Demonic follows a woman who, in order to get closure with her estranged and now-comatose mother, is coerced into participating in an experiment involving a type of virtual reality constructed by the conscience. When the experiment takes a dark turn, the woman must come to terms with her mother's disturbing past and find out just what this experimental technology is trying to do.
[This movie was viewed on Vudu (paid) at the time of this review.]
I have to admit that I am a sucker for Neill Blomkamp despite the fact that the quality of his overall films has dipped since his first entry that rightfully put him on the map (District 9). Since then, his Oats Studios shorts have more than piqued our interest given their blend of scifi and horror with cleverly executed effects. There are several entries there that we've crossed our fingers in hopes it would get a theatrical runtime. Efrit and I both agreed that Demonic teased a lot of promise in the trailer, but sadly this might be his weakest film this side of Chappie, which managed to make THE Hugh Jackman look like a terrible actor.
Conceptually and creatively, I am a huge fan of Blomkamp. Even if Elysium and District 9 were a bit heavy-handed, the ability to stretch modest budgets into scifi action romps was impressive. His love for world-building is evident in all the films he makes, and I love some good world-building. But Blomkamp struggles with script, particularly fleshing out his characters into believable, empathetic people and building structure and continuity between his world-building and a reasonable plot. Unfortunately, in Demonic, Blomkamp not only struggles with familiar weaknesses again, but even his visual liberties that normally work great, often fall flat in this film.
To be fair to other properties, even the world-building in this film isn't terribly original. It felt very familiar to the overall product of The Cell with a little bit of Incarnate and The Matrix mixed in. The key difference is the commitment to some semblance of reality and a possible near-future. The virtual reality visual style applied gives the illusion of a technology in the early stages, which helps with the realism, but it also isn't much to look at. The actively rendering environment is visually interesting at times, but the allure quickly wears off and it just starts to feel cheap and unappealing. Especially when the plot outside of this virtual world quickly becomes more satisfying.
Not only is the "virtual exorcism" aesthetically weak, it also feels secondary to the plot once things get going. It contributes well to the world-building, but really isn't essential to the plot when the dust settles. When things start to ramp up, not only did I start to question the point of the virtual reality when it came to its pertinence to the characters themselves, but I actually dreaded the eventual return to it. The physical world started to get really interesting and the virtual world was struggling to keep up. It quickly became a hindrance to the pacing rather than its catalyst.
The demon and occult elements were the highlights. I particularly appreciated Blomkamp's commitment to practical effects for the demon's brief appearances. And while it is somewhat familiar, I have always appreciated attempts to blend technology with the ethereal. Could they interact? How would the interact? Can one effectively impact the other? It is often explored how a spirit could effect technology and electronics, but it isn't explored enough how technology could directly engage with the ethereal. That part of the journey was interesting.
Overall, there was more disappointment than satisfaction. I will attribute that partly to my high expectations, but it also failed to build proper momentum, even when the opportunity was there. There is a particular moment (I'm trying my best to limit spoilers, here) where it feels like the film is about to go into full-Blomkamp mayhem and all the bland plot trodding is worth it, but where Blomkamp would stretch his budget to make the climax work, he instead does it all off-camera and it is a massive letdown. I theorize that Blomkamp leaned too far away from his home in the scifi realm, almost abandoning it at times to make sure the horror led the way. And while we are horror fans and this is a horror review, this film may have benefitted from embracing its scifi elements in the action sequences rather than committing to low-key horror that felt predictable and bland.
Horror Rating System
Horror Qualifier: 8/10
Horror Quality: 6/10
Film Quality: 5/10