Mike Testin’s Dementia ups the ante on the traditional stalker thriller by incorporating the titular illness into the genre’s already paranoid mix of surveillance and physical violation. The protagonist, George Lockhart (Gene Jones), is a veteran who’s haunted by his hellish experience as a prisoner of war in South Vietnam in 1974, which is to say that his present delusions might spring from two rich sources: his considerable post-war torment, and the dementia triggered by a recent stroke.
That’s a heavy load for one slim genre film to carry, essentially fusing two huge American taboos into one high-concept premise. George is a walking embodiment of perhaps the two most pressing issues that contemporary generations might wish to brush under the figurative carpet for their own illusion of innocence and convenience: the sins of warfare and the demoralizing traps of elderly dependency, particularly when said elder is estranged from his remaining family.
The film knows it’s playing with fire, flirting with tastelessness, and that awareness informs it with a peculiar and appealingly submerged sense of humor. Horror films are often at their best when tugging relentlessly at those issues we’d prefer not to speak of, stoking fires of violation and outrage. Dementia often suggests a ghoulish reprise of Gran Torino. The home that Clint Eastwood’s character inhabited in that film even resembles George’s, as both boast large porches and brown, woody interiors that offer quiet testament to a notion of cocooned safety, which might elude younger generations looking to make their own mark in a culture less stable than the one in which their parents once thrived.
The filmmakers enjoy teasing the audience as to the nature of the story’s true menace, as all the characters subtly seem to be “off.” Is George going to lose his mind and harm either his son, Jerry (Peter Cilella), granddaughter Shelby (Hassie Harrison), or new live-in nurse, Michelle (Kristina Klebe)? Or is Jerry the one to distrust, with his obvious and justifiable resentment of his father? What about Shelby, who pilfers her grandfather’s pills and steals jewelry? One shouldn’t forget Michelle either, who has a habit of eerily staring off into space for long periods of time, and who seems just a tad too eager to drug George up and lock him in his bedroom.
Dementia loses steam when it reveals its punchline, which is discernable about 30 minutes into the film, and which depends on a huge, glaring gap of logic that might be intended as a joke pertaining to Jerry’s absentmindedness. It’s Jones who props the film up as it threatens to collapse into a wreck of conveniences and clichés. He’s one of those marvelous actors who never appears to be doing any work, suggesting a found object that inherently reflects the ghosts haunting a generation that, like its contemporary counterpart, precipitated a war of highly debatable cause. Jones allows his physical heft as an actor, his tactile sense of interior strength coiled within exterior dilapidation, to speak mightily for him, though he’s also a fleet-footed verbal comedian. Dementia doesn’t quite earn Jones’s performance, but it engenders considerable goodwill for allowing him to give it.