Demonic (2021)

Demonic had its UK première at FrightFest 2021

“Mum?” shouts Carly (Carly Pope) as she walks through a field, and then into the large abandoned sanatorium beyond – a sanatorium being, significantly, a place of both sickness and recovery. Guided by the pleading voice of her mother Angela (Nathalie Boltt), Carly finally finds her sitting on a bed – only for Angela to reveal that her daughter has walked into a fiery trap. In fact this prologue to Demonic is just a dream – or a nightmare – from which Carly awakens back in her bed. Yet not only does this dream precisely encapsulate Carly’s headspace right now, but it is also a scene which will replay itself multiple times over the course of the film, in different media and with minor variations. For Carly is on a path to find, even reconcile herself with, her long lost mother, even as she suspects that she may be being lured towards a horrific fate by a woman who has previously proven to be a treacherous fire hazard. 

While District 9 (2009), Elysium (2013) and Chappie (2015) all proved Neill Blomkamp’s deft way around science fiction, Demonic is the writer/director’s first feature-length foray into horror. As the title implies, there is something devilish at play here, as Carly finds herself being drawn back into a life that she thought she had long left behind her, and having to come to terms with what possessed her mother, decades earlier, to go on a deadly arson spree. When Carly is on her way to catch up with BFF Sam (Kandyse McClure), another old friend Martin (Chris William Martin) suddenly reaches out, as does Therapol, a mysterious medical tech company which is now treating the comatose Angela as a patient. Therapol physician Michael (Michael J. Rogers) and researcher Daniel (Terry Chen) explain their hope that Angela may be willing to communicate with Carly via cutting-edge technology that constructs a simulated digital landscape out of the patient’s memories and dreams. Carly agrees to enter Angela’s mind, in part because there are some bitter things that she would like to say to her mass-murdering mother – but perhaps this is just another trap set by Angela, or by something else locked in with her.

In other words, here Blomkamp is doing to exorcism what Tarsem Singh‘s The Cell (2000) did to the psychothriller: using the left-field addition of virtual reality to revitalise these subgenres’ stale old tropes and to expose their inner workings, so that any psychological subtext comes writ large on the surface. The simulation scenes in Demonic play out, with their glitchy visuals and high angles, like walkthroughs from the games Resident Evil or Silent Hill – and they open up a mindscape in which the derelict, dysfunctional love between mother and daughter takes unnerving, alarming shape (much as the inner demon that has torn them apart will eventually out in bizarre bird-like form).

Mother and daughter, inverted.

  As Angela meets her daughter first in the house where Carly spent her childhood, and then in the grounds of the sanatorium, and finally in a crumbling, physics-defying dream home, we are seeing the imaginary spaces where Angela both haunts and hides in her fear that what has happened to her might also happen to her daughter. One might entertain the idea that Demonic is ‘really’ about hereditary madness, but Blomkamp increasingly leans hard into the more straightforwardly Catholic view of what is going on here, with all the visualisation tech a mere tool created and used by a heavily armed élite squad of demon-hunting priests. Carly’s introspective journey towards an acceptable image of her mother (and of herself) runs in parallel to a Vatican-led battle between good and evil, where Christ-like self-sacrifice – and the actual Holy Lance – will be no less crucial to Carly’s redemptive arc than any sort of high-spec exposure therapy or confrontation with a difficult past. It is all absurdly overdetermined, with Carly’s unsettled domestic issues figured as dream, simulation, memory, hallucination and real experience, and the viewer left to disentangle what is literal and what is metaphorical. Of course, as with all mysteries (whether of myth, of religion, or of family), mum’s the word… 

strap: In his first horror feature, Neill Blomkamp resolves a toxified mother-daughter relationship through virtual reality, exorcism & demon-slaying.

© Anton Bitel