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Neill Blomkamp exorcises Demonic of its pulp horror potential

Show us the Gunxorcisms

Chris Martin chained to a wall in Demonic Image: IFC Films

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At one point during the trailer for Demonic, the new horror movie from District 9 writer-director Neill Blomkamp, one character tells another, “The Vatican has been funding a black-ops unit. Using priests like soldiers.” That outstanding premise, with an army of secret gun-toting exorcists fighting a shadow war against demons, unfortunately isn’t what Demonic is about. Instead, it’s mostly a family drama with interesting ideas that go completely ignored.

Demonic is about a woman named Carly (Carly Pope) — who is not a gun-priest — and her estranged mother Angela (Nathalie Boltt). Angela was sent to prison when Carly was younger, and has since fallen into a coma and been taken in by a group of researchers for experimental virtual-reality therapy. After a series of convoluted conversations, Carly ends up at the research group’s base, wired up with new technology that lets her enter her mother’s therapeutic coma-simulation. In this virtual space, Carly wants to confront her family’s traumas, but her mother warns her that it isn’t safe to be in the simulation. When Carly exits, she discovers a demon has escaped and is haunting her.

Nathalie Boltt laying on a table with a virtual reality helmet on in Demonic Image: IFC Films

The simulation is Demonic’s first big missed opportunity — and it only takes about 15 minutes to get there. Carly’s told that the locations she visits in VR won’t appear as they actually are, but as her mother remembers them. At first, this seems like a setup for some strangeness, something to finally push the movie into actual horror. But as it turns out, Carly’s mother remembers things pretty well. There are no weird angles in her virtual memory-world, or creepy glaring architecture, and rarely any spatial impossibilities or unsettling dream logic. It’s mostly just regular houses and buildings with small pieces of furniture slightly askew, all rendered in CGI that make Xbox 360 games look state of the art.

What’s worse, none of these trips into the simulation feels particularly justified in its low-res digital look, or connected to the rest of the movie. They don’t feel like part of a horror movie, and they don’t involve any deep or interesting conversations. Even though the story is all tied to a demon, there’s no real talk about the nature of souls or evil. There are barely any mentions of God, or even the demon itself. Almost every scene inside the simulation is just regular family-drama dialogue, set inside computer-generated locations for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.

The rest of the movie suffers from this same sense of confusion. When Carly is outside the simulation, she and her childhood friends Martin (Chris Martin) and Sam (Kandyse McClure) have conversations that are either extraordinarily mundane and somewhat boring, or very specific plot explanations. Even the movie’s one solid horror sequence, a chase set inside Carly’s house, mistimes the horror elements. Jump-scares happen too late or early, ruining the moment every time. These sequences are uncomfortable, not in a horror-movie way, but like Blomkamp isn’t fully comfortable working in the genre and playing by its rules.

Nathalie Boltt sitting on a bed in Demonic Image: IFC Films

The movie’s one effectively creepy element is the score. Ola Strandh, who has mostly worked on video games like The Division 2 in the past, creates a haunting electronic soundtrack that underlines the entire movie. His music does most of the heavy lifting for the movie’s best attempts at horror, and his careful mix of electronic instrumentation and quiet strings is the only thing that makes sense out of the movie’s themes (to be generous) — of digital ghosts haunting the real world.

When the black-ops priests do finally appear, about two-thirds of the way through the movie, it seems like the story is finally about to get more interesting, and we’re finally going to get the horror-action movie we’ve been setting up for an hour. But that doesn’t happen either. The squad of bullet-exorcists simply disappear. In their place, Demonic commits to a final half hour that feels more like a monster movie than an exorcism story, but the demon feels out of place in the physical world, too. Its crow-skull design is fine enough for a few jump scares, but the more human version is just too boring to be scary.

Carly Pope in Demonic standing in a burning room Image: IFC Films

Demonic is a frustrating movie, because in spite of all the problems, the world Blomkamp sets up is exciting and original. The idea of near-future exorcisms in a militant sci-fi world, where even the church has a SWAT team, and demons can use virtual reality as a bridge to physical space, is fascinating. The idea of a person being stuck in a coma and forced into a VR nightmare in the name of science is terrifying. But instead of those great ideas, Blomkamp grafts an uninteresting family drama over the top, and then makes the entirety of Demonic about that skin instead of digging into the meat.

Demonic is out now in theaters, or available to rent on digital platforms like Amazon and Vudu.