By Andrew Buckner
Rating: ***1/2 out of *****.
Exorcist: The Fallen (2014), the debut feature from writer-director Garrett Benach, opens, after a stimulating glimpse of scripture from 1 Peter 5:8, with a sequence which signifies the various observations ever-present in its scant eighty-one minute runtime. In this segment, Father David (in a stalwart performance by David Withers) initially confronts the manipulated Victoria Martin (in a commanding turn by Tara Marie Kirk which blends the vulnerable and manic elements of such a role impressively). The internal struggle Victoria is having with the biblical Book of Revelation entity, Abaddon, is present early on. It is also beautifully, hauntingly portrayed. As the sight progresses, she becomes wide-eyed and spasms, with blood dripping down her mouth. In these later expanses of the division, Victoria’s appearance calls to the similarly overtaken Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) in William Friedkin’s unparalleled, The Exorcist (1973). When Victoria speaks the initially innocent and, eventually, raspy and vulgar tones she elucidates also mirrors Regan’s mannerisms in Friedkin’s ground-breaker. It does this tremendously. Such is issued in a sharp display of Shawn Willis’ technically proficient sound. It almost makes us briefly forget that Benach’s application is only affiliated with Friedkin’s composition in content. The same is true of its deceptively comparable title.
The two minute and ten second prologue, glimpsed around the conclusion, is uncommonly effective. It sets the stage for another example of the classic battle between the earthly and the otherworldly fabulously. Yet, one cannot deny the overwhelming familiarity which hangs over the proceedings. This is undoubtedly brought upon by the flux of correspondingly themed efforts which have come to fruition in the forty plus years since the release of Friedkin’s tour de force. It can also be seen in the general design of the story arc. Yet, it still entertains. Benach’s piece resonates with B-movie charm. The Wild Eye Releasing distribution and Garrett Benach Films manufacture is an admirable spectacle. It pulls great punches without an over reliance on gore. Such is also in line with its treatment of overdone shock motifs.
Originally titled Victoria’s Exorcism, Benach’s tale follows the title lead and her family. After playing with an Ouija board one night with a group of friends, Victoria begins to act strangely. This is captured in a passage, seen at fifteen minutes in, which showcases Benach’s knack for making discussions between individuals simultaneously intimate and intense. The portion is also an incredible example of how Benach weaves suspenseful tropes, such as the circumstance itself, into a configuration that feels fresh. As the narrative progresses, Victoria finds herself sleepwalking at night. The next morning, she has no recollection of the event. Further along, she unveils a strange figure, in another terrifically concocted bit, through her window. It is not much longer until Abaddon takes hold. Victoria’s brother, Glen (in a representation by Rollyn Stafford that is proficient throughout), experiences these happenings upfront. After failing to get Victoria to believe her own actions, he is the one who summons help. This is where Father David enters. Soon the duo begin their battle for both Victoria’s physical state and her immortal soul.
This leads to an engaging third act. It is more traditionally driven than that spied in the near hour beforehand. Regardless, it never defies what was so meticulously erected prior. This is by never going overboard with its paranormal situations. Instead, it finds a comforting balance between its alternating emphasis on theology, domestic interests and the pivotal terror aspects. This section respects the small scale, largely subtle scares and ominous, foreboding atmosphere Benach has deliberately crafted. There is also a consistent focus on how these abhorrent proceedings strengthen Victoria’s non-religious family. It also provides some intriguing, contemplative morsels of conversation between the Martins. This dramatic cornerstone, essential in accounts such as these, mechanizes to enhance the investment of its spectators luminously. Such emotive intensity in this arena helps make the final ten minutes especially riveting. This particular strength also finds Victoria contemplating the consequences of her actions. The aforementioned prompt occurs right before the credits roll. Such a post-tragedy look back from the formerly controlled is highly infrequent in related productions. Because of this climactic bout of meditativeness, Benach leaves his audiences on a high note. This is with several concluding scenes that are easily among the highlights of the endeavor.
However, the human renderings in Benach’s otherwise solid screenplay are largely genre stock. This is most visible in Victoria’s friends. Such is especially clear in the originating stretches. Not to mention, Victoria herself is given sparse exposition. What we do learn in this respect is largely of the garden variety genus. This attribute is also just as remarkable in the dialogue, motivations and situations that arrive before Abaddon’s inevitable entrance. Still, we find those we are surrounded with on-screen relatable and compelling. This is because these fictional personalities are expertly performed. Justin Hall as Mark Russell, Petra Boyd as Victoria’s mother, Susan, and Todd A. Robinson as Victoria’s father, John, fare phenomenally. Tom Slater as Joey Prentice, Theresa Park as Kristen Gario and Tony Teach as Martin Lamos deliver. This is with equal doses charisma and power in their individual depictions. The same can be said for Benach’s high-caliber interpretation of Robert Fox. Justys Spencer as Young Emily and Raegyn Spencer as Young Victoria are brilliant in their fleeting parts.
Benach’s direction is taunt. It is also consistently striking. With the accompaniment of Michael Weiss’ appropriately shadowy cinematography, Benach’s aptitude to stage an arrangement dripping with a rugged atmosphere of dismay is ever-apparent. There is even a dazzling reverie segment at forty minutes in. This part, with its eye-catching use of the color palette to add artistry and accrue sheer terror, immediately calls to mind Italian Giallo maestro, Dario Argento. It’s a bold bit that lasts approximately thirty seconds. Nevertheless, it leaves an indelible impression. This is the showiest exhibition of Benach’s talent found in this feature. Hitherto, his capabilities in this arena are visible throughout. Best of all, he builds his fright tactics organically. Rarely are we given a cheap jolt. This is as much courtesy of Benach’s behind the camera work as it is his deft scripting facilities.
Contributing to the technical impact at hand is Torrey Richard’s pulse-pounding and successfully dread inducing music. Damien Brooksbank gives us impressive special effects. They certainly augment the realism Benach is striving to project with this photoplay. Shawn Willis’ sound is sharp and terrific. It punctuates the hints of trepidation in the attempt all the more. Carrie Brandon’s animation is superb. Meg Gamez provides wardrobes that are magnificent. This quality boosts the everyday charm of our antagonist and those who surround her beautifully. Gamez’s art direction and Benach’s editing are also tremendous. They instantly grab our attention with their acclaim worthy merit. This distinction is carried unblemished throughout.
Benach’s Portland, Oregon shot opus is a gripping, worthwhile entry in its particular field. The sum of Exorcist: The Fallen is comparable in scope, pace and build-up to Ole Bornedal’s The Possession (2012). One can likewise find numerous parallels to Oren Peli’s original Paranormal Activity (2007). Benach’s stab at evoking alarm lacks the ground-breaking approach of Jordan Galland’s excellent comic fear composition, Ava’s Possessions (2015). The same can be said when aligning Benach’s affair with Daniel Stamm’s well-done found footage release, The Last Exorcism (2010). Benach doesn’t hit the visual pinnacle of Mikael Hafstrom’s criminally underrated, The Rite (2011). But, there is a contemporary gothic approach to the endeavor that is timeless. Most importantly, Benach genuinely cares for his heroine. Because of this, patrons will find themselves doing the same. We are with Victoria and her grief-stricken kin every painful step of the way. In a world where such traits are often given a cold shoulder in exchange for upping the ante on cheap shock, Benach’s labor rises far above the competition because of this concern. We are acquainted with all that transpires herein. But, the pieces of the puzzle are fascinating. Moreover, they fit grandly into place. These are all signs that both Benach and unholy proprietorship stories such as these will continue to thrive and enjoy the wonderfully long cinematic life remaining ahead of them.