'Demonic' Review: Neill Blomkamp's Dull Entry Into Horror Is Devoid Of Scares

Is there anything left to be done with demonic possession on screen? For nearly 50 years, these movies have been chasing after the glory of the granddaddy of them all, The Exorcist. And while not every follow-up flick about demons inhabiting the bodies of innocent victims has been good, some have been pretty darn enjoyable in their own ways. But no matter how good a new demonic possession movie may be, it's never going to reach the lofty heights of William Friedkin's classic. Seemingly everything that needs to be said about demonic possession was said in that movie. But that didn't stop Neill Blomkamp, who makes his horror debut with Demonic, a demonic possession movie that asks, "Wouldn't it be scary if the possessed person was trapped in a version of The Sims?"

Blomkamp burst onto the scene with his Oscar-nominated District 9, and he's been living in the shadow of that movie ever since. Every one of his features following District 9 has been a disappointment, and perhaps realizing he could use a change of scenery, Blomkamp has switched from sci-fi to horror with Demonic. Unfortunately, Blomkamp seems completely incapable of conjuring up anything remotely scary here. He's like a bored kid in band class, playing all the notes without putting any life in them.

Carly (Carly Pope) hasn't seen her mother in years – and with good reason. Angela (Nathalie Boltt), her mom, has been in prison. Back in 1998, Angela snapped and set fire to a nursing home, killing 21 people. She also poisoned five more people at a church – including her own mother, Carly's grandmother. Ever since those gruesome events, Carly has wanted nothing to do with Angela.

One day, out of nowhere, Carly gets a message from an estranged childhood friend, Martin (Chris William Martin), asking to meet. Carly agrees, and at the meeting, Martin reveals that he was recently part of a focus group at a medical tech company. The company, Therapol, was running some sort of experiment on live patients – and one of the patients was Angela. On top of that, Martin says Angela is in a coma.

So far, so good. This has the makings of something ominous, and leaning into the medical tech side of things is, admittedly, a novel idea for this sort of film. Carly ends up at Therapol where she learns the company is so cutting edge that it has created things that don't even exist anywhere else. One such creation is a simulation that acts as a kind of second reality. As the doctors at Therapol explain, impulses from the brain are redirected into a virtual space, and other people can then have their own consciousness uploaded into that space – like stepping into someone's mind (or, like stepping into the plot of the much better Jennifer Lopez horror thriller The Cell).

You can see where this is going. Carly gets uploaded into Angela's mind, and it's not exactly a welcoming place. Blomkamp deliberately shoots scenes of Carly wandering around the simulation to resemble the overhead view in so many Sims games, and we get to watch Carly wander around digital backgrounds that sort of look real but have a hint of unreality. The representation of the simulation is admittedly effective – I particularly like how when the camera cuts to the back of Carly's head there are certain angles where a glitch enables us to see right through to her face, as if we're peering in a huge hole in the back of the skull. These little touches confirm Blomkamp is a stickler for detail. If only he put the same energy into telling the story.

After several unpleasant visits into Angela's video game brain, Carly begins to suspect that her mother didn't just snap one day and decide to kill a bunch of people – something more sinister, and supernatural, might be at work. When they were younger, Martin became convinced that Angela was possessed, which caused her to kill. Carly thought he was crazy at the time, but now she's not so sure. Martin has even put together a big corkboard with push-pins and creepy photos to present his case in true expository fashion. And through his tireless investigating he's come to believe that some sort of demon with a giant crow skull for a head is to blame.

From here, Demonic gets really silly, and that's before it introduces some priests decked out in tactical gear. According to Martin, the Vatican has been secretly funding a black ops unit to hunt demons. "I'm talking demons, the devil, real!" Martin shouts excitedly as he explains all this. And we in the audience nod along, and say, "Sure, sure." And then we know eventually there will be levitations, and yelling, and debris flying around in the air. You know the drill.

The idea of blending the world of science and tech with the occult is neat, and I can appreciate what Blomkamp was going for here, mashing up his sci-fi obsession with something more supernatural. But does it have to be this boring? I never thought I'd say this, but Demonic is so lifeless that it had me wishing for a jump-scare, even a cheap one, just so something could happen. The director is completely uninterested in building any sort of sense of dread or foreboding. Yes, bad stuff happens in Demonic, but there's an odd disconnect here. Everything feels so sterile, filmed under cold, harsh lights. It's one of the most horror-free horror movies in recent memory. Maybe Blomkamp should give sci-fi another shot.

/Film Rating: 5 out of 10