew my family and they knew my sister. I’m probably one of the only people who could go and get this movie made. At least in the way that I did it. That was the odd thing. Everyone I asked for help, no one turned me down at all. I was always shocked. (Laughs) Even the doctor at the office? That’s the real doctor that they go to. 

When it comes to your sister, what was it like working with her? Did she enjoy the process? Were there any brother-sister dynamic issues you had to navigate?

Working with her was basically just like our normal interactions. She’s a total ham. She’s part of a group they call the B-Team Angels.They go and sing at churches and nursing homes. They’ll always videotape it and while the rest of them are singing, she’ll start dancing. She wants the attention. So, I knew that if I put the camera in front of her, she was going to just do stuff. Every time I had the camera on her she would make funny noises, she’d laugh and then she’d mimic me ordering people around on set. Everybody would be laughing and I’d just have to hold the camera on her for 5 minutes until she calmed down finally. Then I could ask her to do something. She has a very severe case of Down Syndrome. When they categorize her they say she has the mind of a 4-year-old. Which isn’t really accurate, but it lets them know what level of care she needs. She’s way wiser than that even though she can’t verbalize her emotions really. Even though I can tell her that she’s going to be in my movie, she might not respond to that. But, when I turn the camera on her she loves doing what she’s doing. And a lot of the other clients that could really understand that they were going to be in a movie, they lost their minds when I would come in with the camera. Just the extra attention of people being with them, they just naturally loved that anyway. 

Afterwards when I was editing, it was Thanksgiving and my family was at my house. I was like, ‘Stephanie, come here. I wanna show you the movie that I’m editing.’ She took one look at it and just walked out of the room. I don’t know if she was just embarrassed or what. But, I’m not going to show her the horror stuff. I’m also going to do a cut for the center that’s just the normal scenes from the movie and some outtakes. I’ll never really know what she thinks about it. I know she knows she’s being filmed, but in her mind, I’ll never know what she thinks it was. What’s funny is in some of the reviews some of the people were saying, ‘Stephanie Kinkle did such a great job acting! We can’t wait to see her in other roles.’ There’s still a disconnect where people can’t really understand her situation. And then I have the opposite where people say, ‘Stephanie wasn’t used enough in the movie.’ It was a miracle getting what I got. 

That’s kind of wild and just proves why proper representation in film is so important. 

Growing up, any movies I saw that had someone with Down’s in it, or television shows, they were always very high functioning. Of course, there’s a very practical reason. You can’t have people on set who aren’t going to do what you need them to do. It makes sense why, but it always bugged me. That didn’t represent the community that I knew at all. And then, in other movies, they’d be psychic or demonic or whatever. I always wanted a way to represent my sister properly. This was born from a pure desire to do something with my sister. To go on this wild journey and see what I could come up with. 

Let’s take a minute to talk about Katie Groshong. You’ve worked with her before, so I’m curious, was she who you envisioned in this role while you were writing the script? What was it like working with her this time around? 

From the very beginning, just from the concept stage, it was always Katie. I told her before it was even written that I had a feature script idea and asked if she wanted to be the lead actress. And she said, ‘Yeah! Of course.’ I knew the quality of a person that she was. She’s very sensitive and she’s a very nice person. I knew that I could bring her into this environment and that she would work well with my sister and the others. And she did even better than I had even imagined. 

It was really hard on her to do this role. The only actual actors in the film were Katie, Larry Fessenden and the meat processor. So, her working with other people who don’t know how to act was really tough. She had nothing to go on and nothing coming back that’s normal. There’s not that support that you get when you’re working across from another actor. Even though they did wonderful jobs, they’re just not trained. Of course there was a screenplay and she was going by the lines, but she did for sure have to ad-lib. In particular when she was working with my sister. I even had to reign her back in. She almost had a problem with nervous talking. I’d have to tell her that I needed the pauses in order to have a place to cut. Don’t be nervous. You don’t have to fill every void.

