The Assent mixes elements of psychological horror with haunted vibes and a strenuous exorcism to create a complex story with clever effects. The film follows Joel, an artist and father, as he struggles with schizophrenia and the tragic death of his wife. Joel makes just enough to scrape by at his day job and must constantly keep up appearances with his psychiatrist to ensure that he can maintain custody of his young son, Mason. When two priests show up at his house and Mason starts behaving strangely, Joel is introduced to the idea that perhaps his son is possessed, and reluctantly must decide if it’s time to try an exorcism.
Writer/director Pearry Teo admits that he’s always had an interest in observations between science, mental illness, faith, and religion, all which play a vital role in the events of The Assent. “Back then, before schizophrenia became a known medical thing, people believed that they were possessed by the devil,” said Teo. “So I was very fascinated by that fact. And I’m actually thinking, how many mental illnesses have we not found yet?”
As the idea grew, Teo thought to bring the complex and controversial practice of exorcism into the mix. He wanted to create a film that wasn’t your typical bone-cracking, back bending, screaming, spewing kind of exorcism.
The roots of the film spread through observations on humanity, psychology, and empathy. “Despite a lot of people thinking it’s an exorcism film, we don’t see much of the exorcism at all in the movie,” Teo explained, “It’s really more about a guy dealing with the events of the exorcism, more than the actual exorcism itself.”
“I feel like a lot of times in horror movies, they focus so much of it on trying to be scary, that they forget the reason that people sometimes love watching cinema is to go in, come out, and learn something or take something away from it.” continued Teo, “And that’s what I hope for, for The Assent, is that people can actually get something out of it. They observe something, they see something. And perhaps they have a new way to discuss certain things.”
Teo is no stranger to horror cinema; he’s made several genre shorts and features since 2002. “I think as I grew up, I was more like, hey, let’s give them something else other than just the horror. So that was my ambition.” With his newest project, Teo found an opportunity to show that there can be more to horror than just running, screaming, tripping victims. “There has to be a lot more to it,” he said, “And I think that making The Assent was really exciting because I felt that this was a vehicle for me to do that.”
To help create a truly unsettling tale, it’s all about location, location, location. Teo understood the importance of finding just the right house to host this battle. When searching for Joel’s house, he had one thing in mind; “I wanted people to look at and go, it’s not creepy, but there’s something fucked up about it.”
Amazingly, he found the perfect spot full of bizarre and questionable character. “I noticed the strangest thing about that house was no matter where I put my camera, I couldn’t get an orientation to it,” described Teo, “There were three living rooms, staircases that led to nowhere, there was a bathroom and it had a big window, and the window led to a corridor… like, weird, weird, stuff.”
Naturally, for Teo, it was a winner. “I was like, I don’t know what it is about it, but I love it. This is it. This is the one.”
One call from his production designer revealed a surprising past that explained everything; “It’s from the 1920s, and as he was dressing up the foyer, he showed me that it had all these strange numbers on it.” The hypothesis was that this curiously constructed house was once an illegal brothel. “And then the bathroom made sense — it had a viewing window. And the two living rooms made sense because it was probably where they would congregate. And there was one weird kitchen and all that,” Teo recalled, “And so in some ways, it was the it was the weirdest house to live in, and that really added to it.”
Of course, because the character of Joel is a talented artist, the house had to be filled with appropriately creepy artwork. Teo is a big fan of Mexican artist Emil Melmoth, whose work is focused on dark surrealism and the macabre. It was just the right tone for this naturally disjointed home. Beautifully unsettling sculptures adorn every room, complimenting a wide-set striped wallpaper that clamors up the stairwell, reminding one of some kind of twisted big top circus.
“That was actually a weird idea that I had that Joel was trying to make the place “livable” for his kid,” Teo commented, “He’s thinking, I’m going to make it fun, like a carnival, but in Joel’s art the carnival is just dark.”
With a fond laugh, Teo continues, “The guy loves his kid so much, but he’s just… artistically incapable. But when you think about it, it’s actually endearing and cute.” He admits, “I think the design of the house has definitely brought some questions from people.”
But when it comes to creepy atmosphere and sudden scares, decor alone won’t do. The house is littered with demons that shift in and out of Joel’s sight, causing him to question if what he’s seeing is even real. Teo and his team decided that practical effects were the best way to go and set about designing some truly unique terrors.
“I wanted to create a demon that didn’t feel too humanoid, so I started looking into my definition of what Hell is,” Teo said, “In Christian mythology — since we’re using the Christian mythology — Hell is like a melting pot. You’re thrown in brimstone and fire, so what if this demon came out that looked like all the souls melted together.”
He only had one rule when designing his demons: no eyes. “I think eyes just give it away. That’s one thing I think absolutely breaks the illusion, is seeing a terrifying demon and then seeing the eyeballs.” he laughed.
Along with the practical effects, Teo did some research and utilized some clever technical elements to help create the right feeling for the film. “I was asking and learning about how schizophrenics see things; things like light hurting their eyes, or sometimes they start to see colors dance around. They don’t necessarily hallucinate, but they do tend to have flashes of thought,” described Teo, “So I can’t say for sure that this is how schizophrenics see things, because my research pool is too small. But from what I gathered, and what I’ve studied with these guys, me and my DP started creating this new way to portray this. And we actually have a special camera set aside for it.”
For the shifting effect, Teo and his team took the lock for the lens out of the camera, so that the lens never actually fits into the camera. He detailed, “You need one person holding the camera and another person holding the lens. A third person shines a really bright light into the center of the camera.”
As Teo detailed, every frame has a red, green and blue channel. “After we shot, we delayed the timing of the red and green channel. So almost like if you took a film and just moved one frame, delayed it, then you take another one, and you delay it two frames.” This effect made some colors bleed at moments of movement, with dizzying results. “If we delay it, the actor stays still and we won’t see the effect. But when he starts moving, the more he moves, the more the effect takes shape.”
To really fill out the sense of unease, they turned to the sound design. “We started looking at some of the most terrifying recorded sounds. So if you watch the movie, you will actually hear things like what the rings of Saturn sounds like. We took sound from that,” he recalled, “There was also a Norwegian drilling team that actually recorded what they thought was sounds from hell.”
Not satisfied with a soundscape of plucking strings and screams, they also used a Shepard tone to get right into the guts of the audience; “By coupling all of that together, we were able to create a very discomforting effect. We’re building and we’re using music and sound to really just get into the bowels of you,” Teo said, “So we’re definitely looking into all kinds of things — psychological things — as well as visual to really try to bring this film to life.”
Though Teo has been deeply immersed in the world of filmmaking since the age of 22, he grew up in a strict Christian family and was banned from watching television. “I think a lot of people say, oh, man, that sucks. You didn’t watch movies later on in life,” he confessed, “I started to realize that I actually had an advantage, because my imagination was all created on my own, without any influences.”
He fondly recalled the first time he snuck out with friends as a teenager to see his very first film in theatres. Anticipating a documentary, they chose to see future cult classic The Crow. As the film began, Teo’s life would never be the same. “That changed my whole life.”
For more interviews out of TADFF, check out our conversation with Brett and Drew Pierce for The Wretched.