There’s something deeply eerie about Demonic: a slightly unnerving energy permeates throughout the supernatural horror film, and while the film is by no means flawless, it’s a satisfying entry in the genre nonetheless. More subdued than most Exorcist-inspired flicks, yet with a raw, vibrant edge that places the viewer into the action, Demonic offers more than the conventional possession story — but falls just short of being a thoroughly frightening film.
Demonic was written, co-produced, and directed by Neill Blomkamp. Known for his features like District 9, Elysium and Chappie, it should be of no surprise that this story of demonic possession includes a healthy dose of science-fiction and action: Carly (Carly Pope) becomes involved in a mysterious medical trial involving a simulation that allows her to enter the mind of her comatose mother, Angela (Nathalie Boltt). Carly hasn’t seen her mother for years — not since she went on an inexplicable homicidal rampage. Carly only agrees to the experiment so that she can tell off her dying parent one last time, but quickly finds herself the target of an unholy force.
Blomkamp brings his unique visual style to the picture, opting for a brighter aesthetic than usually found in the genre. Demonic is skillfully shot and offers plenty of eye-catching images — both in and out of the simulated world. The movie features limited characters and locations, yet Blomkamp manages to create a fully realized world that never feels restricted or limited. The sets are well chosen for the material: the laboratory setting hints at a cold, uncaring motivation behind the medical experiment, while Carly’s small, modestly furnished bedroom imparts a claustrophobic feel to her night terror scenes. Even the brightly lit, light-hearted exchanges between friends set at picturesque outdoor locations contribute to the film’s tone since they present a welcome contrast to the darker, grittier scenes.
Demonic is more creepy than horrifying, and some may find the pacing too slow for the material. There are very few jump scares in this picture, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; unfortunately, the underlying story isn’t strong enough on its own to offset the long gaps between moments of action. There’s a lot of exposition to get through in the first act, and unfortunately, that doesn’t leave a lot of time to explore the simulated world within Angela’s mind. The actual demon is seen very little and has few opportunities to make its mark on the story, despite being the primary antagonist. This is too bad because the raven-like design is so unique in the genre (despite being rooted in real-world demon lore). Even the basic premise of a demon that can violate one’s mind via a digital space is a promising idea that feels underdeveloped in Demonic.
In many ways, Demonic offers a paint-by-numbers story of demon possession. Its backstory is somehow simultaneously forced, generic and undefined. Blomkamp manages to create a decidedly creepy villain, but it lacks any memorable abilities and characteristics (other than being bird-themed). Even the military-like exorcists feel like a missed opportunity. While it’s nice to see a writer moving away from the stereotypical Catholic priest tropes, Demonic manages to fetishize the church in entirely new (yet not very interesting) ways. It’s nothing entirely fresh (the manga/anime Hellsing does something similar), but it’s not quite cliched either.
Ultimately, Demonic skirts the line between being derivative and groundbreaking. The movie does inject its subject with fresh new ideas, but it never really transcends the trappings of the genre either. There are some memorable moments, and Carly Pope is convincingly terrified throughout — fans of supernatural horror will find enough to be interested right until the end — but this isn’t Blomkamp’s best work, nor will it likely become a cult classic. Still, there’s something captivating about Demonic that makes this picture hard to resist.
Demonic premiered at Berlinale in March 2021, and released in theaters on August 20, 2021. It will be available on demand on August 27, 2021. The movie is 104 minutes long and is rated R for language, some violence and bloody images.