If you’re like me, you’ve been waiting for director Neill Blomkamp to make a straight up horror feature…
…Ever since the talented director exploded onto the scene with the wildly unique sci-fi hit District 9, fans like myself have dreamed what a visionary like Blomkamp could with something truly scary. I still hurt over his Alien movie never happening. So when Blomkamp’s high-tech possession movie Demonic was announced, the salivating was real.
How quickly that drooling dried up.
Written/directed by Blomkamp, Demonic follows Carly (Carly Pope), a woman tormented by nightmares of her estranged mother, Angela (Nathalie Boltt). When a company called Therapool comes calling, telling Carly that her murder-happy mommy is in a coma and that they want Carly to participate in a procedure that will transport her into her mother’s mind, she jumps at the opportunity. Why not, I guess? But Carly soon discovers that there is something evil within her mother…something that has an interest in Carly.
Demonic possession with a techy twist and done through the unique eye of Blomkamp? What could go wrong? Well…
Demonic starts strong, introducing us to Carly in a dream in which she is wandering a decrepit building in the dark, eventually coming across her ghoulish-looking mother and a whole lot of fire. This scene is Demonic at its best. It’s atmospheric, unsettling, and Blomkamp along with cinematographer Byron Kopman uses the darkness to its most nightmarish advantage. Opening with a frightening dream sets up a tried and true mystery that works best with horror films revolving around dreams and the mind such as Brain Dead or Jacob’s Ladder: is this a normal routine for Carly, or is she already trapped in a nightmare she can’t escape and just doesn’t know it yet?
Not that Demonic ever does much with that idea.
We then learn through a meeting with Carly’s friend Martin (Chris William Martin) that her mother is a convicted murderer whom she hasn’t seen in years, but who Martin just participated in a study with after being recruited by the company Therapool, informing her that they’ll be contacting her next. Of course, Carly doesn’t think anything of this. Nor does she seem put off or even all that surprised by the company wanting to use her in an experimental procedure which transports her into her mother’s mind, with the reasoning that they just want to know how to make Angela more “comfortable” in her comatose state. Right…
Warning signal after warning signal is going off, yet Carly doesn’t seem to care, which is part of the problem.
Carly just isn’t that interesting. Nor is anyone else, for that matter. At best, the characters feel like shades of a personality from someone in a dream. You know, somewhat robotic, not quite right. Which might work considering the story, except none of the character relationships are built up enough before things get weird for us to notice a difference. Even Carly and Angela’s relationship, the crux of the story, comes off as muted. There’s an emotional destination which Demonic is trying to reach, but it’s working with a flat tire, a gas tank on empty, and the next station isn’t for 500 miles. There’s an interesting contrast between Carly’s world of darkness/hate and her mother’s brighter, more peaceful existence in her mind, touching on thematics of hatred as an all-consuming void, but this as well isn’t explored as deeply as it needs to be.
Speaking of Angela’s world…
It’s not just the characters. For a film dealing with warped realities and nightmare universes, the look of Demonic is surprisingly dull and at times unpleasant. In an effort towards originality, instead of just popping Carly into Angela’s mind, she is scanned and made into an avatar which the project leader Michael (Michael J Rogers) and others watch through a screen giving an overhead view of her journey that looks exactly like, and I kid you not, The Sims. Her form is fuzzy, disorienting, and completely off-putting. Demonic is The Cell meets The Sims, only without any of The Cell’s beauty and there’s no green diamond above Carly’s head. Thankfully, this dynamic isn’t used often, but it’s a head-scratching decision nonetheless.
Questionable choices abound in Demonic.
The film heads down a path of folkloric horror that allows for some grisly lore and a terrifying villain that is easily the standout thanks to some well-crafted makeup FX and a jaw-dropping performance from contortionist creature performer, Quinton Boisclair. You try watching a giant bird-demon do a backwards crab-walk and not lose your damn mind! For every intriguing idea though, there’s a tired concept thrown in that weighs the film’s potential down like an over-sized anchor. For example, as “neat” as the villain is, Demonic does things like imply the ole “built on an Indian burial ground” trope without actually coming out and directly saying it, and in 2021, I’d like to believe we’re past that.
Demonic ultimately fails to possess the viewer, inserting undercooked ideas into a formulaic story that’s far too familiar in execution. Mixing modern day tech with a possession story has promise, but, like Carly, Demonic loses itself in absurdity and a connection to the Vatican that is unintentionally laughable. Time and again, Demonic Vati-can’t get out of its own way. Moments of terror are far and few between. Characters are hollow. And the Nightmare on Elm Street remake is arguably a more visually interesting movie when it comes to alternate realities and dream worlds. I loathe that remake, by the way.
At its best, Demonic is “fine”. At its worst, it’s a sprinkle of Sandman dust that lulls the viewer to sleep.
But hey, at least Bird-man is cool.
Demonic comes to VOD/Digital August 20th from IFC Midnight.
By Matt Konopka