Once a sci-fi wunderkind, Neill Blomkamp’s now more likely known in many a film fan circle for pulling out of almost as many movies as he’s actually directed. After the runaway success of his Best Picture-nominated debut (and all-round instant sci-fi classic) District 9, the South African bobbed from giant tentpole to giant tentpole, never quite finding his footing. Now some ten years on, having flirted with everything from Alien 5 (Ridley Scott killed it) to RoboCop Returns (Blomkamp quit over scheduling problems), he’s turning his back on well-known IP altogether, to forge his own path.
What started with self-funded experimental outfit Oats Studios (their YouTube shorts are a fascinating watch) has now landed at the equally independent Demonic; a back-to-basics possession horror with plenty of Blomkamp’s unique brand of inventive sci-fi sprinkled amongst the usual jumps and bumps. Shot amidst the 2020 pandemic, it’s certainly a new dawn, that’s for sure, a million miles from the clanky off-beat satire of his last feature, 2015’s Chappie. But not one that’s likely to bring the director back into favour with the press – or even with genre fans – it must be said.
Demonic is a pure-and-simple little chiller, inspired, Blomkamp says, by the micro budget stylings of Paranormal Activity and the whole Blumhouse wave it later spawned. Wayward thirty-something Carly (Carly Pope) struggles with some pretty vicious nightmares, which only get worse when she’s put back in touch with the subject of them: her estranged, now comatose mother (Nathalie Boltt). So when an ever-so-slightly sinister medical research company offer Carly the chance to go into a shared simulation where she can interact with (and hopefully, save) her mother’s consciousness, she jumps at the chance, quickly regretting her decision when it soon becomes clear there’s some sinister supernatural forces at play, too.
Considering it’s a story we might have seen close to a million times before (post James Wan, it feels like every other horror has some kind of back-breaking exorcism involved), Demonic does have plenty of new ideas and imaginative new ways of framing old tropes. For one thing, the video game-esque simulation sequences are very impressive, built in an unnervingly blocky style using Volumetric Capture, like a particularly glitchy version of The Sims. The scares that come off the back of them aren’t exactly new, but they do land with a certain uncanniness that really does unsettle the mind.
For want of a better phrase, there’s a lot of mad shit too, from black ops priests to a raven-headed demon that looks like a bodybuilder in a plague mask. But while it’s all broadly effective, none of these sparks of newness and intrigue really last for very long, and when all is said and done, Demonic bloats and ultimately crash lands in exactly the same way as every other cheap-o possession movie that came before it.
What’s really lacking most here is an actual appreciation for the genre for one thing. Much like Blomkamp’s Oats stuff before it, Demonic feels experimental almost to a fault; like he’s just having a vague whack at a horror movie without much real interest in understanding how, or why the good ones work as well as they do. It really is an explosion of ideas (some very exciting indeed), but without nailing the fundamentals first and foremost, Demonic doesn’t hang together as a film. The characters are paper thin, the plot incredibly slow, and the exposition dumps long and largely logic-less. Aside from one particularly loud dream sequence in the middle, the scares are frustrating straight-forward as well, at times even boring.
With the ideas on the page here, there’s easily enough to make a possession movie that’s not only effective, but disruptive too. Demonic has the will to be an unusual standout, blending sci-fi with old-school biblical horror in a way not many have managed since maybe John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness. But the bones of it as a movie are just nowhere near strong enough. Despite all the bright-eyed new concepts, it’s just not interesting to watch, and much too derivative to warrant a recommendation.