You play with some really interesting ideas in DEMENTER and cleverly blur the lines between hero and villain, helping versus hurting. What inspired these intentionally muddy moral undercurrents?

In the beginning, I started from a place where I was thinking about how people can want to help so much that they hurt something. During shooting for Jug Face, I had everybody come over to my house for a barbecue and they saw that my hobby was taking care of bonsai trees. I’d been doing that for a couple years and the thing that often happens with beginners is that they love the trees so much they kill them by overwatering, pruning or whatever. So that’s always been a funny thing in my mind. And then with Stephanie and the center, there’s a state board that comes up with rules every year. They came up with this idea that they didn’t want the clients to be held away from society. They decided you can’t just leave these people at the center during the day, you have to take them out into the community. But what they said was that they had to be outside in the community 6 hours a day. That’s too much. So they’d come to the center, leave at 9am and come back at 3pm. And the mobility for a lot of these people is really poor. While the idea is good, the way that it was implemented was almost mean to a certain degree. So that was in my mind. 

What’s also strange is that, generally they say, you’re going to know the theme of the movie in the climax. As I was writing it, I thought it was going to have this up-ending. But then I get to it and write the really down ending. So it got me thinking, ‘What does this mean to me?’ In Jug Face, I knew that as I was writing it I had these feelings because I had just had my daughter. I realized that my life was not my own any more. That was really the genesis and where the emotion lies for Jug Face. But for this, I didn’t really know where it was coming from until I went to yoga after finishing the first draft. Of course, you’re not supposed to think about other things in yoga and your mind is supposed to be clear so I think I’m doing it all wrong. But it just kind of came to me that in some way, this was my thoughts about social media. How people use these little ideas and they don’t exactly know the meanings behind them. They think these are positive things, but they could be harmful and they just don’t know it. To me, this was my frustration with that, but it came out in a totally weird way. 

The score and sound design for DEMENTER plays such a crucial part in letting us into Katie’s headspace. Tell us a little bit about working with composer Sean Spillane and how you two developed the film’s sound palette. 

Sean was on Jug Face as well and it started similar to that. I led him down the wrong road for a little bit. And then when I finally told him the right reference, he nailed it. But this project was different. I wasn’t able to pay him what we were able to pay him for Jug Face. He ended up writing three tracks that were variations on the same song and he just gave me the Stems (audio files). He didn’t have time to do the whole movie scene by scene and asked if I could do that. I have a little background in music so I said, ‘Yeah. I can try that.’ And then I realized, oh my god, how am I going to do this for the whole movie? For example, the music for the opening scene is bits of those three tracks all mixed together. It is his music, it’s just me screwing with it royally. But then I discovered how cool it was going to be. I could really shape the emotions of every scene, just like I did with the writing, the directing and the editing. Now I can use sound. It took a couple months of me sitting there to do it. At the end, I was really nervous to let Sean listen to it and hear what I’d done to his music, but he thought it was amazing. He thought it was really unique how I treated it like a soundscape really. More like a sound design. I did the sound design as well, just making noises in my pantry and recording it. I was working with really great material when it came to the music which definitely made my job easy. 

You edited the film as well right?

In the beginning, I didn’t want to edit it. I liked the idea of someone else looking at the material and finding the good spots that I’m too close to find. I consider my editing skills average. I edited in school and after school a bit for paid gigs, but I’ve never called myself an editor. My friend who is a professional editor and lives here locally was going to edit it, but ended up having a baby and just didn’t have the time to do this extra thing. When I started going over the footage I realized I couldn’t tell someone how I wanted this to be. As I got into it, I actually really loved crafting it. It became just another level of crafting the story and felt very natural once I started going. 

Your fingerprints are all over this film and I think that’s really beautiful. It feels unequivocally yours.

Yeah. Maybe to a fault. (Laughs)

DEMENTER is now available for rental or purchase on most major video platforms from Dark Star Pictures. Check out our review here.

Rachel Reeves
Rachel is a record store nerd from Boise, Idaho with an obsession for horror soundtracks and all things creepy.