‘Demonic’ Review: Making a Hash of a Genre Mash-Up

Flat acting, risible dialogue, a witless story — sometimes when a movie hits this trifecta so completely, it engenders a feeling of disreputable pleasure. It’s bad, and you know it, and maybe the filmmakers know it too. How could they not? Yet somehow all the suboptimal (inept, incoherent) elements mysteriously cohere into a work that finds its own perverse groove. “Demonic” is not such a singular amusement. It’s just a drag.

It’s also baffling given that its writer-director, Neill Blomkamp, has a handful of solid movies on his résumé. Whatever you thought of the political reach of his feature debut “District 9” or blowouts like “Chappie” and “Elysium,” he had a handle, however wobbly, on the material. All three are dystopian science-fiction thrillers, a category that seems to attract him mostly for its aesthetics of ruin. Like a lot of filmmakers, he clearly likes blowing things up. But he gave the destruction scale and some humor, and even when he couldn’t harmonize the camera and the actors, he generally held your attention. The movies were good enough that you didn’t regret your life choices after watching them.

“Demonic” suckers you in with some auspicious flickers, including the movie’s atmosphere of clammy unease. The brooding British Columbia landscape, with its undulating dark waters and encircling gloomy mountains, do a lot to set the unsettled mood. The depopulated area, under-lighting and slow windup plant a question mark or two in your head, as do the off-key performances, which border on the affectless. Partly because of the foreboding and the Canadian accents, I briefly and over-hopefully flashed on the early films of David Cronenberg — a mistake. There are a few early horror-scare jolts, but for a while Blomkamp focuses on setting the narrative table.

Strategic or not, this delay works for the movie because the more the story develops, the worse it gets. A modestly scaled hodgepodge of clichés, the movie awkwardly mixes a few science-fiction touches with some horror-film basics (a demon, a haunted institution) and action-flick elements (guys with guns, ammo and tats) for a tale of an unhappy woman (Carly Pope), her unfortunate mother (Nathalie Boltt) and some unpersuasively loyal friends (Chris William Martin and Kandyse McClure). None of these people, as characters or as performers, fit together — but, really, nothing does.

Bad things happen with feeble scares, perfunctory shrieks, shoddy storytelling and some fussy special effects that aren’t as visually engaging as Blomkamp seems to hope. At one point, the desultory heroine visits a chilly scientific-y institute (again, briefly teasing my Cronenberg hopes), where the most promising characters by far — a strange doctor (Michael J. Rogers) and a neuroscientist (Terry Chen) — give each other ominously meaningful looks while they play with memory and machines, and push the story down an ever-more-preposterous path. Both of these characters feel like conceits that were plucked from an entirely different movie project — one that might actually work.

Demonic
Rated R for gun violence and supernatural frights. Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes. In theaters and available to rent or buy on Apple TV, Google Play and other streaming platforms and pay TV operators.

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