Ralph (Ryan Walker-Edwards) is being hounded for non-payment of a rail fare and with no luck from his bank manager (Jemma Redgrave) asks a favour of his childhood friend Kent (Jacob Hawley) who gets him a room in a sleazy motel. From there Ralph bunks off work and settles down to the curious characters that inhabit the motel and surrounding area.

Take Ralph’s walk in the forest where he encounters David (Gary Beadle). It’s a strange meeting during which David asks for money and when there’s none forthcoming mugs Ralph for his (father’s) watch.

Then there’s the bailiff (David Schaal) who tracks Ralph to the motel serves him leading to a scuffle and the bailiff is stabbed. Ralph now has to get rid of the body.

Meanwhile Kent has returned with a plane ticket and false passport with a photo that bears no resemblance to Ralph causing a bitter row between them. Desperately Ralph tries to scar his face to make him look a little like the photo and also cadge a lift from a couple, after a taxi driver refuses to take him. They appear ok until they take him into a forest for a ceremony of sorts, from which Ralph escapes now pursued by the police and back to the motel.

It’s not hard to fathom what the core of the story is with Ralph on the run having money and mental health issues. It gets slightly lost with the introduction of some strange characters tipping it into the surreal with the couple in the wood and his dalliance with the hotel maid. Though the continuing return to the motel could be a metaphor for a deep trauma that her can’t move on from.

There are clear racial points made about casual and overt racism with Kent seemingly thinking that that a passport with any black person’s face would do, though it’s enough for an officer when Ralph produces it later on. Plus, the attitude of the cab driver and the initial reaction of the man and woman when Ralph asks for a lift.

That’s not to say that Ralph is an angel having got himself into the mess in the first place, later viciously haranguing Kent over his faults, which he later regrets after hearing Kent’s taped message.

There’s a clear indication of childhood trauma in Ralph’s background from the home tapes, and mental illness on an edge that he could go over at any moment. Ryan Walker-Edwards is a solid lead giving enough to allow the viewer to both like and dislike the character though never have any real sympathy for him.

Shot in black and white (apart from the home tapes), using off-kilter angles and occasional colour tinting director George Louis Bartlett (co-written with Theo Macdonald) contrives a netherworld of the bizarre though dealing with real-world issues and problems.

It’s a statement and technically it’s fine, if jarring at times. But the contrived weirdness of the story doesn’t make for an easy film to enjoy let alone like very much. Nevertheless this is a bold debut that hopefully will find an audience.

Demon will be premiering online at the Oscar qualifying 31st Cinequest Film Festival, Cinejoy, from 20th to 30th March 2021.