Demonic (2021)

Demonic first published by Sight & Sound, October 2021

Synopsis: Somewhere in North America, today. Carly is drawn into an experimental attempt to make contact in a virtual space with her mass-murdering mother Angela, now in a coma. Yet there is something else inside, desperate to escape, and a team of Vatican demon hunters is using Carly to draw it out. 

Review: South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp offered a local brand of punkish sci-fi with his features District 9 (2009) and Chappie (2015), while Elysium (2013) saw him taking the genre across the Atlantic. Shot in British Columbia, Demonic represents the writer/director’s first foray into horror, as he reinvents a familiar subgenre through a confusing merger of dreams and delusions, reality and virtual reality 

Carly (Carly Pope) still has terrifying nightmares involving her mother Angela (Nathalie Boltt), confined to prison ever since, many years earlier, she went on an unmotivated killing spree. Carly has unresolved feelings about her mother, and bitter things that she would still like to say to her – so upon learning that Angela is in a coma, Carly accepts an invitation from medical imaging company Therapol to participate in a high-tech experiment designed to enable subconscious communication in a virtual space. 

Demonic comes deeply overdetermined. On the one hand it is a psychodrama about a fraught mother-daughter relationship, and the accompanying anxiety – from both sides – that whatever condition Angela had, Carly may be about to inherit. On the other, it is, as its title implies, an exorcism film, with something evil lying dormant in Angela until it can find another to possess. All these confrontations, whether psychological or supernatural, unfold in a digital simulation whose high angles and glitchy visuals are like walkthroughs from the horror VGs Resident Evil or Silent Hill. Stealing a trick from Tarsem Singh‘s The Cell (2000). Blomkamp’s film uses zones constructed from the detritus of the unconscious as a way of giving cinematic form – sight and sound – to otherwise internal struggles and states. It constructs an irrational landscape which serves, like any decent horror movie, to trigger dreamy disorientation and buried trauma – which is to say that this is horror of a decidedly reflexive bent, exposing the inner workings of the genre’s stale old tropes and clichéd locations (a creepy childhood home, a creepier sanatorium), and allowing emotional and cognitive affect to be writ large in the film’s surface architecture.

Yet even as Demonic keeps reducing Carly’s experiences to the realm of the imaginary and the metaphorical, in other respects the film is, or at least seems, disarmingly literal. If the bird-like demon is merely an avatar of hereditary madness, there is nonetheless a well-armed crack team of Vatican hunters on its figurative tail – and so the film confounds, games even, the viewer with its contradictory signals, and ultimately keeps mum about where exactly the underlying reality lies.

strap: In Neill Blomkamp’s horror debut, a young woman confronts both her mother, and her demons, in a virtual space  

Anton Bitel