Written by: Ronnie Christensen
Directed by: Brad Peyton
Starring: Carice van Houten, Aaron Eckhart, David Mazouz
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Faith has failed us.
Given their absurdly prodigious output, I like to imagine Blumhouse just has stacks and stacks of scripts lying about. Likewise, you have to wonder if they don't often Frankstenstein together stuff disparate stacks, especially when confronted by something like Incarnate, which begins as the infuriating umpteenth riff on The Exorcist, only to take a hard turn into fucking Dreamscape territory. It’s just too bad that it doesn’t feel like a calculated move so much as it seems like someone mixed up the script piles, leaving us with a half-assed effort that doesn’t nearly do its concept much justice.
You start off wondering just how hard you can roll your fucking eyes at Incarnate. Here we are with yet another beleaguered, single-parent home, complete with an overworked mother and her innocent moppet son, Jake (Emjay Anthony). To its credit, the film does not futz around, as Jake is promptly menaced by a possessed homeless woman, who inexplicably falls from the ceiling before trying to strangle the kid to death. Instead, Jake somehow manages to savagely snap her neck since the demon transferred itself into his body during the struggle. Luckily for him and his mom, the Vatican is apparently really on top of their shit and immediately dispatches an emissary to track down Dr. Seth Ember (Aaron Eckhart), a therapist with the ability to literally leap into the minds of the possessed—who, by the way, are not possessed so much as they’ve been infected by a spiritual parasite or whatever.
Honestly, I spent the first few minutes wondering why anyone would even bother to make something like Incarnate. Surely, this is one well that’s been ruthlessly and thoroughly exhausted in recent years, so you’d better bring something new to the table when drawing from it now. Admittedly, Incarnate does so: I breathed a subconscious sigh of relief when I realized this wasn’t going to be just another Exorcist rip-off, and you could certainly do worse than to crossbreed this sort of thing with the likes of the aforementioned Dreamscape (or Inception, which seems to be the more likely influence). Of course, the filmmakers here actually do manage to do worse because this is just a limp, haphazard mash-up: it starts as one thing, then it’s another thing—and then it’s nothing, really.
It’d be nice to at least give Incarnate some credit for the pseudoscientific/fantasy wrinkle it adds. "The Exorcist by way of Inception" inspires a grand vision of mind-warping dreamscapes interspersed with horrific imagery, but there’s nothing of that sort here. Instead, Ember’s trips inside his targets’ minds amount to a couple of scenes in mostly normal locations: seedy bars, a city park, and a carnival. Just about the only thing that seems odd about these sequences are the sudden appearances of doorways and characters’ pupils turning black via the tired CGI trick we’ve seen in a billion other demonic possession movies (rough estimate). The carnival setting—which lends itself to obvious freakiness—is especially disappointing (I mean, they don’t even get any mileage out of a funhouse), but it’s a microcosm of Incarnate as a whole: I keep wondering why you’d dream up this high concept and do so little with it. Bold strategy, Cotton.
Oddly enough, by not taking advantage of its unique wrinkle, Incarnate winds up feeling an awful lot like those other possession movies. Hell, it practically invites a comparison to the granddaddy of them all with an ending ripped straight from The Exorcist. Of course, that’s just about the only way it invites comparison because nothing else—the minimal gore (which seems to have been surgically removed for the PG-13 rating), the lame effects, the virtually nonexistent tension—measures up. Everything’s just so half-hearted, including the little bit that does work, namely Ember and his ragtag crew that helps him jack into his targets’ subconscious. If nothing else, their rapport is believable enough, and you could easily imagine a better, more energetic version of this story where their chemistry might be able to bounce off each other, resulting in something much livelier than this.
Because let’s face it: Incarnate is a self-serious drag, a movie that’s so convinced of its own profundity that it sucks all of the fun right out of the premise. Glimpses of that more entertaining film peek through occasionally (certainly, this is the only movie where you can see Aaron Eckhart throw down with Mark Henry), but it mostly trudges along, content to hit every predictable beat imaginable, right down to the eye-roller of a conclusion that you see coming a mile away as soon as they mention the demon travels via physical contact. Suffering the most from this is Eckhart, who is doing his damnedest to make Incarnate compelling.
There’s only so much he can do, though, especially when he’s tasked with playing such an overdone cliché: Ember is a paralyzed burn-out, as absurdly evidenced by his shaggy hair and perpetual 5 o’clock shadow. Haunted by the loss of his wife and son in a car accident, he’s committed his life to tracking down the demon responsible, and no matter how ludicrously entertaining that sounds, rest assured Incarnate isn’t. Not only does this premise deserve better, but so too does Eckhart, a performer whose inherent sense of decency becomes unintentionally pathetic here.
Incarnate is the sort of effort from Blumhouse that leaves you wondering about their decision-making process. How does something like this thud its way into theaters while something like The Town that Dreaded Sundown goes straight to VOD? Honestly, who even needs Incarnate in the year 2016? Despite its cool premise, just about everything it offers has been done somewhere else and done much better. In fact, its ending is not only a reminder that you could just watch The Exorcist, but also a reminder that you should really be watching the terrific Exorcist television series instead of this. It might take up several more hours of your time, but it is certainly much more worthwhile use of it.
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