2021, R, 104 min. Directed by Neill Blomkamp. Starring Carly Pope, Terry Chen, Chris William Martin, Nathalie Boltt, Michael J Rogers, Andrea Agur.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Aug. 20, 2021
Some filmmakers seem to work best under constraints. Neill Blomkamp landed like a Howitzer round in the world of near-future sci-fi with his commercials and short films leading up to his 2009 alien invasion classic District 9, but seemed to pinwheel off target with the big studio projects that followed it up; the now-prescient billionaires-in-space political satire Elysium and bizarro Short Circuit riff Chappie. For the last half-decade, he's been back in the shorts world, founding the experimental Oats Studios shingle and just, well, having fun rather than getting caught up in another failed Alien revamp.
Instead, for Demonic he melds together family drama with technothriller, then casts a summoning spell over that already complex mix. But the family drama comes first, with Carly (Pope) contending with the hideous legacy of her mother (Boltt) – or, as she calls her, Angela. The maternal bonds were shattered decades ago when Mommy-not-so-dearest was confined to a mental hospital after crimes so vile that Angela turned away from her forever. But when word comes that she's comatose in a strange medical facility, and they want Carly to use a new piece of simulation software to enter her mind and talk to her, it's at least an opportunity for the distraught daughter to exorcise some old demons. Just not the kind she thinks.
Technology is ubiquitous in modern cinema (look for a period piece that doesn't digitally paint out power lines, I dare you), and Blomkamp understands that a few details well done are better than pouring CG over everything. In Demonic it's in the skin he throws over the world within the simulation. The environment is seamless, because that's within the purview of the medical technicians: It's Cody who has a strange digital lag, always the intruder within the virtual realm. Pope brings an embittered wonder to her every time she slips on the VR cap, and translates that into an unnerved pensiveness that veers into terror as the monster in her mother's id is ultimately unleashed.
Best of all, Demonic is Blomkamp at his most constrained since District 9, and it's a film with an intimacy that he's never risked before. He keys into a forgotten aspect of the holy text of possession films, The Exorcist, where the opening hour is as much about the fallibility of medical science in the face of the supernatural as it is about Catholic angst. That's why it's his best feature since he unleashed hapless interstellar bugs on Johannesburg, while still serving up a radical change in tempo and direction. With a miniscule 10-person cast, and a smattering of well-placed VFX work, Demonic feels like someone crowbarred a V8 into a VW Beetle and handed the keys to a champion racer. Even if it becomes a little more familiar in the third act, especially to fans of that weird era of Nineties supernatural action thrillers like End of Days and Fallen, it's undeniable that Demonic rips open new technical possibilities for horror.