A film review by Craig J. Koban September 13, 2021

DEMONIC j
 

2021, R, 104 mins.

Carly Pope as Carly  /  Nathalie Boltt as Angela  /  Chris William Martin as Martin  /  Michael J Rogers as Michael  /  Kandyse McClure as Sam

Written and directed by Neill Blomkamp

DEMONIC is a new low budget, high concept supernatural horror thriller that's so wrongheaded that it constantly makes you question the proven credentials of its maker.  

It's the first film from writer/director Neill Blomkamp in over half a decade, and just his fourth feature of his career.  But, my oh my, how strongly his career began with his Oscar nominated, game changing alien invasion sci-fi thriller DISTRICT 9, which he later followed up with the criminally underrated ELYSIUM a few years later.  After both of those films came his most recent in 2015's CHAPPIE, which certainly wasn't as thoughtful and well realized as Blomkamp's first two pictures, but nevertheless managed to tackle some big ideas about the nature of sentience and the human condition.  I defended CHAPPIE when many others didn't.  Unfortunately, I can't be as forgiving of DEMONIC, which comes across as borderline amateurish compared to the relatively good qualitative will sprinkled throughout Blomkamp's resume. 

If there was one common theme that prevailed all throughout his first three films it would be that they tackled dystopian futures, in one for or another and to varying degrees of worth and success.  Now, the South African born/Canadian filmmaker goes in a completely opposite direction with DEMONIC, honing in on, yes, demonic possession, a premise that seems relatively a dime a dozen for the horror genre these days.  DEMONIC, to its modest credit, tries to tackle this material from a fascinatingly fresh angle, which delves not only into Vatican conspiracies and their well armed soldiers of God on top of aspects of virtual reality, so the infusing of the technological with the religious seems promising enough.  The massive problem with DEMONIC, though, is with its overall execution and follow-through with its novel ideas.  That, and the fact that it was shot during the pandemic and with minimal resources and funding really, really shows at times.  They say that limitations can often breed creativity, and this is certainly peppered throughout the history of the horror genre.  The same simply and depressingly can't be said about DEMONIC. 

The film centers around Carly (Carly Pope), whose entire life has been tainted by dreadful memories of her estranged mother Angela (Nathalie Boltt) and the fact that that she went to prison.  One day Carly gets a message from an old friend that reveals, to her astonishment, that her mother is actually alive (Carly believed her to be dead), in a coma, and is being treated at a nearby medical center.  Begrudgingly, Carly decides to venture to see her mother, meeting up with Dr. Michael (Michael J. Rogers) and his assistant in Chen (Terry Chen) that have been tending to Angela in her comatose state, but also have been performing some cutting edge research on her as well.  Part of their studies desperately requires Carly's immediate assistance, which provides DEMONIC with its initial interesting hook: The scientists want to give her a chance to confront her mother once again, but inside a virtual digital world space dubbed Therapol, via some high tech head gear.  In sending Carly into her mother's headspace the doctors are hoping to gain more insights into mental health issues.  Rather inexplicably, Carly agrees pretty quickly and without much questioning of the whole idea of entering her mom's mind itself. 

 

 

Predictably, Carly is quite tormented by her first visit inside the virtual space, but at the urging of the doctors she agrees to go inside again to piece together what made her mother the way she ultimately became.  It's ultimately cathartic for Carly, which grants her the unique opportunity to tackle her past relationship demons with her as well.  Blomkamp also makes the digital space itself feel like a haunting video game simulation that's not quite done and prone to glitches, which adds to the eeriness early on.  But as the story progresses - and regresses - Carly begins to learn the real motives of Dr. Michael and his assistant, which have ties to demonic possession and larger and powerful militaristic forces within the Vatican itself that begin to make life for Carly extremely difficult.  Oh, there's also this humanoid bird-like monster that is revealed to be the personification of all hellish evil, which actually isn't anywhere near as chillingly frightening as Blomkamp thinks it is here. 

DEMONIC starts to go off the rails and jump the shark, so to speak, as it progresses away from its first act and begins to walk down a very troublesome rabbit hole of possession and Vatican sponsored super soldiers sworn to fight said possession.  All of these divergent elements are not mixed together particularly well by Blomkamp, who never seems to fully embrace the opening sections of his story, nor does he properly dive deep into his tale of mother/daughter relationships, mental illness, and the technology being used to confront and combat the latter.  There's an endlessly fascinating sci-fi horror thriller buried deep beneath DEMONIC that wants to come out, but Blomkamp never appears to be equal to the task of letting it free.  There are also a lot of logic defying and unintentionally laughable elements to Blomkamp's scripting here too, like Carly's unbelievable level of trust in these strange scientists and her instant willingness to become a guinea pig for their experiments that she can't quite comprehend.  And as to why Carly would want to help them or her mother is strange, to say the least.  Angela burned down an old age home and killed nearly two dozen residents, leading to her imprisonment.  Why she is convinced to help this woman is never credibly relayed in DEMONIC. 

Granted, this is also a film featuring humanoid bird monsters and black-ops trained Vatican monster hunter soldiers...so maybe one has to just go with it all.  Again, Blomkamp takes all of this material a bit too seriously as opposed to accepting the sensationalistic lunacy of it all.  Plus, this is easily the filmmaker's least inspired looking film from a visual perspective.  I once wrote in my past Blomkamp reviews that he's "incapable of making a bad looking film."  Just look at what he did with futuristic Johannesburg in DISTRICT 9 or with the propulsive action scenes in ELYSIUM.  Obviously, DEMONIC was done at a bargain bin budget compared to what he has been afforded before, and shooting things small scale shouldn't be condemned at all.  But there's an aesthetic laziness that permeates DEMONIC.  Outside of drumming up obligatory jump scare moments (this is not a very scary movie), Blomkamp never gives this film a sense of stylistic identity at all.  Oftentimes, it feels like a stale Hallmark TV movie of the week that just happens to be a possession thriller.  Then there are other character moments that are so shoddily handled that you have to wonder why they made it into the final cut (an outdoor coffee shop scene with Carly and a friend is shot during what easily appears to be a very windy day, and the pathetic sound mix here badly sticks out, which leads to the scene coming off like the product of a low rent rookie student film). 

But, yes, he shot this during the pandemic and without much options.  I get it.  But maybe that's the problem.  Blomkamp doesn't appear to tap into his creativity and imagination that typified his past work, and compared to other pandemic made sci-fi horror thrillers IN THE EARTH, DEMONIC emerges as pitifully retrograde on level of atmosphere and immersion.  Not helping matters is that the characters contained within are not the least bit compelling, not to mention that the acting overall here is terribly flat and wooden, leading to more chuckles from me than I would have liked.  DEMONIC tries to take an unsullied look at the origins of pure evil and has some intriguing ideas up its sleeve, and I liked the idea of melding of virtual worlds to the larger world of demonic possession.  This is an endlessly weird take on well worn material, but everything in DEMONIC is pedestrian and handled so half-heartedly.  And the film is painfully dull, which unfortunately is a death sentence for any would-be frightfest.  I think that if this was made by any other passionless and uninspired workmanlike director for hire then I might have been a bit more forgiving, but DEMONIC was directed by Neil Blomkamp, and he has no business making a film as dreadful as this.   

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