Demonic review – Neill Blomkamp’s sci-fi horror is pure pulp

The director’s latest film – in which a daughter enters the virtual mind of her serial killer mother – is so-so compared to his earlier efforts

After the mega-budget blowouts of 2013’s Elysium (which had some tried-and-tested ideas rattling around inside it) and 2015’s Chappie (which had Die Antwoord), this so-so shocker finds mooted multiplex saviour Neill Blomkamp recalibrating his disc space and career prospects. Operating with TV-movie production values and nary a single familiar face among its 10-strong cast, it’s a small, manageable, patchily inspired genre piece that unpicks the fraught relationship between a daughter, her convict mother, and a medical tech firm instigating an altogether unhappy reunion.

Much of Demonic suggests a sometime “visionary director” who has turned to streaming-bound work-for-hire to make ends meet; it’s cautiously compiled, competent work-for-hire, but the wild swings and grand designs of this film-maker’s earlier output are sorely missed. It’s at its most Blomkampian early on, with the integration of effects into the plot: our heroine Carly (Carly Pope) submits to “volumetric capture” (essentially mo-cap 2.0) so she can enter a virtual-world simulation that will allow her to interact with her comatose mum. Inevitably, this passage into a digital wonderland is preceded with dire warnings as to what might happen if memories slip out of sync, and inevitably, the simulation doesn’t run as smoothly as hoped. Partly this is due to the vast reserves of anger Carly ports into this virtual realm, partly due to the proximity of a giant skeletal hellbeast. These scenes have a distinctive, hyperreal look (and presumably blew the budget), rotoscoping over the uncanny-valley glitches that have blighted countless blockbusters. This time, the glitches are deliberate: the aim is to unsettle.

After that initial blast, though, the film gets less striking by the frame: Carly starts poking around inside her past, while the demonology sideline yields only yellowing situations and imagery. The “real world” that the final act returns us to is very ordinary indeed, heading towards an abandoned research facility where the striplights are on the fritz. Pope has the right look for this kind of pulp, a phone-app mashup of Famke Janssen and Noomi Rapace, and there’s a good, albeit throwaway sequence in an Escher-like refit of the heroine’s family home – a sketch that one of Blomkamp’s studio endeavours might have developed into a set-piece. The connective circuitry is too identikit for Demonic to be especially distinctive.

• Demonic is released on 27 August in cinemas and on digital platforms.

Contributor

Mike McCahill

The GuardianTramp

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