Written by: Max La Bella (story & screenplay), Doug Simon (screenplay), Will Canon (screenplay)
Directed by: Will Canon
Starring: Frank Grillo, Maria Bello, and Cody Horn
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Every house has its secrets.
Not content to merely construct his own haunted houses, James Wan has put on his producerís cap in recent years to oversee other projects, so something like Demonic arrives with something of a pedigree despite its generic title. With such backing and some star power to spare, you canít help but wonder how a project that was announced all the way back in 2011 is just now seeing the light of day. The answer is a familiar one, and you donít know whether or not to chuckle or roll your eyes when the Dimension Films logo appears here. After all these years, here they are snapping up titles and holding onto themóIíd call them the patron saint of delayed films, but itís not like theyíre exactly saviors here.
Anyway, these things often come with a sense of anticipation since it seems like this outfit rarely knows what they have on their hands, but in this case, Demonic is just a perfectly fine if not completely perfunctory effort. Itís a movie youíve likely already seen about a dozen times before, here performed in routine, adequate fashion. Youíll find neither the disaster indicated by a multi-year delay or some unsung gem thatís been collecting dust on the shelf.
An unremarkable pastiche more than a vibrant crazy quilt, it weaves together familiar Wan threads with a grisly tale involving the discovery of a mass murder at an abandoned house in rural Louisiana. Upon arriving on the scene, detective Mark Lewis (Frank Grillo) is perplexed to discover cameras set up all over the place; even more perplexing, however, is a complete lack of footage capturing the massacre, a fact that lone survivor John (Dustin Milligan) canít explain. What he can explain is that he and a group of friends embarked on a trip to this old, infamous house in an effort to quell recent nightmares involving his mother. As his tale unfolds, the audience is taken back to the ill-fated journey, where he and his companions discover a malevolent entity still residing decades after a previous massacre.
Just about every plot turn and technique here reeks of familiarity, from the questionable decision-making (may letís not do a fucking sťance when you discover leftover ritual marks) to the tepid, shrieking jump scares with lame CGI embellishments. Director Will Canon even breaks out a found footage approach to document the groupís approach the house, as if this thing couldnít feel any more like it was hatched during that particular aesthetic boom. Initially, thatís not such a bad idea, as the different styles mark a distinction between the past and present events, all while adding a layer of gritty authenticity to the latter. For whatever reason, though, the found footage angle is dropped altogether, meaning the actual carnage is relayed through traditional flashbacks, so youíre left wondering what the point was anyway.
Certainly it wasnít to endear the audience to this group of knuckleheads. None of them are exactly likeable, while some have been expressly engineered to invite your ire. Because the hackneyed found footage formula demands it, thereís drama between narrator Josh and the groupís leader, Bryan (Scott Mechlowicz), whoís still sore that his ex-girlfriend Michelle (Cody Horn) dumped him for Josh. As such, he spends the entire time making inappropriate comments and acting like a loser, and the group spends as much time bickering with each other as they do exploring the house. Because you know most of them are set to die, youíre eagerly anticipating horrors being unleashed upon them, even if it does lead to that especially tired visual of a girl being dragged away from an unseen entity.
Grillo and co-star Maria Bello (starring as his girlfriend and a psychologist on the scene) offer a welcome reprieve from their nonsense, at least. Itís not muchódespite their top billing, they appear quite sporadically, mostly barking orders or interrogating their suspectóbut their presence adds some gravitas to what is essentially an exercise in emptyheaded schlock. Not that thereís anything wrong with emptyheaded schlock, of courseóitís just that you can never underappreciate the likes of these two, who do their best to inject these stale proceedings with some kind of seriousness. At the very least, they anchor the film with warm, charismatic presences and hint at the faint promise that Demonic might actually manage to offer more than cheap jolts and worn-out gore gags.
Just about the only thing it does offer beyond that is an increasingly wild story with a deepening mystery. During the course of the investigation, Josh reveals that Bryan has disappeared and taken Michelle hostage, leading the audience down a path that obviously has misdirection in mind. Itís at this, Demonic also becomes a routine mystery, wherein Grillo and Bello attempt to figure out just what kind of hell these kids unleashed and what Josh really knows about the houseís sordid history. A violent, twisting, turning climax recalls the meandering narrative gymnastics of Wanís Saw franchise, albeit without nearly the same amount of shock, surprise, or satisfaction. ďGotcha!Ē it eagerly yells as it nudges you in the ribs, oblivious to the fact that your eyes have rolled into the back of your skull.
Even if Demonic had arrived soon after it was produced a few years ago, it still would have felt like old hat. While Michael Fimognarniís rich photography results in a slick, sturdy-looking production, the narrative here is a rickety, ramshackle foundation that ultimately trades in unsettling atmospherics for tired jumps and uninspiring gore. Just about the only invigorating image to be found here involves birds impossibly emerging from the charactersí mouthsóand even it is accomplished via unsightly digital effects that deprive the sight gag of any weight or squirm-worthy potential. Many of Wanís own haunted house pictures hearken back to vintage eras and recall past glories; all Demonic does is remind us that our current era is far too crowded by lifeless, lackluster shades of that former glory.
Arriving now after years of delay, this one just feels like a haunted house ride with rusty, worn out railsóitís good for a cheap jump or two, but you find yourself wishing it would at least have the decency to crash and burn spectacularly. Instead, it goes out with a dull, predictable whimper.
Demonic is currently streaming on Netflix and is available on DVD from Lionsgate home video.
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