The world of film has long explored possession and losing one’s self to outside forces. From The Exorcism to The Shining, the slow descent into madness through supernatural means is one that is relatable and terrifying.
The Assent — a new film from director Pearry Reginald Teo that recently screened at TADFF — tackles this struggle in a different way, opting to explore mental illness, suffering, and the struggle to get help against the backdrop of possession. While at times hard to watch, his style and concept keep you engaged as you explore the film’s twisted world.
Set on the backdrop of a father looking to hold onto his child through trauma, The Assent is an oddly relatable tale. As protagonist Joel (Robert Kazinsky) does everything he can to be the father his son Mason needs, he is fighting against the personal demons of a mental condition, a therapist Dr. Maya (Florence Faivre), and the need to make a living for himself and his family. It is a relatable story, but one shrouded in the supernatural as darkness descends on their household.
“So with the Assent, I was actually just at a point in my life when I was very interested in the idea of exorcisms.” recalled Pearry Teo as we discussed the idea for the film over the phone “Both mentally, and how religious beliefs play into it. What does a person being possessed believe as they are going through the struggle of possession? I don’t want to make another exorcism film where it’s some girl tied to a bed. It’s definitely more what goes on inside a person’s head while the exorcism is happening”
This mental illness and struggle are thrust to the forefront of The Assent. From the beginning scenes where we see Joel working on his art, the concept that he is going through a struggle is ever-present. As the camera works to capture the visual hallucinations of schizophrenia, the audience is left trying to make sense of the world Joel is going through. From constant episodes to a world that seems insurmountable, The Assent is at times a hard yet powerful film to watch.
This visual style that is so unique to the movie was something that the crew worked hard to capture. It was a process that — while it could have been done via effects on a computer — was all done by hand using light and lenses.
“Whenever we knew that the scene that we’re shooting is having an episode, we had to bring in the special lens and get it set up on the camera body” Pearry Teo explained “It was a very interesting process because the guy moving the lens in and out is also controlling the focus, ensuring the shot works and is set up right. This is not something that can be done on the computer. It was all done practically on set.”
But crafting the waking nightmare that Joel is suffering did not stop there. Every aspect of the world builds a sense of unease and dread. From the way the scenes are set up to the art scattered around Joel’s house. Even the house at the core of the film was crafted to invoke a sense of unease. Originally a brothel — transformed into a house for this movie — throughout the film it never feels “right”, never giving the audience a safe place to retreat as they watch the struggles of the family.
“The interesting thing is when we were location scouting we were looking at tremendous amounts of buildings, I want to say almost 20-50 different houses.” Pearry Teo recalls “ We actually found an abandoned 1920s brothel and we converted that into the house. So if you notice that the house almost doesn’t look the same for each shot. It just doesn’t feel like a conventional house at all.”
Scattered with countless unique artwork all around this unconventional home, the life of Joel was perfectly captured using the help of Spanish artist Emil Melmoth. His dark artwork helps to plunge the audience into the dark recesses of Joel’s mind, giving a little taste of the demons we suffer through. Combined with the twisted house he lives in, the picture The Assent paints is one that is hard to look away from.
“The artist who did all the artwork is fascinating.” Pearry Teo discusses “I wish I could speak to him more. But he speaks only in Spanish so we had to go to a translator. You know, I love his artwork, I feel a lot of times the whole theme of the movie is about getting your demons out and I felt like Emil’s work encapsulates that.”
Now that the set is in place and the look was captured, bringing the demons to life was next on the docket. Unlike many films, Pearry Teo wanted to make a new style of demon, one that did not have the typical devil-like visage. He wanted something out of a nightmare, a creature lacking true form, a fever dream made manifest.
Listening to Pearry Teo describe it, these demons were something much more interesting that what Hollywood normally sets loose onto the silver screen. As he described over the phone: “ I just had an idea of a demon being formless. If you actually read the text, nobody can define what a demon is.”
“So the idea is that these demons are formless; they are faceless. I started playing with that idea and I was talking to my special effects guy asking him if we could make a demon whose form seems to come out of tortured souls. That’s how we came up with all these faces coming out of the human body and, unfortunately, we are limited to a human body because a person has to wear it. That was the top part of the design and the bottom part of the design, the legs — the spider legs — and all that, it’s really just touching on common phobias.”
Yet, at the center of The Assent is Joel’s mental state. He is a man dealing with the struggles of every day, and as his mental state deteriorates, the simple acts we all take for granted quickly seem almost insurmountable. It is a film that tries to deal with these struggles head-on, offering a glimpse into the issues, but also the victories of overcoming these problems.
“I think that what I really admire most about my lead character, Joel, is that despite the fact that the state wants to take him away, he’s doing all he can to make it work.” Recounts Pearry Teo “They are definitely fighting to make sure that they can fit into the system. These are the small things we take for granted. Sometimes you’d have to wake up in the middle of the night to take your medication, or you have an episode. And you’re responsible for the well being of a child when you’re going through that.”
With this being a movie about possession, it is hard to not talk about the Priest working to save the souls of the people involved. Played by veteran actor Peter Jason, Father Lambert is a man haunted by mistakes. Having lost a child to a previous exorcism, now excommunicated, and recently released from prison, he is a man looking for redemption. A man trapped by his own guilt; The Assent is as much an exploration of a man looking to make right by past wrongs, as it is a look at the struggles everyone must face when dealing with external and internal demons.
“I love the idea that nobody’s perfect.” Explains Pearry Teo “I feel like a lot of times — especially when you’re dealing with men of God — they’ve come across as though they’re pious and they’re perfect. I don’t believe that they are, they are human after all. Just because this man is a priest is he not allowed to be flawed and looking to seek his own redemption? Would you forgive a priest if he was responsible for the death of a boy because of an exorcism.”
With all the pieces in place, The Assent is ready to accept an audience looking for a story deep in suffering and struggle. It is a movie that aims to explore beyond the tropes of the sub-genre and offer up something a bit deeper. From flawed characters to a true love of a family, the Assent is a film that is well worth seeking out. Currently working through its festival run, if you have a chance to see this unique take on an exorcism story, give it a shot. With practical effects for days and a striking visual style, The Assent is sure to stick with as you ponder the true face of evil.