★★★☆☆

Neill Blomkamp’s Demonic sees the South African director switch things up a little bit. His brand of urban socio-political sci-fi takes a back seat, as he dips his toe into the horror genre proper. The result intrigues as much as disappoints.

Made during the early months of the global pandemic, with a $1.5 million budget and a no-name cast, bar Nathalie Boltt, who Riverdale fans will recognise instantly as the demented matriarch of the Blossom clan, Blomkamp’s latest is a bit of an experiment, a kind of rational parring back, an exercise in economy, a director challenging himself to think small. In a way, this is the type of picture a promising talent makes as their first film, not a well-known one his fourth.

Demonic is visually striking on several counts. The verdant greenery on display (the film was shot in rural Canada) and quiet bucolic locations are a world away from the dystopian urban sprawls seen in District 9 (2009), Elysium (2013) and Chappie (2015). The setting is startling in this regard alone, and cleverly taps into the film’s eerie and fatalistic themes of isolation and abandonment. Blomkamp does not abandon sci-fi all together, mind you. Parts of Demonic are set in a virtual reality world, where a delightfully lo-fi and glitchy programme enables a user to enter another person’s partially mapped out and digitised subconsciousness. Inside the VR environment, which is rendered in beautiful but crude Impressionist-style broad brush strokes, the protagonist Carly (Carly Pope) reconnects with her mother, Angela (Boltt), who is suffering from Locked In Syndrome, for reasons which become apparent as the mystery story unfolds. 

Demonic is, for most part at least, pulpy fun with inventive sci-fi horror embellishments. It’s not half as good as Blomkamp’s previous work, though, and while displaying visual elegance, is finely crafted in the main, and its blending of multi-layered realities (dreams, bad memories, the virtual world and the lingering aftermath of intense nightmares) lends it a febrile and oppressive tone, the classical horror sequences, let’s call them, tend to be rote, and, bar one sequence involving a late-night visit from a friend, tends to rely too much on unimaginative beats.  

The Vatican using VR technology to seek out victims of the demonically possessed is an intriguing and weirdly logical progression for the 21st century (move over exorcists, now we have techxorcists), but what generally lets the movie down is its bland dialogue, bland casting, and routine approach to frights. Blomkamp will of course move on to bigger and better things, which is why Demonic is a curio in his filmography, now and in the future.

Arrow Video FrightFest runs from Thurs 26th August to Monday 30th at the Cineworld Empire, Leicester Square. The digital event, Best of the Fest, runs from 1st to 5th September. For tickets, digital event and Covid 19 health policy information, click here.

Martyn Conterio | @martynconterio