“The Vatican has been funding a black-ops unit,” one character says in the teaser for Demonic, the upcoming horror film from District 9 writer-director Neill Blomkamp. Using priests as if they were soldiers.” Unfortunately, Demonic isn’t about that fantastic notion of a hidden army of gun-toting exorcists fighting a shadow war against demons. Instead, it’s primarily a family drama with some intriguing concepts that are largely overlooked.
Carly (Carly Pope), who is not a gun-priest, and her estranged mother Angela star in Demonic (Nathalie Boltt). Angela was imprisoned when Carly was younger, and she has since lapsed into a coma and been taken in by a group of researchers for virtual-reality therapeutic study. Carly arrives at the study group’s base, connected up with new equipment that allows her to enter her mother’s therapeutic coma-simulation after a series of complicated dialogues. Carly wants to confront her family’s traumas in this virtual environment, but her mother advises her that it isn’t safe to be there. When Carly leaves, she discovers that a demon has escaped and is following her around.
Demonic’s first big missed opportunity is the simulation, and it only takes about 15 minutes to get there. Carly is told that the places she visits in virtual reality will not appear as they are, but rather as her mother remembers them. At first glance, this appears to be a set-up for something strange, something that will finally propel the film into true horror territory. Carly’s mother, on the other hand, seems to remember a lot of things. In her virtual memory world, there are no strange angles, no creepy glaring architecture, and very few spatial impossibilities or unsettling dream logic. The Xbox 360 games are mostly just regular houses and buildings with small pieces of furniture slightly off-kilter, all rendered in CGI.
Worse, none of these forays into the simulation feel particularly justified in their low-res digital look, nor do they feel particularly connected to the rest of the film. They don’t feel like they belong in a horror film, and there aren’t any deep or interesting conversations. Despite the fact that the storey revolves around a demon, there is no discussion of the nature of souls or evil. There isn’t a single mention of God or even the demon. Almost every scene in the simulation is just regular family-drama dialogue set in computer-generated locations for unknown reasons.
This sense of befuddlement pervades the rest of the film. Carly and her childhood friends Martin (Chris Martin) and Sam (Kandyse McClure) have conversations outside of the simulation that are either extremely mundane and somewhat boring, or very specific plot explanations. Even the film’s one truly terrifying sequence, a chase set inside Carly’s home, is mistimed. Jump scares occur at inopportune times, ruining the experience every time. These sequences are unsettling, not in a horror-movie sense, but in the sense that Blomkamp isn’t entirely at ease working within the genre and adhering to its rules.
The score is the one effective creepy element in the film. Ola Strandh, who has previously worked on video games such as The Division 2, creates a haunting electronic soundtrack that runs throughout the film. His music is the only thing that makes sense out of the movie’s themes (to be generous) — of digital ghosts haunting the real world — and his careful mix of electronic instrumentation and quiet strings is the only thing that makes sense out of the movie’s best attempts at horror.
When the black-ops priests finally appear, about two-thirds of the way through the film, it appears that the storey is about to take a turn for the better, and we’ll finally get the horror-action film we’ve been waiting for for an hour. That, however, does not occur. The bullet-exorcists’ squad simply vanishes. Demonic takes their place with a final half-hour that feels more like a monster movie than an exorcism storey, but the demon himself feels out of place in the physical world as well. The crow-skull design is fine for a few jump scares, but the human version is far too boring to be frightening.
Demonic is a frustrating film because, despite its flaws, the world Blomkamp creates is exciting and unique. Exorcisms in the near future in a militant sci-fi world, where even the church has a SWAT team and demons can use virtual reality as a portal to physical space, is intriguing. The idea of a person being put into a coma and forced to experience a virtual reality nightmare for the sake of science is terrifying. Blomkamp, on the other hand, grafts an uninteresting family drama on top of those great ideas, then makes the entire film about that skin rather than digging into the meat.