It’s been nearly a half-century, but no filmmaker has come close to creating an exorcism-themed movie more terrifying than William Friedkin’s classic The Exorcist. That doesn’t ambitious horror film directors from trying, however, as evidenced by the latest effort from director-screenwriter Pearry Reginald Teo (Ghosthunters, The Curse of Sleeping Beauty). While The Assent doesn’t really add anything particularly new to the overworked genre, it’s subtler and less exploitative than many of the countless similar examples of its type preceding it.
The pic’s opening voiceover, accompanied by grainy footage of an exorcism, clues us into the meaning of the film’s title. It seems that the “The Assent” is one of the stages of demonic possession, the first two being “The Presence” and “The Affliction.” In the third and final stage, the occupying demon assumes full and irreversible control of its host entity. We’re also informed at one point that exorcisms are “highly legal.” “The First Amendment protects exorcisms,” a priest explains. So you can’t say the movie isn’t educational.
As is often the case in these exercises, the victim is a child, Mason (Caden Dragomer), the young son of Joel (Robert Kazinsky, Pacific Rim, Warcraft), a widower struggling to make ends. Things go from bad to worse when his longtime babysitter Cassie (Hannah Ward) announces that she’ll be leaving for college and an ever-hovering social worker (Florence Faivre) threatens Joel with losing custody of his son if he doesn’t improve his fortunes.
Joel also suffers from schizophrenia, which makes him wonder if his son has inherited the condition when Mason begins acting strangely and seeing visions. Cassie becomes so concerned about what’s going on that she contacts her local priest, Brother Michael (Douglas Spain), who just happens to be hosting an older fellow priest, Father Lambert (Peter Jason), recently released from prison after serving time for his participation in a botched exorcism that resulted in the death of a child.
So far, so familiar. But writer-director Teo adds some interesting stylistic and narrative touches into the mix. The rundown home shared by father and son is stuffed with grotesque artworks ghoulish enough to make Swiss artist H.R. Giger (Alien) shudder. The horrific visions, which Mason often tries to photograph with a Polaroid camera, are depicted with split color effects that call to mind old 3D red and blue glasses. Despite the obviously low budget, the filmmaker conjures up many creepily effective visuals.
The Assent also takes a more psychological approach to its subject matter than usual, keeping us guessing as to whether what we’re seeing is real or simply manifestations of its central character’s schizophrenia. The story is told entirely through Mason’s perspective, including the exorcism, which is shown only in fleeting moments. Besides being different, the approach proves advantageous since it would have been foolish to attempt to match the special effects in Hollywood films. Finally, there’s a clever twist toward the end that most viewers won’t see coming.
The performances are uneven, but Kazinsky brings a compelling intensity to his performance and veteran character actor Jason, whose genre credits are impeccable (he’s appeared in no less than seven John Carpenter films), provides just the sort of gravitas the occasionally hokey material needs. The film further benefits from the presence of an unbilled Tatum O’Neal in the small but pivotal role of a nurse who provides medical supervision to the exorcism. It makes you wonder why Father Karras and Father Merrin didn’t take such precautions as well.
Production company: Boom Done Productions
Distributor: Gravitas Ventures
Cast: Robert Kazinsky, Peter Jason, Florence Faivre, Caden Dragomer, Hannah Ward, Douglas Spain
Director-screenwriter: Pearry Reginald Teo
Producers: Ehud Bleiberg, Danny Dimbort
Executive producers: Charles Arthur Berg, Nicholas Donnermeyer, Robert Kazinsky
Director of photography: Jonathan Hall
Production designer: Ryan Kaercher
Editor: Danny Rafic
Composer: Frederik Wiedmann
Costume designer: Susan Deopner-Senac
Casting: Scotty Mullen