Catholicism gets the Conjuring superstar treatment with a cyberpunk twist in Demonic, South African-Canadian director Neill Blomkamp’s latest sci-fi feature. Though the film’s virtual possession plot line delivers a few genuinely creepy moments, its insistence on positioning the Vatican as a radical nemesis to spiritual evil feels incredibly misguided—if not outright laughable.
When her long-estranged mother Angela (Nathalie Boltt) turns up as a comatose patient at an obscure medical research facility called Therapol, Carly (Carly Pope) feels conflicted about seeing her mother again—even though she can’t physically see Carly in return. After receiving a cryptic phone call from Therapol urging her to come in and visit her mother, Carly arrives only to discover a baffling arrangement. Her mother is attached to a series of wires and mechanical hook-ups which at first appear to be hospital apparati, but in reality are cognitive sensors which track Angela’s thoughts and transmit them into a “simulation.” Two Therapol employees, Michael (Michael J. Rogers) and Daniel (Terry Chen), urge Carly to enter the simulation and speak to Angela—an act which will supposedly aid Therapol in delivering adequate care to their patient. After reluctantly agreeing, Carly slowly begins to realize that the simulation contains more trepidation than the proposed rehashing of a fraught relationship with her absentee mother. A demonic avian entity begins to target Carly within the simulation, and eventually begins to creep its way into her daily life.
Though the demon itself is portrayed as an aptly terrifying apparition, a sinister beak and hooked claws can only evoke so much on their own. When it’s revealed that Angela is not just suffering from a coma, but a coma induced by demonic possession, Demonic swiftly over-indulges in the e-priest premise. Vatican-approved Therapol exorcists don swanky paramilitary garb in order to combat the demon from within the simulation, equipped with a utility belt undoubtedly stocked with holy water—and an ancient demon-slaying artifact, of course. These comically Catholic flourishes further muddle whatever essence of horror and family tension Demonic previously crafted. The framing of a Vatican-funded special operations task force as the public’s clandestine protector from evil effectively renders an institution that has undeniably enforced atrocities for millennia as a beacon of righteous holiness. This plays uncomfortably into the narrative of the Church as unilateral savoir, particularly when the horror genre has a pointed past of condemning aspects of religious institutions that oppress and restrict freedoms.
“Just hear me out, okay? In the Catholic Church, the idea that demons are real is just accepted as a fact,” says Martin (Chris William Martin), a friend of Carly’s who she had previously fallen out with. This is the sole argument given in response to her frantic doubts as to whether a particularly horrifying encounter was simply a figment of her own imagination. Not only is Martin’s statement accepted almost entirely on its face, but there exists no acknowledgement that the existence of malevolent entities is believed within countless organized religions and global cultures. Catholicism is erroneously framed as the lone (and all-knowing) authority on spiritual encounters.
Considering Blomkamp’s penchant for political commentary, the passive platforming of the Catholic Church and Vatican as the sole arbiters of objective good in the film is puzzling. The director’s breakout feature District 9 is a parable for the evils of apartheid, while his sophomore film Elysium similarly tackles themes of classism and corruption. Demonic feels starkly disengaged in contrast. Though it certainly challenges the church’s effectiveness when it comes to adequately culling the evil it seeks to destroy, it fails to interrogate the position of Catholicism in the broader dialogue of abuse and trauma present in Demonic’s central tension. Aside from the presence of Therapol, no characters even identify as particularly religious, let alone Catholic, a facet which further hinders the success of the film’s theological slant.
For all of its lackluster holy leanings, Demonic still achieves an air of abject horror, aided in no small part by Ola Strandh’s electro-exorcism score. The demon’s design is also consistently terrifying, whether it is enveloped in a neon-soaked backlight or morphing into unpredictable and increasingly abominable versions of itself. Yet despite the long arm of Catholicism and broader fear of God having a strong hold over most demonic possession horror offerings in existence, Demonic is not cunning enough in its execution to justify its scarce scrutiny over an incredibly powerful—and ironically sinful—institution.
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Writer: Neill Blomkamp
Stars: Carly Pope, Chris William Martin, Nathalie Boltt, Michael J. Rogers, Kandyse McClure, Terry Chen
Release Date: August 20, 2021 (IFC Midnight)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Paste Magazine, Blood Knife Magazine and Filmmaker Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan