Well-produced and well-acted, “Don’t Look at the Demon” doesn’t reinvent possession films, but it knows how to play to its strengths.
While supernatural haunting/demon possession films are a dime a dozen, there’s a good reason this kind of genre content continues to get churned out at a rapid pace.
It’s rare for a film of this nature to truly surprise, but the consistency keeps viewers coming back for more. The subgenre’s tropes are tired yet effective: a great setting, loads of atmosphere, compelling use of light and shadows, creepy and unsettling imagery, and often ample employment of the jump scare.
In short, you typically know what to expect when you go into a film about ghosts and demons. And, honestly, that’s ok because as much as we sometimes crave something different or thought-provoking, other times, we want cinematic comfort food.
Sometimes, we just want a good old-fashioned fright fest, and it doesn’t matter if we’ve seen it a million times before.
For the most part, Don’t Look at the Demon leans into that notion and keeps things fairly straightforward.
Though it may not be the most original idea, it does earn some serious style points that help it stand out from the herd.
So many demonic/haunted house horror films get released each year that I tend to skip most of them. But a couple of elements made me take notice of this one, pushing it to the top of my must-watch list.
First, I’m an avid fan of international horror, especially Asian horror. Films from this region tend to be among the most frightening, atmospheric, and innovative of all the genre films I watch.
Don’t Look at the Demon from Brando Lee has been billed as the first Malaysian film to be screened in the United States outside of the festival circuit. Made by veterans of the Malaysian film industry, the movie highlights cultural elements of that country, making it feel somewhat fresh despite its typical haunted house structure and overused plot device.
The other big draw for me was the casting of the exceptional Fiona Dourif in the lead role.
Following in her famous father’s footsteps (Brad Dourif), Fiona is making a new for herself in the genre, including starring in the franchise that made her dad a beloved horror icon (Child’s Play).
Dourif is an actress that manages to elevate everything she’s in, and this film is no exception.
Here, she plays Jules, a troubled medium who has had the gift of extra-sensory perception since she was a child. Her producer boyfriend, Matty (Jordan Belfi) met her during a difficult and particularly vulnerable time in her life. He convinced her to channel her abilities into a money-making venture as the host of The Skeleton Crew, a paranormal investigation show.
In addition to being able to see spirits, Jules also has an uncanny ability to sense which locations boast genuine paranormal activity, even before she and her crew arrive to investigate.
While filming in Malaysia, she’s immediately drawn to an email from a young, affluent couple who just moved into a new home, Martha (Malin Crépin) and Ian (William Miller).
Jules and Matty immediately head to the home to begin filming, along with their crew members, brothers Wolf (Randy Wayne) and Ben (Harris Dickinson), who handle the filming and tech support, and their local Malaysian translator and guide Annie (Thao Nhu Phan).
However, when they arrive, Jules worries she’s made an uncharacteristic mistake.
Though Martha and Ian weave a captivating tale of unexplained occurrences, including Martha’s sudden compulsion to paint creepy pictures of a man she’s never seen or met before, Jules is skeptical. She can’t sense anything paranormal as she tours the house and is convinced the couple is either committing an elaborate hoax or is just naïve and desperate to believe.
Just when Jules is ready to move the crew out, she comes in uncomfortably close contact with whatever is haunting the home. She’s so shaken by the experience that she’s desperate to call it quits. But Matty insists they stick it out — far more concerned about ratings and dollar signs than the safety and well-being of those living in the house or the mental health of Jules.
From here, things quickly escalate.
During their first night in the house, Ian wanders outside while sleepwalking while Martha is found levitating and bashing her head repeatedly against the wall. It’s a shocking scene that gets progressively more violent.
Of course, capturing this kind of activity on film is a potential windfall for the show. Thus, Jules’ crew appears more enthusiastic than terrified. But Jules continues to be terrorized by entities only she can see.
With Jules’ problematic past and heavy Benzo addiction, the mostly male crew finds it easy enough to dismiss her growing fear and anxiety as needless hysterics and oversensitivity. But soon, Ben becomes possessed by a dangerous demonic entity, and it becomes clear they face the most severe and dangerous haunting of their career.
Don’t Look at the Demon employs a bit of a kitchen sink approach to horror, but that’s not really meant as a criticism.
Lee knows what it takes to entertain an audience, and he holds nothing back in his quest to deliver genuine scares and plenty of action-packed, fast-paced thrills.
The film does rely heavily on jump scares, which may or may not be your cup of tea. But they are at least quite well done and effective.
Don’t Look at the Demon is most compelling when it delves into occult rituals and possessions.
It presents an interesting, appropriately twisted mystery and builds suspense as characters uncover secret rooms or find clues as to what is happening in the house and why.
Lee masterfully creates a palpable sense of dread. The possession sequences are worth the price of admission, and Harrison is chilling as the conduit for the film’s big bad.
The production values are impressively high for a low-budget film. The makeup effects are stellar, and Lee proudly shows off his team’s handiwork in well-lit sequences that let viewers witness the full glory