Back in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, what we used to call monster movies had simple concepts and catchy, explicit titles that mirrored them. “Dracula.” “The Werewolf.” “King Kong.” “Mothra vs. Godzilla.” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” “Creature from the Black Lagoon.” “The Blob.” When you watch a movie like “Demonic,” you only wish it had that kind of tantalizing, wide-eyed simplicity. You wish it had been called “Attack of the Cawing Bird Monster.” Because, at heart, that’s what it is.
This, however, is low-budget pretentious indie horror, written and directed by no less than Neill Blomkamp (“District 9”), and so it’s got to come with its own convoluted psychedelic metaphysic. In order for the main character, Carly (Carly Pope), to be traumatized in about four different ways at once (for that look!-you’re-getting-your-rental’s-worth feeling), she is summoned to the offices of Therapol, a corporate medical-imaging facility that turns out to be a front for the Vatican. There, creepy “physicians” hook her up to a device that allows her to enter the dreams of her mother, a nurse who went insane and set fire to an old-age facility, killing 21 people.
Communing with her mother’s spirit, our heroine wanders through a squiggly landscape where nothing is as it seems (so nothing is quite at stake either), and for a few scenes we feel like we’re in one of those VR movies from the ’90s, or a no-budget knockoff of “Inception,” or maybe some old David Cronenberg brain-in-a-drawer thriller. Then the bird creature shows up, at which point we think, “It is okay to react to this monster as if we were 12 years old?” “Demonic” encourages you to feel that if you did, you might be undercutting the film’s importance.
In recent years, Neill Blomkamp hasn’t exactly been failing upward. It was in 2009 that he made “District 9” (an overly frenetic and top-heavy sci-fi allegory in my book), and “Demonic” is only his fourth feature. In between came “Elysium” (2013), which was rote ecological sci-fi staged on an impressive interplanetary scale, and the wildly misbegotten “Chappie” (2015), which was like “Short Circuit” redone as a ballistic action film. (It overloaded your cute receptors and made your head hurt at the same time.) Now, for some reason, Blomkamp is wandering in the wilderness of an IFC Midnight release. “Demonic” feels like the umpteenth indie horror film of recent years to be set in a woodsy expansive architectural haven — in this case, the film was shot in British Columbia, but it could just as well have been Portland or Boulder. There’s a laziness to this kind of location shooting. It becomes “instant atmosphere,” but it almost feels like the actors are hanging out in tasteful coffee shops and along quaint rural lanes before they actually step onto soundstages to start acting.
“Demonic” features a huge multi-windowed sanitarium built on haunted ground, like the Overlook Hotel, as well as a conspiracy by the Vatican (there are several references to exorcisms, though that’s about as close as the film comes to cashing in on that genre), plus the aforementioned bird demon. Blomkamp throws all this into the blender, treating it like it should add up to something. At one point, a character in a coma is referred to as having Locked-In Syndrome, which means that she’s still aware of her surroundings but is totally unable to move. By the end of “Demonic,” you’ll know just how she feels.