Writer-director Neill Blomkamp has previously been known for satirical science fiction – District 9, Elysium, Chappie – but here turns to the supernatural, recycling the title of a middling 2015 FrightFest movie and playing things more or less completely straight, though there’s one line (‘they’re exorcists!’) that plays laugh-out-loud funny in context. It’s a dour, drab, familiar piece at heart, but does take strange detours to get to its demon-busting – with more than a few licks lifted from Tarsem Singh’s too-strange-to-forget, too-clunky-to-work The Cell.
Carly (Carly Pope) is understandably estranged from her mother Angela (Nathalie Boltt), a nurse who burned down a care home and is serving a life sentence, but is drawn into a science experiment conducted by the mysterious Therapol outfit, represented by simmering bald hard bloke Michael (Michael J Rogers) and a more sensitive, tattooed tech guy (Terry Chen) who have devised a computer simulation, gimmicked-up-shower-cap device whereby a close relative can enter the mind of a fractured psyche. Carly is prevailed upon to appear in low-res pixel form in an evolving mental version of her childhood home – an interesting visual, if nothing on Tarsem’s fireworks – and chat to her comatose mother, who reveals that she only did those terrible things because she was possessed by a demon who is out to do even more harm and might be using this experimental program to get back into the real world. After that, things get murky and murkier, with Carly’s loyal friend Martin (Chris William Martin) repeatedly and sensibly telling her not to do things that are going to make the situation worse and then being ignored.
Going mind-meld with a strange gizmo in a possession scenario evokes Exorcist II The Heretic, which is one of those don’t-go-there areas of the sub-genre … but actually brings something relatively new to the table, though Blomkamp does leapfrog the concept to spend a lot of time on the very familiar business of a heroine slowly exploring dark, dangerous basements littered with the corpses of those who came before her (and who died offscreen in lieu of action scenes) in order to resolve her own family issues before tussling with a big see-through demon. It keeps reaching for wild ideas, like the handy presence of the broken-off tip of the Spear of Destiny, and not quite fixing them into the basic storyline. I wasn’t as down on this on some critics seem to be, but it feels broken – and is hard to relate back to the auteur’s previous work.