Dr. Seth Ember (Aaron Eckhart) doesn’t exorcise demons from the possessed. He isn’t a member of the clergy. He doesn’t splash holy water or compel with the power of Christ. Dr. Seth Ember evicts “parasitic non-corporeal entities” from the minds and bodies of the people they are feeding on. He jumps into the minds of the victims, bringing with him the realization that the world they perceive themselves to inhabit is merely a trick of the “demon” in its attempt to absorb all of its host’s life force. He also gives the victims the power to escape from the spirit’s clutches and push them out.
Incarnate hit theaters last Friday with a whimper, as most bad horror movies released during Oscar season tend to do. Directed by Brad Peyton, Incarnate begins exactly how one would expect. Lindsay (Carice van Houten), and her young son Cameron (David Mazouz) walk back to their apartment with groceries. Cameron makes eye contact with a deranged woman rummaging through the garbage across the street. Can the movie possibly foreshadow harder?
Yes. Yes it can. While the characters cook spaghetti, the audience learns that Cameron’s father was an abusive alcoholic and that Lindsay has cut him out of their lives. Cameron clearly misses his father, in spite of his flaws. Later that night, Cameron hears a strange noise coming from the kitchen. Cue fake jump scare/real jump scare cliché. The noise is just the wind through the open window (fake jump scare), but when Cameron goes to close it, some horrible shape rushes in (real jump scare). Lo and behold, it’s the deranged, and clearly possessed woman he saw earlier. She attacks him, and the demon “jumps” from her to him. Now the movie can truly begin.
Simply put, Incarnate should not be nominated for any Academy Awards this year. But Incarnate does have its bright spots. First, the story is actually decent. It’s different from your average, every-day demon/exorcism movie. The idea that religion isn’t the basis for the mythology of the movie, at least in the opinion of the main character, is refreshing. Dr. Ember’s ability to drive the entity out from within the mind of the victims is a new take on classic exorcism.
Most of the acting in Incarnate is sufficient. There are a few characters who feel out of place in the movie, but the big names in this movie aren’t obviously phoning it in. Eckhart does a very good job with his role, as does van Houten. Mazouz is equally impressive in his role as Cameron, especially considering that most child actors are not good at acting yet.
The problem is that these high points do not have the strength to save the movie. Incarnate could be good, if it weren’t for its constant and tiresome clichés. To run through a few, Incarnate uses the “You need to take a look at this” cliché, the “You know who I am?” cliché in which the demon knows exactly who Dr. Ember is as if that is supposed to make it creepier, and the “[insert anything here] could never happen!” and then it happens cliché. There has been a change for the worse in the way horror movies, at least in the past few years, try to scare the audience. Most of the bad horror movies do this, and it’s not just a coincidence. They use jump scares in place of actual horror. Jump scares are scary. But they don’t make a horror movie good. Jump scares are cheap ways to frighten the audience. A good horror movie should be scary because the subject matter, or the characters, or the story is genuinely frightening, not because every 10 minutes there is a loud noise and something flashes across the screen. This is not to say that horror movies shouldn’t or can’t have jump scares. They are great for getting the adrenaline pumping. This is simply to say that a story should be what makes a movie good, regardless of genre.
What really holds Incarnate back, however, is its clunky exposition. The writing in this movie makes it seem like some characters only exist to ask a question so something can be explained to the audience. Movies should show, not tell. Most good movies show everything the audience needs to understand the situation on the screen. They trust the actors to act well and they trust the audience to be smart enough to understand what is going on. Incarnate does not.
Incarnate has the potential to be a good movie, but it holds itself back. It is one of the better generic horror movies, so if a 90-minute scary story is the goal, Incarnate is the means to an end.
Featured Image By Blumhouse Tilt