Written and directed by Neill Blomkamp.
Starring Carly Pope, Chris William Martin, Nathalie Boltt, Michael J. Rogers, and Andrea Agur.
A young woman unleashes terrifying demons when supernatural forces at the root of a decades-old rift between mother and daughter are ruthlessly revealed.
Few filmmakers can claim to have had as unpredictable a career path as Neill Blomkamp; by helming his Peter Jackson-backed, Best Picture-nominated sci-fi debut District 9 before he turned 30, Blomkamp seemed fast-tracked to become a bankable wunderkind A-list director.
But Blomkamp’s two subsequent films yielded less-flavourful fruit; Elysium was an enjoyable if clumsily heavy-handed sci-fi actioner, while Chappie was arguably a little too eccentric for its own good despite once again being breathtakingly presented.
Blomkamp has spent the six years since Chappie’s release attempting to get various projects off the ground – most notably a frustratingly shit-canned direct sequel to James Cameron’s Aliens – as well as launching his own production company, Oats Studios, with which he’s created numerous well-received short film projects.
But last summer, Blomkamp secretly shot his first new feature film since 2015 – a sci-fi horror project with a budget a mere fraction of his splashier tentpole flicks. It’s always interesting to see how blockbuster directors fare when returning to lower-priced work, and in the case of artists like M. Night Shyamalan, it can clearly restore their sense of creative autonomy, free of the manacles of micro-managed, hundred-million-dollar movie productions.
Yet unlike Shyamalan, Blomkamp has always seemed comfortable and confident with a huge-scale canvas; his problem has conversely been a difficulty to translate his interesting ideas into a script that satisfies from A-to-Z. And sadly, his new film Demonic feels less like a breath of fresh air than it does a desperate gasp; a shockingly pedestrian horror romp with depressingly few fresh ideas of its own.
The story, written solely by Blomkamp, revolves around a young woman, Carly Spenser (Carly Pope), who discovers that her long-estranged mother Angela (Nathalie Boltt) – who abandoned her and committed a brutal rampage almost 20 years earlier – is lying comatose in a cutting-edge medical facility.
At the hospital-slash-laboratory, Carly is told of a groundbreaking new therapeutic procedure which would allow her to dial into her mother’s consciousness and interact with her on a shared “mindscape.” However, Carly soon comes to discover that Angela has brought with her the malevolent entity which seemingly drove her to carry out her heinous acts near-two decades prior.
Demonic’s premise is intriguing enough, yet Blomkamp’s script leans back heavily on a slew of bigger-budgeted, adjacently-premised projects, namely A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Cell, and Inception, without bringing many fresh ideas or a palpable identity of its own to the table.
First and foremost, this is much, much goofier than Blomkamp clearly wants to admit. Carly’s various trips to the mindscape are heavily stylised affairs that vaguely resemble the distinctive rotoscoped aesthetic of Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, albeit clearly executed on an accelerated timeline and thinner budget. Blomkamp also makes the peculiar – if interesting – decision to occasionally cut away to a video game-y isometric camera angle markedly reminiscent of the video game The Sims.
It’s ambitious to even attempt such things with this low a price tag, but the oddball aesthetic in these all-too-brief scenes is about as interesting as Blomkamp’s film ever gets. Without the distinctive DNA of the director’s early work, either stylistically or spiritually, Demonic’s dead-obvious, emotionally inert story fails to muster much in the way of energy or suspense.
The mystery, of a demonic presence residing within Carly’s mother’s mind, is distended to the film’s mid-way point as the audience is forced to sit through a slew of exposition-soaked backstory, and hokey cliched dialogue that feels like placeholder text which, for whatever reason, never got replaced.
Most everything outside of the simulation scenes is a lifeless bore, but even the more high-strung “suspense” sequences rarely rise above generic watchability. By the time the entity’s full form is revealed to the audience, unintentional laughs abound; Blomkamp’s attempt at pulsing horror feels like a filmmaker poorly attempting to imitate a James Wan movie. As a cheerleader of Blomkamp’s, I took no pleasure at all in cringing at the corny results.
The movie’s marketing leaned heavily into surely its most marketable plot point, that it eventually seems to switch gears to focus on a Vatican-funded enclave of black ops soldiers taking on the supernatural being. But without saying too much, you’re advised to lower your expectations severely, because though the third act seems to be building towards an Aliens-inspired shooting gallery where all the remaining budget is festooned across the screen, this action never actually arrives – not on-screen, anyway.
By the time Demonic reached its flat, unremarkable end, I was distressingly relieved that it was over, lamenting the fact that a potential-rich concept was lent such a flavourless treatment by an undeniably talented filmmaker. Though there’s obvious artistry involved in the more heightened VFX elements, and lead actress Carly Pope does a solid job trying to sell the flaky material, Blomkamp once again doesn’t have a firm enough base of ideas to prop up his attention-grabbing logline.
Beyond furthering its director’s streak of increasingly disappointing movies, there’s little of the flair here that has characterised his recent short film projects. Demonic continues Neill Blomkamp’s post-District 9 slump with a frustratingly anonymous sci-fi horror dud that’s by turns tedious and unintentionally comical.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.