The Demons Within
Dir. Stephanie Hensley (2023)
A troubled teen girl is possessed by demons, forcing her family to seek help from a priest whose religion they don't share.
I've been waiting to watch this movie for a long time, ever since I got a chance to check out the script and interview a few members of the cast last year. I really dug the script and wanted to find out how they were able to capture some of the more difficult to film scenes, and I got my chance now that the film is in post-production and prepping for release at the end of May. Star Spencer Madison, who I interviewed late last year, was tasked with the daunting role of Izzy, the possibly-mentally-ill-but-also-possibly-possessed daughter of neglectful and staunchly atheist parents, and the entire film hinges on whether that single performance is believable and effective.
Thankfully, Madison's interpretation of the character at the heart of the film powerful and largely successful. It's an impressive performance in a compelling role, and Madison clearly has some star power that very well could lead to a great career. Izzy is precocious, mentally ill, and a lifelong victim of neglect, making her a character that is well worth examining below the surface level, and Madison manages to dig deep enough into the role to make Izzy a fascinating character. Once Izzy is experiencing her "possession," if that is indeed what is occurring with her character, Madison delivers a delightfully unhinged, force of nature performance. I was pretty impressed, and the film is worth a watch for her performance alone.
The film is hugely indie, with modest production values and community theater-level performances from some of the cast. That being said, there are some moments of brilliance from Alisha Seaton and JF Davis, who play Izzy's parents, and the scenes where their characters are fighting are incredibly believable. They're terribly unlikeable characters and an intriguing choice in a genre where innocence is often a prerequisite, but their flaws make the characters much more captivating.
(Side note: I wouldn't normally single out bit characters to sound off on, but as someone who works in the healthcare profession, the actors who portrayed the paramedics were phenomenal. If they aren't actually paramedics in their day job, I'd be surprised. Their handling of Izzy during her breakdown is something that I see on an almost daily basis, and the entire scene feels more like a sequence from Cops than part of a dramatic film. Just wanted to shoot them some praise, because I doubt they'll hear a lot with their smaller role and they absolutely deserve a shout-out.)
The writing is there, there are some pretty cool effects pulled off with a barebones budget, and the decision to interpret the script and the action within with not even a speck of humor or tongue-in-cheek fun-poking was actually a wise one, even though that rarely works out for minimal indie films. It's a straight up horror movie, which was actually pretty impressive to pull off with the limited financial means available to the production. While I wouldn't necessarily say the film is scary per se, it's one of the better indie representations of possession that I've come across in a long time.
Director Stephanie Hensley succeeds in most areas of the film, though there are some failures as well. The sound design is lacking at times, with some parts being too loud for the situation and oftentimes having rough cuts within the audio that are a bit jarring for the audience, though it does avoid the standard indie film problem of having the audio too low to hear. The film drags a bit at times, failing to find its footing near the middle of the movie. Once things start to head south, however, the film picks up steam and goes balls to the wall until the crazy-ass finale. Kudos to Hensley for pulling it off from start to finish, because this must've been an incredibly difficult script to put on film.
For all its flaws, The Demons Within is a star vehicle for Spencer Madison. I can't rave enough about the role of Izzy, and I've wanted to check out the film since reading the script just to see how she was able to leap onto the screen from the page. Possession is an interesting choice for an indie film because it's incredibly difficult to pull off well, and even Hollywood's efforts at the genre often fall flat and come across as incomprehensible. The Demons Within tries to toe the line between possession and mental illness, and it actually does a pretty phenomenal job of pulling it off. While there are definitely some pieces of the film that could use a little work, there's more than enough here to make the film incredibly impressive for a tiny budget indie horror.
Who this movie is for: Possession movie fans, Indie horror lovers, Incredibly aggressive teenagers
Bottom line: While there are definitely some blemishes throughout, Spencer Madison's performance in the lead makes it all worthwhile. Having seen my fair share of mentally ill folks in my day job, Madison is masterful in this role. The sound design needs a bit of work and there are some actors that do a better job than others, but by and large its a watchable film with some truly incredibly done scenes. If you get a chance to check this one out on the indie circuit, I highly recommend giving it a shot, if for no other reason than you'll be glad to have seen Spencer Madison at the start of what very well could be an incredible career. Check out our interviews with stars Spencer Madison and Deborah Foreman, as well as the writer of the film, Roberta Griffin.