Neill Blomkamp's career started off so promisingly with the brilliant District 9 and the thought-provoking Elysium. He stumbled badly with the insipid Chappie, and now he brings us Demonic, which is even worse. How can a filmmaker go from making smart, intelligent movies to making dull, formulaic junk over such a short span? On the bright side, after this dud, there's probably nowhere for him to go but up.

Carly (Carly Pope) cut her mother Angela (Nathalie Boltt) out of her life a decade ago, after mom snapped and set fire to a nursing home, killing twenty-one people. She's contacted by a medical facility called Therapol. They want her to come and use their fancy technology to enter her comatose mother's dreams, ostensibly to see if she's at least comfortable under their treatment. (Note: Never trust the shadowy company with mysterious equipment.) Carly agrees, but only because she wants to tell Angela off.

Scientists hook her up to the gizmo, which puts her into a very crummy-looking virtual reality world. She makes contact, but also encounters a malevolent force that attacks her mother. Carly just barely escapes. She later confides all this to her friend Martin (Chris William Martin). He's a walking horror movie cliché - one of those characters who has been inexplicably researching the very thing the heroine is dealing with, thereby allowing him to deliver huge dumps of exposition.

Should I tell you the big secret he reveals about Therapol? No, I guess not. But I will say that I laughed out loud at how ridiculous it is. Then again, Demonic never does anything with the revelation anyway. Instead, the film drops the concept in favor of more general VR "scares." Imagine a less sophisticated version of The Lawnmower Man to get the drift.

The title Demonic obviously suggests demons, and it's not a spoiler to say that, yes, Carly faces a few after participating in the project. Abruptly switching to horror after starting off as a science-fiction story does the movie no favors, nor does the frustrating refusal to go into depth on anything. Blomkamp's screenplay could have been written in a Horror 101 class, so basic and unoriginal is it. Every plot point is just that – a beat for the story to hit at a predesignated time in a preordained manner. Putting them into a bigger context or assembling them in a substantive way is something the director simply isn't interested in.

For that reason, the picture isn't even remotely scary. Lame, unconvincing visual effects compound the problem. The virtual space Carly enters looks so cheesy that it's impossible to take anything that happens there seriously. Outside the virtual world, the plot's attempt to build to a shocking climax fails miserably, given that Demonic has nothing new to add to the age-old possession formula. Carly Pope is fine in the central role. She's just stuck in a drab, pointless, and increasingly boring story that mistakenly thinks mixing VR and demons will automatically yield chills.

It doesn't.

out of four

Demonic is rated R for language, some violence and bloody images. The running time is 1 hour and 44 minutes.