‘Demonic’ review: monsters and mummy issues in a VR hellscape

Neill Blomkamp's digi-horror swaps real-life scares for technological frights

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    Trust Neill Blomkamp to make a “quick lockdown horror” and twist it into a frazzled techno-futurist nightmare that pushes another big leap in VFX innovation. The director of District 9, Elysium and Chappie returns with his fourth film Demonic – made during the pandemic while he was waiting for other projects to get started – that feels every bit as problematic and fascinating as everything else he’s ever made. Somehow both low-fi and high-tech at the same time, it’s a slightly corny horror poured into a blender of weird, messy, exciting ideas. Some work, some definitely don’t, but that’s all part of the charm.

    Carly Pope (best known for Suits) is Carly, a Canadian woman who’s been trying hard to forget about her mother (Riverdale’s Nathalie Boltt) ever since she was locked up in a hospital for the criminally insane following an “incident” that still haunts both their lives. When Carly gets a call from a private medical lab asking her to visit her dying, comatose mum she turns up to find her strapped to an experimental brain machine – a device that lets anyone plug in and walk around inside her thoughts. The problem, explain the doctors, is that they need someone who really knows her to try and make contact.

    Agreeing to incept her own mum for the sake of medical research (or maybe just because she wants one more chance to tell her what she really thinks of her) Carly dials into the machine and starts wandering around a simulated subconscious. So far, so Black Mirror. Things start getting creepy when Carly meets the evil man-bird demon living inside her mum’s head, and creepier still when the demon starts haunting her own reality. But by the time an underground army of exorcist mercs turns up in the bonkers third act it all feels a bit Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Sadly, a lot of the slow-burning dread from the film’s first half gets eaten up in cartoon catholic chaos.

    Demonic
    Behind-the-scenes on Blomkamp’s new horror ‘Demonic’. CREDIT: Signature Entertainment

    At least three films in one, only half a dozen of Demonic’s ideas work brilliantly. Plugging into similar digi-horror landscapes as Brandon Cronenberg’s recent Possessor, Blomkamp proves himself a perfect fit for navigating the pixelated shadows between virtual reality and plains of consciousness. Though overstuffed with tropes (why does every possessed person have to do that ‘walking backwards on their hands’ thing?), it’s also brimming with visual invention, not least in the scenes set inside the brain machine.

    Shot using new “volumetric capture” technology, Blomkamp uses all the glitches and imperfections of raw multi-camera data to paint digital sets around his actors – half photo-realistic, half dodgy PS2 game – to create a look that’s genuinely unsettling and completely original. Pope does a great job of holding everything together both in and out of the machine, but she’s often literally overshadowed by the background as Blomkamp pops and weaves all the furniture around her. There’s some nicely scary stuff going on with the demon itself too (watch through your fingers if you find Netflix‘s Dark Crystal muppets too frightening) but that gets similarly lost in a silly showdown that deafens the mood with a load of assault weapons.

    Details

    • Director: Neill Blomkamp
    • Starring: Carly Pope, Chris William Martin, Michael J Rogers
    • Release date: August 26
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