At one point in the last decade or so, attaching Neill Blomkamp to a sci-fi horror film indicated a certain level of potential for the final product. The filmmaker hit the scene strong with District 9 in 2009, but then face-planted hard with 2015’s Chappie (a rare miss for one Dev Patel, too, who thankfully has moved on to more impressive ventures since) and seemingly hasn’t quite recovered. His latest, Demonic, which he both wrote and directed, is perhaps one of the shabbiest excuses for a horror film in recent memory, an effort so poorly constructed it’s barely standing upright and so shoddily acted it might as well be a college thesis film.
Within the first ten minutes of Demonic, protagonist Carly (Carly Pope, in a performance so stale it’s practically cardboard) is strapped into a hospital bed with a contraption on her head that is supposed to transport her into some kind of alternate virtual reality where she’ll be able to communicate with her comatose mother, Angela (Nathalie Boltt). This is ostensibly a fine premise for a sci-fi thriller, but the fact that the previous ten minutes do little to nothing to convince us, let alone Carly herself, that this is a good idea…and yet she does it anyway…does not bode well for the rest of the film. Apparently all it takes to get Carly to submit to a questionable medical procedure by doctors she’s just met is an old friend, Martin (Chris Martin) reappearing in her life with an update on her long-estranged mother, a woman who apparently went mad, killed a lot of people and then got put away for the rest of her life.
The men who convince Carly to go under present themselves as doctors developing new technology to get inside the mind of people with something called LIS or Locked-In Syndrome (which, for the purposes of journalistic integrity, I can confirm is real), but something doesn’t quite add up. Once she is inside Angela’s consciousness, Carly finds her mom a shell of a person, insisting that she didn’t ask for her to come, the way the doctors said she did. Instead, she insists someone else—something else—is the cause of Angela’s violent path and mental illnesses. Martin isn’t so sure, either, taking the film on one of its many oddly sharp left turns, introducing the idea of demons as interpreted by the Catholic church and the secret force of priests sent out like soldiers to fight them.
I mean, OK.
As Carly gets drawn further and further into her mother’s mind, unearthing memories she’s long since put behind her, the demon or demons wreaking havoc on Angela appear to be coming for her, too. Here, Blomkamp finally manages to muster some of the scares he’s previously been capable of, as Carly’s best friend morphs into a twisted and screeching terror or hallucinations and reality bleed into one another until Carly can hardly tell the difference. These scares are fleeting, though, and border on the comical when seen in the context of a story so convoluted and farcical. And in the end, none of it is enough to save this mess, a film that feels like it was written on the back of an index card and cobbled together with scotch tape and construction paper. Horror film completists might find a reason to watch this latest offering from a filmmaker in decline, but anyone else has plenty of other options to get in their scares on movie night.
Demonic is now playing in theaters and on demand.
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