By Thomas Puhr.
Different it is, though that’s just about where the praise will end. Outside of a promising first act and clever special effects, Demonic is an utter disaster.”
I must admit I don’t understand the intense praise heaped on Neill Blomkamp’s feature debut, District 9 (2009). Its ham-fisted approach to allegory hasn’t aged well; but still, there’s no denying the skill and artistry it displayed. If anything, it seemed to announce the arrival of a unique voice in genre cinema, one which was not afraid to mix all sorts of conflicting conventions into a heady – if not completely successful – brew. And so I approached his latest, Demonic (2021), intrigued by the notion of the writer-director tackling low budget horror. At the very least, I figured, it would be something different.
And different it is, though that’s just about where the praise will end. Outside of a promising first act and clever special effects, Demonic is an utter disaster. Sure, it’s “weird” (by most mainstream horror standards), but weird doesn’t guarantee “thought-provoking,” “entertaining,” or – most crucially, in this case – “scary.” Among the (largely forgettable) films made and released during the pandemic (Malcolm & Marie, Songbird, the ambiguously-titled Locked Down), Blomkamp’s can be ranked among those which should have remained a personal project – a lark made to kill time and play with some nascent computer technology – on the filmmaker’s hard drive.
Carly Pope stars as Carly, a woman long estranged from her mother, Angela (Nathalie Boltt). The latter, we learn, went on a homicidal rampage and is currently in a comatose state at “Therapol,” a shady medical clinic reminiscent of “ConSec” from David Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981). Two of the institute’s doctors, Michael (Michael J. Rogers) and Daniel (Terry Chen), reach out to Carly with a strange proposition: to get to the bottom of Angela’s mysterious condition by accessing her imprisoned mind via an experimental virtual reality program. Despite the hatred she harbors toward her mother, Carly agrees; she, too, wants some answers. I’ll reveal no more (all of the above is disclosed within the opening fifteen or so minutes), but it should come as no surprise – given the film’s title – that Angela’s illness has supernatural origins.
These early scenes are the strongest. Carly’s journeys into Angela’s subconscious are rendered through a rotoscope-style animation called “volumetric capture.” Not quite realistic, but not exaggerated enough to qualify as clear-cut animation, these effects are quite striking, even beautiful. Viewers may be reminded of Richard Linklater’s Waking Life (2001) or Tarsem Singh’s The Cell (2000) in terms of the animation style and dream imagery, respectively. The film nosedives, however, once we discover Therapol’s true agenda. It’s here that Blomkamp’s intermingling of the spiritual and the virtual becomes cartoonish (figuratively, that is). And rather than leaning into the conceit’s inherent silliness, he takes it all much tooseriously.
Part of the problem is that the filmmaker seems oblivious to what makes effective horror tick. Within the first few minutes, he relies on long-outdated tropes, like jump-cutting to Carly’s shocking memories (accompanied by screeching sound cues, no less) in the middle of expository scenes. Cheap jump scares, in other words. He even throws some echoing children’s laughter in the soundtrack for good measure. This reliance on convention would be easier to swallow if the whole outweighed the shortcomings of its parts, but such is not the case with Demonic.
By the time the film reaches what should be its crescendo – an extended set piece at an abandoned hospital – we’re twiddling our thumbs rather than gripping our armrests. Blomkamp’s chance to finally let things rip is undermined by his seeming adamance on checking off every cliché in the book: characters inexplicably deciding it’s a good idea to split up; a cell phone with no reception conveniently thwarting an attempt to call the police; a mortally wounded character revealing crucial information right before he dies (in case anyone is confused about the status of this gasping, coughing victim, a character helpfully informs us that “He’s still alive!”). These narrative beats aren’t just derivative; they’re downright lazy. Demonic is a trip down the rabbit hole of tired horror tropes disguised as a “high-concept” genre mash (“What if The Exorcist included VR technology?”).
For some directors, being forced to take a step back and produce smaller-scale work has yielded intriguing results. Ben Wheatley’s follow-up to his blasé Rebecca (2020) remake, In the Earth (2021), is easily his best (and yes, also his weirdest) film since 2013’s A Field in England. It was a much welcome return to form. The same can’t be said for Blomkamp, who continues to struggle to live up to his debut’s promise. Fans of Alien (1979) and RoboCop (1987) who stumble upon Demonic will likely praise the movie gods that he is no longer helming those classics’ pseudo-sequels/reboots. With the creative freedom to make pretty much whatever he wanted, Demonic was the best he could come up with?
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.