First comes the gimmick. It looks like a green screen in need of a tune up, actors superimposed on a set, their images translucent and staticky, little bits of the set show through their bodies, clothes, etc.
As that effect, used to visualize characters being inserted into “the dreams” of someone, is not all that impressive, writer-director Neill Blomkamp had to find his frights elsewhere, anything that might give his latest, “Demonic,” a reason to exist.
From the crow-headed “demon” to various “demonic possession” tropes, “science” tackling the “problem” with Vatican-approved hardware, and a heroine who can seem put out — but never really terrified — it’s the conventions of the genre that let Blomkamp (“District 9”) down.
Or maybe Blomkamp simply has no flair for this genre.
The pandemic-filmed “Demonic” is about Carly (Carly Pope), a 30something who has returned to the place (in Canada) where she grew up for reasons the movie wastes zero time detailing.
She catches up with her self-identified “BFF” (Kandys McClure) and makes noise about shrugging off a text from an old acquaintance, Martin (Chris William Martin).
With his “insane theories,” she figures “I can’t go back there.” But of course she does.
Martin’s news is that he’s seen Carly’s imprisoned murderer Mom (Nathalie Boltt). She’s in a coma and being treated at some experimental facility run by Therapol.
Before she knows what’s hit her, Carly is contacted and summoned there and offered the chance to commune with her estranged, comatose mother via some new tech the company is testing. “The simulation” can insert Carly into her mother’s memories, “kind of like a dream,” the “physician” she meets with explains. Why not give it a try?
The guy (Michael Rogers) may be a tad pushy and look like horror icon Sig Haig in a suit. But sure, why not?
Her reasons become clear once she “contacts” her mother in some digital facsimile of the house where she grew up.
“I never got the chance to tell you how much I hate you!“
But something’s off about Mom. Something’s invading Carly’s own dreams. And this Therapol? Martin has some (conspiracy) theories about what they might be up to.
Pope’s character is so passive that it’s a relief to the audience’s sense of outrage and simple movie logic when she finally flips out at these tech-villains, whose “simulations” leave her haunted and even result in a nasty injury.
“We don’t have answers” is not what you want to hear from the “experts.”
“I’m talking DEMONS” is what you expect to hear from Martin, the conspiracy crank.
And “It’s COMING for you” is exactly what anybody who’s ever been to a demonic possession thriller is waiting to hear, as it sets up the showdown in the third act.
This is Blomkamp’s first feature since 2015’s “Chappie” debacle, something I hadn’t realized until I dug into his credits to see why he might be taking a shot at something this modest in scope and intellectual ambition, aside from the limitations the pandemic put on filmmaking.
If this is meant as a “comeback,” it doesn’t cut it. If there’s money for a possible “District 9” sequel, he’d better grab it.
“Demonic” just makes you wonder whatever possessed Blomkamp in thinking it would work.
Rating: R, violence, profanity
Cast: Carly Pope, Nathalie Boltt, Michael Rogers, Kandys McClure, Chris William Martin and Terry Chen
Credits: Scripted and directed by Neill Blomkamp. An IFC Midnight release.
Running time: 1:44