Friday, 4 September 2015


Since Saw took hold of the fledgling torture p0rn subgenre and propelled it into the mainstream, James Wan has been a seriously hot commodity. Even his lesser known titles such as Deathwish-esque revenge thriller Death Sentence and throwback small town ghost story (with creepy puppets) Dead Silence are underrated gems that, while they may not hit the heights of his box office blockbusters such as Insidious, The Conjuring and mega-smash Fast & Furious 7, still deliver some wonderfully executed moments.
As such, seeing Wan's name attached to the soon to be released Demonic (previously titled House of Horror) garnered plenty of attention for the movie. However, as other horror heavyweights have done in the past, Wan's input is actually only in the role of producer, as it was for the Saw and Insidious sequels and Conjuring spin-off Annabelle. Demonic was actually directed by Will Canon, from a story by Max La Bella. 
Can Canon hit the target like his high-profile producer? Or is this a film all set to get shot down?
Read on...

DEMONIC (2015)

Dir: Will Canon
Starring: Frank Grillo, Maria Bello, Dustin Milligan, Cody Horn, Scott Mechlowicz, Megan Park, Aaron Yoo, Alex Goode, Tyson Sullivan, Ashton Leigh

SPEEDY SYNOPSIS: I'll try not to spoil too much here but continue at your own risk.

Detective Mark Lewis (rising star Grillo) is all set to go off duty and get ready for a date when he is called to the site of a bloody triple homicide. Two further possible victims are missing while a fifth individual, John (Milligan) is found covered in blood and deeply traumatised by the mysterious events of the evening. 
If that isn't intriguing enough, the murders have occurred at the same location as a bloody massacre some 20+ years ago.
Soon Lewis' stood-up date, psychologist Dr Elizabeth Klein (Bello) is called to the scene to help interrogate the confused John, who is struggling to compose his memories and overcome shock.
As Klein and John speak with one another, Lewis gets his team to search the house for clues whereupon they discover several cameras and hours of corrupted film footage. As they repair and watch the footage, the detectives start to piece together the events that led to this point. 
It seems John has long been haunted by dreams about the infamous Livingstone house, and at the behest of his loving girlfriend Michelle (Horn) agreed to accompany a group of amateur ghost hunters into the building to get to the bottom of the mystery.
However, there were some complex relationships at play within the group, not least due to the fact that the team's cocky leader Bryan (Mechlowicz) was Michelle's ex boyfriend. Elsewhere tech savvy Donnie (Yoo) had an unrequited crush on cute believer Jules (Park) while geeky Sam (Goode) just wasn't very keen on dealing with anything too scary. 
Upon reaching the house the team planned to document any paranormal interaction that might take place, starting with tried and tested horror staple, a séance.
As Lewis's team uncover the truth on the tapes, Klein starts to uncover even more terrifying secrets through her conversation with John.
Who is responsible for the murders? Where are the missing Bryan and Michelle? And what is the true nature of the house's dark and disturbing legacy?

THE BEST BITS (mild spoiler warning): Well, holy shit, somebody has come up with a new way to present Found Footage! 

I really dug the way in which Demonic intersperses its 'flashback' Found Footage segments throughout the movie. This way it cunningly splits the scary scenes into the FF parts (ensuring we get plenty of the first person jump scares with the pretty young things that today's teens seem to love so much) while allowing a more controlled, filmic feel with the more plot-heavy scenes set in the aftermath.
That's not to say that the flashback scenes are bereft of plot, nor that the investigation is entirely without frights, just that the filmmakers were smart enough to play to each parts' natural strengths. The film is quite cleverly plotted and the screenplay by La Bella, Canon and Doug Simon, manages to squeeze in some decent twists and turns as it builds towards its big conclusion. I especially enjoyed the elements relating to the previous events at the house with some very nice reveals and scenes regarding the fateful night.
The film looks pretty damn good (it has that polished feel that often comes with Dimension releases) with some very nice production values. Cinematographer Michael Fimognari ensures that the visuals are always sleek, slick and extremely atmospheric. The Found Footage segments are obviously a little rougher around the edges but they're still very well-shot and use all the right basic film-making tricks to deliver some truly jarring scares.
As well as the look of the film, Demonic deserves some serious praise for its use of Grillo and Bello. Grillo is set to become a major star in the coming months and he is fantastic in the role of Detective Lewis, a man who is tough but likeable and, ultimately, involved in something truly beyond his comprehension. Following on from his awesome work in The Purge: Anarchy, I'd love to see Grillo in more genre efforts but I've feeling bigger and more lucrative things may well be on his horizon.
Bello is one of those tremendously talented actresses who's never quite had that massive, career defining role. I'm not saying she's an unknown by any stretch, as with roles in the likes of Payback, A History of Violence and TV's ER, Bello has amassed some fantastic credits to her name. However, as she's not yet taken that step up to mega-stardom, it's us genre fans that benefit as we can still get her in horror fare such as Demonic. She's great and gives us a feisty but sensitive leading lady. She acts as an audience surrogate for much of the scenes with John, so she needs to be sympathetic and Bello's experience delivers.
Of the youngsters it's Horn and Milligan that most impress. Horn could well become a top-drawer scream queen with a couple of horror hits under her belt, while Milligan is given plenty to do with his character and makes the most of a part requiring plenty of range.
I mentioned the scares earlier and do feel a need to once again reiterate the quality of the jump scares, with one in particular that absolutely hit the mark. It's not often a jump gets me, but this one (which felt very similar to The Descent's 'ejector-seat' jolt moment) utterly suckered me in. Great work, gentlemen!
Furthermore, we get some nice effects work, not just at the bloody crime scene but during the earlier haunting scenes and the surprisingly action-packed finale. The practical special effects are all very well executed while the large digital visual effects team credited on Demonic's IMDB page is evidence enough that this side of proceedings was taken very seriously and explains exactly why the final product is so damn sharp.

