Possession films have had a rough go of it recently. With the exception of The Last Exorcism and The Conjuring (and maybe The Taking of Deborah Logan), there haven’t been many notable entries in the sub-genre since 2005 (The Exorcism of Emily Rose being the last truly great possession film). So many of these films tell the same story we’ve seen hundreds of times before but pale in comparison to films like The Exorcist. I’ve lamented about this issue in the past as I await a possession film to bring something new to the table.
That brings us to Incarnate, the latest offering from San Andreas director Brad Peyton. It was released in Belgium last fall and is just now seeing an American release. The film tackles the subject of demonic possession from a scientific perspective, a different take on the sub-genre that makes the film immediately compelling. Unfortunately bland direction and a by-the-numbers script make for an ultimately unsatisfying viewing experience. It’s a shame too. There was so much potential here.
Dr. Seth Ember (Aaron Eckhart, The Dark Knight, Thank You for Smoking) spends his free time hunting the demon responsible for the car accident that left him confined to a wheelchair and without a family. When 11-year-old Cameron (David Mazouz, Gotham) begins exhibiting signs of demonic possession, he is contacted by a Vatican representative (Catalina Sandino Moreno, Maria Full of Grace, At the Devil’s Door) who believes that the boy is possessed by the same demon Seth is hunting. She brings him to the boy’s mother (Carice van Houten, Game of Thrones), who is wary of the good doctor. Together they must work together to save Cameron before the entity inside him drains him of his life force.
As mentioned above, Incarnate tackles the subject of demonic possession from a different perspective than other similar films. Ember believes that possessions are caused by entities (he doesn’t associate them with any religion, thus ejecting the word “demons” from his vocabulary) infecting a host’s aura. Rather than exorcise them out of the host, he believes that they can be evicted from inside the host’s subconscious. His version of an exorcism is to enter the host’s subconscious Inception-style and convince them that the fantasy world they are in is in fact a trick put upon by the entity inside of them. Once they realize they are in a fantasy they are able to evict the entity out of their body. It’s a great setup that unfortunately gives way to a lot of missed opportunities within Ronnie Christensen’s screenplay.
Incarnate falls victim to many common horror tropes. For example: whenever a character is explicitly told not to do something, guess what that character decides to do anyway? A character is told that they can say anything they want to Cameron but just don’t touch him. Guess what that character does? The film also telegraphs its third act so blatantly that it takes all suspense out of the proceedings. When a character is given a concoction as a failsafe in the first act and they make it a point to say they’ll never have to use anything like that, you know immediately that it will come into play in the final act (Checkhov’s Elixir, if you will). Incarnate foreshadows its narrative twists and turns explicitly to the point that you will see them coming all the way from the first act (one attempt to trick the audience into believing the subconscious world is reality fails miserably).
To top things off, the film just isn’t that scary. Peyton relies far too heavily on jump scares. He opts for those when restraint would have been the better choice. The film is competently directed but it feels impersonal. It’s almost as if Peyton didn’t particularly care about what he was doing, but what do you expect from the man who directed Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore? The film is also lacking a good villain. The entity inside Cameron, named Maggie (I swear I’m not making this up), is just like any other
demon entity you’ve seen in any other possession film. It doesn’t have any defining characteristics that differentiate it from those demons entities.
Yet with all of those negatives it’s still difficult to be too harsh on the film. It is trying something new, which is respectable. Even though Eckhart hams it up a bit, all of the players give committed, if somewhat bored-looking, performances. And as predictable as the whole film is, it is engaging. One can’t help but wonder about the film that could have been with a different screenwriter and director at the helm. Alas, that is not the case and this version of Incarnate is the one we are stuck with. Check this one out on Netflix in a few months, but don’t pay money to see it in theaters.