Demonic suggests a few novel, fascinating twists to the horror template, and then runs away from them as fast as it can.
In the six years since Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie, a film probably more famous for a Twitter meme than anything actually in it, the South African director once hailed as a wunderkind seemed to struggle to get projects, like takes on Alien and Robocop, off the ground. Elysium and Chappie did not enjoy the critical success of District 9, and even that film began to seem ripe for negative reevaluation. It’s hard to imagine its schematic, insulting fantasy — why tackle racism head-on when alien shrimp can stand in for the marginalized? — being met with the same fervor 12 years on (not that that would stop the Academy from still recognizing it). Now, without the backing of a big studio, Blomkamp has gone back to basics and come up with Demonic, a horror film that forgoes his usual rote social commentary while still pursuing his technofetishism to ends always less interesting than promised.
Demonic, if the title doesn’t give it away, is a demonic possession movie, only with a few novel ideas sprinkled on top. The possessed is Angela, an aging woman convicted of murder and currently in a coma at a state-of-the-art facility called Therapol. The doctors at Therapol convince her estranged daughter Carly (Carly Pope) to take part in an experimental therapy session in which she will digitally enter her mother’s mind. For these sequences, which are few and far between, Blomkamp visualizes this effect with a high-tech form of motion capture that places Carly and her mother in a virtual unreality, where their images become uncanny and off-putting, immediately imbuing the film with a few distinctive, effortlessly unsettling moments. Strangely, however, outside of one mediocre scare where Carly encounters the very goofy crow demon living in her mother, Blomkamp does not use this technology for terror. Instead, he is complacent using his film’s best idea to serve its most routine ends, the virtual connection simply allowing Carly to talk to her mother, ostensibly to better color the mediocre horror movie happening around it, in which we watch Carly, in the real world, deal with typical possession movie hauntings.
As the shape of the movie starts to become disappointingly clear, it introduces a few more wrinkles that it likewise oddly refuses to follow to anything worthwhile. The most stupid and outrageous of these — and this self-serious movie could use a touch of the ludicrous — is Blomkamp’s invention of a Vatican-endorsed exorcism task force that operates like a black ops unit and fights demons with assault rifles. Do we get to see these heavily-armed priests in action? No, because every time this movie walks up to an interesting idea — good or bad — Blomkamp balks and hits the safest, most conventional horror movie beats after momentarily considering a fresher, weirder alternative. The horror movie suggested at the edges of Demonic, the one that takes place in a psychological cyberspace and features ordained anti-demon commandos, sounds awesome. It’s too bad Blomkamp was scared to try making it.