THE WORST BITS (mild spoiler warning): So, some excellent atmosphere, nicely crafted scares and a pretty innovative take on the old haunted house story — sounds just like a James Wan film, right?

Hell, Demonic looks like a James Wan film… but it isn't. It really isn't. The elements are all there and it should work, but instead it feels like a pale imitation of Wan's work. 
Demonic is an unfortunate example of the whole coming to less than the sum of its parts. The story is ok, not great, but certainly as decent as some of the tales that Wan has brought our way. However, it all feels a little underwhelming. Even the BIG twist doesn't really have the impact it should — although to be honest, that probably isn't helped by the fact that plenty of viewers will probably see it coming from some distance. 
It might seem unfair to compare this film to one by a man who has been referred to as 'this generation's John Carpenter', but the studio, in their desperation to cash in on a recognisable name, have invited this comparison by plastering Wan's name all over the promotional materials for the movie. It's not Canon's fault, but unfortunately now his work is to be held up to that of his producer's and, unfortunately, it doesn't match up.
It feels a little formulaic, like somebody sat down and watched Insidious, The Conjuring and Dead Silence, tried to identify a pattern, then set about replicating that without ever getting truly creative along the way. Admittedly, it's head and shoulders above most of the DTV releases that come along nowadays, but I even wonder whether the decision to skip the big screen came from a sense of unease at the studio about how the movie might have performed?
I praised the Found Footage scenes earlier for crafting their scares, but in the end, these feel a lot like a checklist of the things that old-school fans hate about the horror scene today. Shaky cam; an abundance of CG; pretty but dull identikit CW-style stars; and an over-reliance on sound-effect driven 'BOO!' scares — all are present.
Addressing these in order: I have no problem with Found Footage provided it's done well. Thankfully, Canon et al nail it, but it is all very familiar now. If you've had your fill of Found Footage, these scenes in Demonic will prove tedious in the extreme, effectively ruining half of the film for you.
I liked the CG, but I'm a pretty forgiving guy when it comes to digital effects. Obviously I prefer the sort of jaw-dropping practical work we got during the Eighties in the likes of The Fly, The Thing, even the remake of The Blob, but I recognise that certain things simply cannot be achieved through make-up, latex and miniatures, so I'm prepared to let CG slide, provided it isn't jarringly badly executed. Here, it isn't and for that we should be grateful.
As for the cast, sadly, the youngsters are going head to head with the very talented Grillo and Bello. The characterisation is pretty basic so all the actors are left to rely on their own natural charisma. I'm afraid to say that the difference in experience is all too apparent. In fact, there were times during the lengthy flashbacks when I found myself wishing the massacre would just happen so we could get back to Lewis and Klein. I'm sure that wasn't something the filmmakers were going for.
Finally, the jump scares. Are they cheap? Yes, yes, they are. Do they work? They most certainly do. I quite enjoy a jumpy film, not as much as I enjoy a truly creepy, suspenseful, atmospheric horror story, but I can still get some pleasure and thrills from a well-executed jolt. I suppose, like a lot in this movie, it's all a matter of taste.

THE VERDICT: I didn't mean to tear Demonic apart with this review, in fact when I sat down to watch it I looked at the things it had going for it and I both wanted and expected it to deliver big things. The fact is, it's actually better than quite a few of the films I've reviewed here, but with the budget and talent attached that Demonic had, it should have been so much better. 
In a year in which we've seen other Wan-produced titles in Insidious Chapter 3 and Sinister 2 released (both of which will be reviewed in a few days), the sad truth is that this is the weakest of the three.
It's all too obvious that Wan was an influence in the making of this movie, without ever actually being a part of the creative process. As influences go, it's certainly not bad, but unfortunately it doesn't deliver like it should.
I'm sure it will be a big hit with teens looking for some disposable frights and, as straight-to-home release titles go, it's wonderfully polished, but more discerning genre fans may well find it lacks the bite to hook you like those classic Wan titles of the past.

Demonic will be released this Monday, 7 September, in both the States and this side of the Atlantic in the UK.

Read my previous Film4 Frightfest special reviews for Suspension hereThe Nightmare hereWind Walkers hereStung hereNight of the Slasher hereInvaders hereCrow Hand!!! here and We Are Still Here here.

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Until next time, I hope you enjoyed your stay.

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