A beast all its own when it comes to cinematic experimentation, Demonic is a film that's at times creatively engaging in how it uses new techniques while also being vastly unfulfilling in its story.
Writer-director Neill Blomkamp is one of cinema’s most fascinating voices and a director I deeply admire, though his journey must be understood to see where this film falls in the trajectory of his career.
He emerged on the scene in 2009 with the disarming yet dynamic feature debut District 9, a film that was shot documentary-style, but was also a fictionalized allegory for apartheid in South Africa. Told through the lens of science fiction, it explored how an alien species would be treated if they were relegated to second class status and subjected to abuse. It was streamlined and incisive, with an amazing visual canvas that used the tools of the genre to function as social commentary about our world.
He followed that up with 2013’s Elysium, a work that was similar to his prior film though more expansive and with bigger stars (including a somewhat out-of-his-depth Matt Damon, who mostly looks like a confused thumb). Still, there was a lot to like about how Blomkamp took his vision for deconstructing the power structures of society, and then scaled it up, telling a story about wealth and immigration in which the underclass of humanity is trapped on Earth while the wealthy lived in excess in space. It wasn’t as engaging in story or emotion, though still visually stunning.
Then came 2015’s Chappie, a story about a childlike robot's journey toward self awareness (that also inexplicably featured the South African rap duo Die Antwoord, essentially playing themselves). Even with some redeeming qualities, such as the impressive effects and a critical eye gazing at a potential future of a mechanized police state, the story never found its footing. Following that, along with a couple of high profile projects (including a scrapped Alien sequel), Blomkamp turned to producing projects independently through his own studio, Oats. There were quite a few shorts that showed he still had a lot of interesting ideas and potential projects to be passionate about.
That now brings us to Demonic, a film that resembles his small budget work with Oats, though still a full feature. It centers on Carly (Carly Pope), a daughter who is attempting to reconnect with her mother, Angela. Her mother has been in a vegetative state after committing a violent act, something that haunts Carly and leads her to search for answers. So when she's given an offer to be connected with her mother in a strange simulation created by a peculiar tech company called Therapol, she decides to give it a try in order to achieve closure. When she discovers something far darker is lurking in the simulation, Carly will have to face down the demonic forces that she has unwittingly unleashed into her life.
To begin with the positives: The way Blomkamp creates the simulation is one of the film’s more interesting aspects. At first, it seemed to be some sort of rotoscope animation similar to A Scanner Darkly. However, rather than being an animation style where it's traced over live-action footage frame by frame, Blomkamp is using a new technique. According to the press notes, the film uses “volumetric capture,” which it says “is a new three-dimensional video technology that turns actors into geometric objects.” The film even has a scene where it shows Carly the character being captured by cameras from all perspectives and then being put into the environment of the simulation. This simulation is surreally unsettling in a fashion that's appropriate to the horrors that begin to unfold. If only it could have stayed that way.
The setting of the simulation and the premise initially feels like 2000’s The Cell, where characters must go into the mind of a comatose man in order to get information. However, in Demonic, it quickly becomes clear that the simulation is not the focus. It only serves as the initial jolt to get the story in motion. The press notes acknowledge that the volumetric capture technique is only in “about 15-20 minutes” of the final cut, which is apparently the most ever featured in a film. This creates a clear break in the narrative as the simulation is the most engaging aspect of the film, though it never is revisited past a certain point in the runtime. The rest of the film feels lost without it.
While impressive, the simulation's visuals feel slightly off, mixed with the distorted voices of those who remain trapped inside—and these are the parts that are the most memorable and riveting. It was mysterious and perhaps would have worked better as a short for Oats, as everything that follows ends up feeling stretched far too thin. The film falls into the trap of adding each new plot development on top of the prior scene with no connective tissue. Carly is left aimless in a generic series of hauntings that only feel more and more repetitive to the point of mundanity.
This repetition is not helped by the fact that the film is clearly hindered by its budget. A low budget needn’t have to distract if the story is both more cohesive and the film is able to use creative ways to get around the financial limitations. Necessity can become the mother of invention. Regrettably that is not the case in Demonic as many scenes and settings are clearly inhibited by these limitations. From the staging to the execution of the shots, it all feels rushed and takes away from the engagement. An early scene where Carly meets a friend is so bafflingly truncated, it almost feels like the team had to pack up for the day rather than finish the scene. It leaves the characters without much depth, even when there are so few of them, and the story is unable to maintain forward momentum.
Nowhere is this more clear than when Carly gets a huge exposition dump of information, in what is essentially another character’s garage, in order to get the plot on track for the finale. At this moment, the film decides that it will also introduce the half-baked presence of the Vatican who apparently have priests functioning as soldiers. This is a line mentioned in the trailer and ends up being largely a throwaway in the film, making it unclear why it was even included in the first place. The whole thing is a narrative divergence that takes away from an ostensibly more serious horror film, and the story almost completely goes off the rails. It leaves the ending feeling muddled and without any direction.
There still is much to appreciate about this new technique and Blomkamp’s consistent commitment to trying new ways to tell a story. It just isn’t well served by a story that can be best described as only vaguely frightening, mostly because of how poorly structured and hollow it all feels.
You can see Demonic in theaters and on demand starting Friday, August 20.