REVIEW: Demonic [2021]

Rating: 6 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 104 minutes
    Release Date: August 20th, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: IFC Midnight
    Director(s): Neill Blomkamp
    Writer(s): Neill Blomkamp

It means it’s coming for ya.

Carly (Carly Pope) hasn’t seen her mother (Nathalie Boltt‘s Angela) in two decades—if you don’t count the nightmares. Writer/director Neill Blomkamp brings us into his latest film Demonic through one such dream pitting daughter against mother inside an abandoned sanitarium with the latter calling out for the former’s help. Rather than conclude with a heartfelt reunion that’s yet to happen in the real world, Carly finds herself startled awake from the flames created by her mom tossing a lighter into the pool of gasoline at her feet. It was those same pyrotechnics that got Angela incarcerated as a murderer and figuratively burned all connection to the only family she had left. Things got so bad that Carly had to change her name to escape her scorched shadow.

And now, out of nowhere, the pieces that were together then have returned home. The friend who stuck by Carly through it all (Kandyse McClure‘s Sam) has left the big city to work five minutes away. The friend they abandoned after his crazy talk of demonic possession (Chris William Martin‘s Martin) has just texted her to catch up for the first time in years. And despite vowing never to see or speak with her mother for the rest of their lives, she too is back in the picture. Whereas the others can communicate in the here and now, however, Angela’s predicament is a little different. She’s on loan from the federal penitentiary to a cutting-edge medical facility hoping to study the condition that’s put her into a coma.

That’s where dream and reality merge thanks to a simulation created by a neuroscientist named Daniel (Terry Chen) and physician named Michael (Michael J Rogers). Blomkamp utilizes a new technology called volumetric capture to basically turn his actors into polygon-based videogame characters. What we see while the doctors place Carly into the program (it’s there that she will be able to talk with her paralyzed mother and learn how she’s feeling while also discovering why she killed all those people in their past) is akin to watching The Sims. She moves around naturally thanks to two hundred-plus cameras capturing her every angle while a three-dimensionally rendered background fills in behind her (a manifestation of Angela’s memory). Walls, floors, and other blockages vanish to ensure she remains completely unobstructed.

What she learns inside isn’t quite what she expects. Carly’s last recollection of her mother is of a virtually catatonic woman moving in a trance with a sinister smile. It’s the same visage she conjures in her nightmares before being burned alive. The Angela in the simulation, however, is clearer. She’s ashamed, remorseful, and desperate as far as telling her daughter to leave as soon as she can. The doctors explain that Angela refused to talk to them when they went in and would only ask for Carly by name. Now she says it wasn’t her who requested this visit—she says “It” did. Suddenly all that nonsense Martin spoke about years ago comes flooding back as the digitized Angela contorts and rises into the air.

It’s a cool technique that allows Blomkamp to keep the unknown separate from reality. By trapping this entity inside Angela’s comatose head, everything strange and unexplainable that happens outside of the computer can be easily dismissed as hallucination. And anything strange and unexplainable occurring inside the simulation can be chalked up to the warped mind of a homicidal maniac that can no longer discern fact from fiction. As one bleeds into the other, though, you must worry about whether whatever infiltrated Angela’s mind has hereditarily invaded Carly’s too. It therefore is left to Blomkamp to decide when to pull the rug and dissolve the barrier between these worlds with an effectively malicious raven-headed monster. If there’s one aspect where his movies always excel, it’s their groundbreaking special effects.

The aspect people often take issue with is tone. I personally love District 9 and Chappie, but both have their detractors (especially the latter) due in large part to their premises’ silliness. Where I find they work is in the fact that they each wear their comedic flair on their sleeve thanks to Sharlto Copley ensuring that we know what we’re getting from start to finish. The same can’t be said about Demonic, though. What begins in a hellscape of dread continues very much in that vein throughout the first half to two-thirds of the runtime (save the way Carly and Sam interact with embellished airs of juvenile familiarity). But then the monster is revealed. While it’s a masterfully creepy creature that’s memorably fear-inducing, its appearance demands explanation.

That’s where absurdity arrives in such a self-serious fashion that we can’t help but laugh. I don’t want to spoil the reveal, but it’s a ludicrous battle between good and evil with an even more ludicrous frontline of soldiers putting themselves in danger to fight it. The details are sound as far as reasons go and why medical establishments like the one David and Michael run are utilized to those ends, but it’s a lot to take in with the marine-like severity that delivers it. I do think it’s easy to forgive, though, since that war is merely a backdrop for the more personal journey Carly must take towards understanding what Angela has been dealing with all these years alone. It’s a means to an end.

How you accept that end is therefore up to you. I personally embraced it. I think the horror elements are too good to dismiss and the volumetric capture technology too intriguing to not let Blomkamp bring it in under questionable pretenses. Pope proves to be a welcome entry point with a performance that toes the line between compassion, hatred, and fear very well. Her Carly, like most people, don’t want to believe what they’re seeing and thus will do whatever they can to avoid its truth. They build a bubble around themselves to stay safe and it works if the compassion or hatred doesn’t cloud their judgment enough to risk getting too close. It’s that descent into Hell where the filmmaking excels. The rest is noise.

[1] Carly Pope as ‘Carly’ in Neill Blomkamp’s DEMONIC. Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight Release.
[2] Nathalie Boltt as ‘Angela’ in Neill Blomkamp’s DEMONIC. Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight Release.
[3] Nathalie Boltt as ‘Angela’ and Carly Pope as ‘Carly’ in Neill Blomkamp’s DEMONIC. Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight Release.

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