In ye olden days of 2009, when the lucrative power of a cinematic universe was still but a twinkle in an executive’s eye, District 9 briefly made director/co-writer Neill Blomkamp into Hollywood’s sci-fi golden boy. His subsequent output, however, hasn’t been all that steady — he has bounced between various unmade name-brand projects (Halo, Robocop, Alien) and eventually returned to short films following his last theatrical release, 2015’s tepidly-received, Die Antwoord-centric Chappie. The South African filmmaker’s return to sci-fi feature films is marked by Demonic, a pandemic-shot foray into low-budget, adjective-titled horror (see: Insidious, Sinister, Hereditary, etc.) that’s dispiritingly by-the-numbers for a guy who built his career on original material that was always at least going for it.
We follow Carly (Carly Pope), who learns that her imprisoned mother, Angela (Nathalie Bolt), is comatose in a mysterious hospital. Thanks to technology that is, we learn, “so new that it doesn’t really exist,” Angela can manifest a simulated dream-world that others can enter through what’s essentially VR, getting wired up to machines and putting on the headgear. Angela has been calling out for Carly within the simulation, despite the two of them hardly having that sort of relationship — the movie opens on a dream sequence where Mom sets Carly on fire.
When Carly is inside the simulation, the doctors can’t communicate with her. They watch her on a screen, from a top-down perspective with a pop-up box of her vitals that creates the impression of an isometric horror game. I’d love to say these VR nightmare parts of the movie — the very small, sparing parts of it — at least show some kind of promise. The setup seems like it might lend itself to, say, a scene where the doctors glimpse what’s on the other side of a wall but are incapable of warning Carly, only able to wait and listen and pull the plug to get her out if she asks, just slightly more empowered than the audience who sees what they see. But no such scene takes place, and neither do any more inventive approaches — although the simulation is central to the plot, there’s shockingly little time actually spent inside. Most of it is dedicated to brief interactions between a mother and daughter who look like they’ve each been run through a Snapchat filter, the script withholding details of their past under the mistaken belief that this will add mystery and depth to their dynamic rather than cheapen it into vague irrelevance.
To somewhat better effect, the film depicts the simulation from both Carly and the doctors’ perspectives through a glitchy, lo-fi sort of aesthetic with a limited draw distance, wall textures gradually filling in as she moves along. The handful of spooky VR moments are related to Angela and the environment suddenly bugging out, a potentially creepy choice that you can find deployed much more effectively in assorted indie horror games. Admittedly, the concept may come off especially poorly if you have, like me, recently visited the wild mental worlds of Psychonauts 2, but Demonic’s story demands some kind of unfinished, malleable, and even dangerous dreamscape. Such a thing is either beyond the scope of Blomkamp’s ambition, his budget, or his capability as a filmmaker (and perhaps all three).
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Die Antwoord Does Not Appear in This Film, In Case You Were Worried About That
Demonic’s supernatural culprit turns out to be, in fact, a demon in the form of an imposing figure with a big bird skull for a head. The creature gets little in the way of coherent explanation, which would be a refreshing shift from modern horror’s over-literal tendencies if the film wasn’t trying to clear things up anyway, devoting multiple scenes to characters who explain (and in some cases re-explain) the things we’ve already seen happen to them. There’s no real sense of mystery to this entity, just generic mumbles about Haunted Land like someone telling a ghost story who’s scrambling to elaborate because a question caught them off-guard (the line “It means it’s comin’ for ya!” even makes an appearance, as if a loud “boo!” is to follow).
You may have caught on to the trend here: Demonic consistently fails to build on any of its ideas. We later (and hilariously) learn that the hospital belongs to a Vatican black ops unit with doctors doubling as combat-ready priests, revealing things like enormous crosses branded onto their backs while they load up assault rifles for holy combat. Shortly after suiting up, they die offscreen.
The apparent demands to build tension in a horror film have led Blomkamp to overcorrect with long stretches of nothing. He’s better when he’s taking big swings, even if he is (and he often is) missing them — the politics of District 9 hold up to no scrutiny whatsoever, but at least they’re something. In Demonic, there’s nothing to grab onto, nothing like when Sharlto Copley’s entire face gets blown off and then reconstructed in the otherwise-dreadful Elysium or the strange entirety of Chappie, where the title character keeps calling the Die Antwoord people “mommy” and “daddy” while a mulleted Hugh Jackman runs around an office in khaki shorts. Demonic is perhaps the worst film that Blomkamp could have chosen to try out this thing we call restraint, frightfully boring in its unwillingness to explore any of its stranger ideas.