In March 2022, 30 years will have passed since New Line Cinema released The Lawnmower Man, a Stephen King adaptation that commemorated a decade or more of films in which computers were used in new and experimental ways to explore the possibilities of the human mind and body. On August 20, VVS films releases Neill Blomkamp's Demonic, a film showing how far technology has evolved since then and how effectively filmmakers have utilized it to tell stories with deep emotional substance. Carly Pope (Elysium) stars as a young woman who uses three-dimensional volumetric capture to enter her criminally insane mother's mind, only to discover something much more sinister may be controlling her homicidal actions. Blomkamp's fascination with cutting-edge technology merges with a heartbreaking legacy of pain and trauma to tell a story that feels both uniquely anachronistic and fully contemporary.
"I always wanted to use volumetric capture because it's so new and I love the way that it looks on an aesthetic visual level," Blomkamp told FANGORIA. "I've been obsessed with it for a long time. And then when the pandemic happened, I was like, why don't I see if I can write a story that uses the technology in a way where the audience would accept how glitchy it looks."
Volumetric capture is different from the kind of performance capture that, say, Peter Jackson used to create Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films, or perhaps more accurately, Blomkamp used in his breakthrough District 9. It uses digital cameras to create real-time 3D renderings of objects in a contained physical space, allowing them to be viewed or explored from any perspective. The resulting image is less polished than if it were rendered over time in a computer. Still, it has a thrilling, imperfect vitality that gives filmmakers like Blomkamp an opportunity to see unpredictable, immediate results. In Demonic, these imperfections were baked into the script: "I had to write it in a way that was narratively reinforcing the idea that it was a prototype piece of technology," he said.
"It's still a gamble because the audience could look at it and go, well, it doesn't look cool. But I liked it, so I just committed to it."
The premise that Blomkamp eventually came up with, combined his fascination with technology and the evergreen idea of demonic possession, boiled down to something more intimate than he's tackled before. "I'm always curious about technology interfacing with humans on multiple different levels and what that may mean. I just can't get away from that as a core idea," Blomkamp said. "The main thing was that it was the Vatican and it was an exorcism. So they're not trying to capture [what's in Carly's mother's head]. They're just trying to kill it. I had this other separate idea about the Vatican using all of the capital that they have to buy up things that may give them an eye into who may actually be possessed.
"So it's basically a classic priest trying to exorcise a classic demon; you're just doing it in a very 21st century looking way."
For Pope's character Carly Spencer, this meant using advanced virtual reality technology to excavate her mother's mind. The technological becomes metaphorical, and eventually, deeply emotional, as the onscreen Carly must confront a past she's run from her entire adult life, as well as some astonishing truths that she would never before have considered possible. "Instead of looking at it as a horror film, I was looking at it like an emotional drama," Pope explained.
While Pope dug into her character Carly's psyche, Blomkamp used the film's modest budget — which he financed himself — to knock him out of the directorial style that he's used in the past, and to challenge himself creatively. "If I had to write down on a piece of paper what was the goal of the movie, it was to try to create an unsettling sense of dread that was just simmering the whole time," he said. "I wanted it to just feel uncomfortable, just by shot selection, music selection and cutting pace, most specifically though how the camera was being used. The objective was, can I create a sense of foreboding that just bubbles along and lies under the surface of the movie?"
Though Pope had worked with Blomkamp before and knew his technophilia well, she was not as well versed as he with the mechanics of volumetric capture. She saw its novelty both as a burden for her as an actor, and an opportunity for her as a character. "The volumetric capture experience was 100% different from anything I had ever experienced," she said. "I have done a few things that have required visual effects and you're looking at an X on the wall and your imaginative life has to really step up, and those are always challenging. But the biggest challenge for me was having to comprehend what I was technically doing and how to allow my emotional undercurrent to still be accessed."
"Those sequences are really emotional spaces for the character, where mother and daughter come together," Pope continued. "So having to negotiate the technical sides of it and then creating an emotional dynamic was really, really challenging."
Pope, who calls herself a "preparedness junkie — to a fault," said that the film forced her to be present in each scene because everything she was doing as an actor was transformed on camera, in real time. "I had to learn how to allow that to take place," she said. "If you anticipate or if you predetermine things too much, that's not going to help the audience."
After three decades of technologically-themed horror films, computers are no longer the bogeyman; instead, they're being used to expose him to the world. Meanwhile, films like The Babadook, Hereditary and Midsommar exploit the cinematic language of the genre to tap into deeper emotional ideas that transcend the short-term menace of a monster or violent act. And in Demonic, it's Pope's work that ultimately brings together the technology of volumetric capture, Blomkamp's directorial technique, and her character's journey as a platform for audiences to explore their own expectations and emotions — while of course, getting a good fright at the same time.
"Having to go into this simulation space was like a metaphor for the deepest, most vulnerable, most exposed place you can be," Pope said. "To me, it's ultimately a story of forgiveness and healing traumas from the past that were passed down.
"Her greatest feat was accepting who and what she is, whom and where she came from, forgiving those elements, and conquering that deepest, darkest fear."
Demonic is in theaters, on-demand and digital on August 20, 2021.