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Demonic (2021) Review

South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp is the director of District 9, Elysium, and Chappie. And while all those films were divisive, they managed to gather a significant following. Where Elysium was a mildly successful Matt Damon blockbuster, District 9 and Chappie went on to become cult movies. It was enough to get Blomkamp duly noted, both in the industry and with the audience.

He distinguished himself with his stark urban sci-fi dystopias and when rumour caught wind that he was shortlisted for an Alien sequel, the film community was abuzz in anticipation. Then it fell through, and the Blomkamp-buzz fell quiet in unison for a few years until it was reignited: Blomkamp had an independent horror production in the works, clandestinely shot in Canada during COVID lockdown. A tantalizing prospect ensued of what it could turn out to be.

And this time, it didn’t fall through. Demonic was dropped in theatres and on VOD in late August 2021. And fall it did, with the dull thud of a small boulder dropping in a desert, somewhere in nowhere, barely leaving a dent in the barren sand. The buzz fell quiet again. Eventually, reviews started popping up, sparingly at first but enough to discern their continued predominantly scathing tenor, to the tune of a 15% score on Rotten Tomatoes as I write this.

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Badly written, uninspired, bland lead actress (Carly Pope, The Glass House, Nemesis Game), bad effects, derivative, the list goes on. And for most of the audience, Demonic just came and went without making a blip on anyone’s radar as it made just a fraction of its purported (though as yet officially undisclosed, which is never a good sign) budget.

Before I get into the movie: I’m not going to deal with the ins and outs of Demonic’s marketing strategy here, because my ignorance of all things commercial runs wide and deep. All the moving parts that go into timing, plugging, and promoting both streaming and theatrical film releases are beyond me; if experts say it was poorly promoted, then I’ll take their word for it.

But what I do know is that the horror film community, which I presume to have been the primary target audience for Demonic – being a horror movie after all – was in eager anticipation of it, only to end up fizzling out with nary a sigh. So, reciting the great Ian McShane in the first act of Nemesis Game (an excellent little movie, by the way): what the hell happened?

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Picking its low-hanging fruit first: Demonic takes a huge page out of Tarsem Singh’s playbook with his Oscar-awarded (for make-up) Jennifer Lopez vehicle The Cell (2000), to the point where it gets not so far removed from being a straight-up remake with a few divergent subplots. Written by Blomkamp himself, it follows the fortunes of Carly (Pope, whose character sports the same first name). She’s besieged by nightmares of her mother Angela (Nathalie Boltt, 24 Hours To Live, Riverdale), a now comatose and institutionalized serial killer, and who Carly unsurprisingly would rather forget to have ever been part of her life.

When Martin (Chris William Martin, The Vampire Diaries, Chaos Theory), a friend of Carly’s from way back when but shunned by her for being a wearisome conspiracy theorist, texts her to meet and talk, she reluctantly agrees. He tells her he was in a focus group set up by a medical science company called Therapol, for tests on patients, one of whom was Angela.

Carly is subsequently contacted by Therapol, inviting her to come to visit, where she’s introduced to scientists Daniel (Terry Chen, Almost Famous, House Of Cards) and Michael (Michael J. Rogers, So Cold the River, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair). Explaining that Angela suffers from Locked-in syndrome, they persuade Carly to enter a simulation environment that they devised, in which she can connect to and enter into Angela’s subconscious world.

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Intrigued and seeking closure, Carly submits herself to Therapol’s simulation sessions, but strange and frightening phenomena of a possibly demonic nature are pervading her real life as she delves deeper into the mysteries behind her mother’s murderous past. And when the Vatican turns out to be involved with Therapol, Martin’s conspiracy theories may not be as crazy as she always thought them to be after all.

As Demonic strongly focuses its story on Carly, it’s tempting and obvious to compare Pope’s performance to J-Lo’s in The Cell. And while Pope has nowhere near J-Lo’s star power, she runs circles around her with ease as an actress. Carly is sympathetic and relatable, and Pope plays her character to her strength as the friendly woman next door type – Carly from the block if you will – in a Mary Elizabeth Winstead kind of style, although Pope can’t quite match Winstead’s wide emotive range. But Pope knows her limitations well and plays Carly straight without overdoing anything. Carly is a bit dull but nice enough to keep me involved.

Much of the brouhaha against Demonic was also aimed at the visual portrayal of Carly’s sim sessions. Blomkamp devised some sort of on-screen rendering effect, with the images taking shape as we’re watching Carly explore Angela’s subconscious world. Much of the action takes place in this pixelated dream world past the film’s halfway point, which may be off-putting to some but given the narrative context, it’s a perfectly serviceable approach, provided you can get behind the premise of entering another person’s subconsciousness much like going online to watch old footage on YouTube.

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Demonic’s screenplay could have used some tightening up though, with some tacked-on supporting characters that add little to nothing to the story. Also, the Vatican’s involvement felt underdeveloped and could have given more suspense to the proceedings had it been given more narrative significance and intrigue. The film now basically leaves the viewer with Carly as she battles Angela’s demon with a holy MacGuffin (a lance) and Martin’s assistance. It left me wondering if this is it.

Demonic wraps things up in an acceptable manner, albeit without leaving a lasting impression. I had to actually rewatch it and actively take notes to prepare for this review, not because it’s so detailed and intricate but because it’s quite literally forgettable. I only remembered the pixelated dreamscapes, a likable Carly Pope, and something about her character fighting a demon inside her mother’s comatose mind. I really had to brush everything else off, only a few months after my first viewing.

And this is probably the Demonic’s biggest gripe: it’s a letdown in view of its lofty expectations. I’m not sure if the movie ever had a fair chance, to begin with, but that’s just how the world works I suppose. Demonic is not as bad as hearsay may have led you to believe, but neither is it as good as you had hoped, possibly even expected, before it came out. Regardless, it may still serve you nicely enough with its 105 minutes of unassuming, if ultimately forgettable, Sunday matinée horror entertainment.

Demonic is available on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital platforms from IFC. And, as always, you can check FilmTagger for more films like it.

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