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John’s Horror Corner: Demonic (2021), Neill Blomkamp’s new VR-based horror is exactly that—all virtual, no soul.

August 29, 2021

MY CALL: Not to be confused with the James Wan-produced Demonic (2015), which was also a big miss with a major name in horror attached to it. This film is one of the least interesting virtual reality-based horror movies I’ve seen even though it was made by a generally riveting visionary filmmaker. I don’t know what happened here. MORE MOVIES LIKE Demonic: For more VR(ish) sci-horror, try The Lawnmower Man (1992), Arcade (1993), Existenz (1999) or The Cell (2000).

I realize it’s been a while since his last feature film, although he’s kept busy with edgy, gory, heavily stylized Sci-Horror short films lately. So what stands out to me most in the first 50 minutes of this movie is how it specifically does not feel like it was directed or written by Neill Blomkamp (Elysium, Zygote, Chappie). This feels more mainstream; more generic, even if well-produced. And that’s a shame.

Years after her mother’s incarceration, Carly (Carly Pope; Elysium, Rakka) is approached by medical researcher Michael (Michael J Rogers; Beyond the Black Rainbow) running an experimental program to communicate with comatose patients in a virtual medium—that is, a virtual space in the patient’s mind. It is through these means that Michael wants Carly to contact her mother Angela (Nathalie Boltt; District 9, Doomsday) in virtual reality. And while we don’t know his exact motives, they certainly seem to be deeper than a clinical interest in his patient.

The simulation scenes should feel otherworldly, disarming and unnerving. Whereas here I find they are not very captivating at all—even mundane. Various signs point to something malevolent in the simulation influencing Angela and, eventually, Carly. Given the title of the film, we all know where this is going. A demon. All I can think at this point is, please be nothing like Incarnate (2016). Or more specifically, please be better than Incarnate (2016).

Watching the VR scenes is like watching a modern videogame down to the bird’s eye views of the hero character. It’s a bit stylish, but not enough to impress and it doesn’t lead us anywhere promising. I wanted harrowing. I wanted the reality rug yanked out from under me. But nothing of the sort. This VR simulation into the mind of a demon-haunted, comatose, violent felon was rather… boring. I mean, remember The Cell (2000)? Now that was a scintillating mindscape.

The first “big scare” (in sarcastic air quotes) feels like something from an inferior direct-to-streaming horror movie. The monstrous imagery feels very familiar, uninteresting and, frankly, very played out. Moreover, these troped up horrors aren’t even delivered in any sort of new or different way. The VR mindscape is a poor man’s “The Further” and our demon feels like a second-string Insidious (2011) fiend using a human to cross into our realm.

Oh my, and religious SWAT gear with crosses emblazoned on shoulder pads…? That’s not a good sign. But this movie was already a lost cause. I find not a trace of Neill Blomkamp’s filmmaking DNA in this film. The characters are weak, the premise is “meh”, the effects are not impressive, and nothing about this felt inspired. And THAT is what I normally think of when Neill Blomkamp comes to mind: inspired filmmaking, writing and direction. This movie has no soul.

Bad news. It’s no better than Incarnate (2016). Sigh. What happened here? I once thought that Neill Blomkamp could do no wrong, yet everything here seems wrong (for the caliber I’ve come to expect from him anyway). This may be a passable middle-of-the-road horror movie. But as a big Blomkamp fan, I didn’t care for this at all. Nope.

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