Synopsis – A young woman unleashes terrifying demons when supernatural forces at the root of a decades-old rift between mother and daughter are ruthlessly revealed.
My Take – Released in 2009, District 9 turned out to be a unique, thrilling, effects-driven sci-fi action thriller that wowed critics and audiences enough to garner Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay nominations at the Oscars. But most importantly, it set South African-Canadian filmmaker Neill Blomkamp as the new generation’s next great genre film auteur.
That is until, his follow up films, the divisive Elysium (2013) and the unfairly tarnished Chappie (2015) ended up seeing disappointing results, critically first then commercially. For the last half-decade, after his attempt at developing the now cancelled Alien 5 and a new entry in the RoboCop film series failed, Blomkamp has been in the shorts world, founding the experimental Oats Studios, and releasing some fun very watchable films, it seemed, just waiting for the right opportunity to bounce back.
Now six years later, freed from blockbuster trappings he was earlier attached to it, Blomkamp returned to feature film-making in the form of a smaller-scale horror project. Though his gruesome looking thriller still technically qualifies as his patent sci-fi genre, the film certainly seemed set for success as it had both its feet planted in the horror genre, everyone’s favorite box office winner currently.
Surprisingly, the results are quite disappointing terrible and way worse than anyone could have accepted. While the film does introduce a genuinely fresh and interesting concept, unfortunately director Blomkamp totally drops the ball on the narrative end of things.
Sure, as it was conceived, written, and filmed during the pandemic lock down, it would be unfair to expect the film to share the similar scope of his previous efforts, but it so poorly constructed, so shoddily acted, and so depressingly generic that it is hard to believe that Blomkamp was even involved. Setting the film up to be one of the shabbiest excuses for a horror film in recent memory and is probably going to end up in a lot of one of the year’s worst list.
The story follows Carly (Carly Pope), a middle-aged woman with a haunted past. When she was a teen, her mother, Angela (Nathalie Boltt), was sentenced for a horrific killing spree, forcing Carly to move far away and change her last name in order to leave the tragedy behind, staying only in touch with her best-friend Sam (Kandyse McClure). However, when Martin (Chris William Martin), another old friend of hers, gets in touch and informs that her long-estranged mother is in coma and in a mysterious medical technology firm, she decides to act on it.
Upon finding herself invited to the research group’s base, Carly is convinced by a pair of scientists (Terry Chen and Michael J. Rogers) to get wired up to their new technology that lets her enter her mother’s therapeutic coma-simulation. In this virtual space, Carly initially aims to confront her family’s traumas, for the sake of closure, hoping to give Angela one satisfying two-finger salute before saying her last goodbye, but once inside Angela’s head, Carly discovers something isn’t quite right.
Soon, outside of the simulation, Carly begins to see horrific visions, mainly of giant bird creatures, and somehow, things that haunt her mother and take rein in the virtual world are now coming after her. Thus begins a preposterous nightmare.
It is easy to get frustrated while watching this one mainly because the world director Blomkamp sets up, a mash-up between A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Inception (2010), is exciting and original. The idea of near-future exorcisms in a militant sci-fi world, where even the church has a SWAT team, and demons can use virtual reality as a bridge to physical space, and the idea of a person being stuck in a coma forced into a VR is fascinating.
All of which could have turned into some solid entertainment if we’d had some real moments to get the blood pumping in between all the stereotypical plot and character beats.
The simulation is the film’s first big missed opportunity, and it only takes about 15 minutes to get there. The simulation angle remains intriguing even if the idea of entering peoples dreams and consciousness is as old, but set up looks suitably eerie, almost photo-real but not, adding to the sense of technological progression but not quite to a point where it ever convinces, we’re in the real world.
This is where the director Blomkamp deploys his CGI expertise smartly and interestingly. But it is used for so little of the run time and by the film’s climax, in a way that smacks of narrative laziness that it just doesn’t have any real integral part to play in the film’s narrative at all.
The overall eeriness of the simulation aside, scares are also spare. There’s so little tension or scares of any kind that it’s almost doing the genre a disservice calling this a horror film and once the homicidal apparition does finally show up, it doesn’t make much of an impression.
Even the film’s one solid horror sequence, a chase set inside Carly’s house, mistimes the horror elements. Jump-scares happen too late or early, ruining the moment every time. These sequences are uncomfortable, not in a horror-film way, but like director Blomkamp isn’t fully comfortable working in the genre and playing by its rules.
The stale acting doesn’t help either. They’re given so little to work with, any other result would have been surprising. Carly Pope, a serious Noomi Rapace lookalike, is fine, but the rest of the supporting cast, Nathalie Boltt, Kandyse McClure, Chris William Martin, Terry Chen and Michael J. Rogers fail leave a mark. On the whole, ‘Demonic’ is a disappointing science fiction horror film which despite great potential falls flat in every department.
Directed – Neill Blomkamp
Rated – R
Run Time – 104 minutes