Never heard of Incarnate? Of course not – it’s another under-the-radar Blumhouse special without any marketing campaign, starring a random Hollywood actor (Aaron Eckhart) who’s seemingly thrown to the proverbial low-budget production wolves.
Much like The Darkness or Visions or The Veil, there’s a reason why Blumhouse is sweeping Incarnate under the mainstream rug – much to director Brad Peyton’s despair – but, frankly, it’s the film’s own fault. Maybe Blumhouse would have been a little more sympathetic if this demonic possession flick wasn’t so-generic-it-hurts boring, even with a dash of Wachowski magic added to the fold (by way of The Matrix inspiration). Also, can someone please save David Mazouz from 2016 already, so he can stop starring in underwhelming Blumhouse horror fare?
Eckhart stars as family-man-turned-wheelchair-riding-super-exorcist Dr. Seth Ember, whose specialty is “evicting” demons (aka “parasites”) from the minds of possessed victims. He figured out that when a demon takes over someone’s earthly vessel, the human body simply goes to sleep and is worked like a puppet. To save these souls, Seth chemically induces sleep so he can enter the victim’s demon dream and break their hypnosis, waking them up with no recollection of anything. This is the method Seth is to use on his latest “patient” – an 11-year-old boy named Cameron (David Mazouz) – but it’s going to be his toughest case to date. The one where he takes on his greatest challenge yet…MAGGIE.
No. Seriously. Seth has devoted his remaining life to hunting a demon dubbed “Maggie.” Not “Barakus The Bastardizer” or something awesome. We’re supposed to fear a Walking Dead character or something…but I digress.
The biggest problem for me with Ronnie Christensen’s script is that established rules are forgotten as if each character suffers from situational Alzheimer’s. Every scene is built on a character ignoring commands given only minutes prior. “Whatever you do, don’t touch the boy.” Oh look, supporting character #1 got close enough to touch him! “EVERYONE BACK AWAY AND DON’T TOUCH HIM!” says a hysterical friend as she proceeds to touch the body she JUST told everyone to back away from. “I can’t force you to wake up, you have to choose to” Seth instructs – only to save a victim by pushing them out of a window totally not by their own choice (it’s a window in their dreamscape. The fall helps them wake up. I don’t know).
These aren’t even the most damning examples, either. Incarnate ends with such an ignorant mistreatment of established plot information that my head started spinning like Linda Blair’s in The Exorcist, to the point where you have to admire such a blatant disregard for context.
Then there’s the issue of genre redundancy and an embarrassing dive into inexcusable generics, considering how Christensen’s premise uniquely addresses a tired arc. The whole plugging into possessed dreams to vanquish demons sounds rad. Dark invaders prey on happy thoughts by spinning fantasy realms for their host soul to become lost in, as the demon wears a fleshy meat sack while fake ecstasy is chased. In theory, genre fans have an invigorated take on possession thrillers that blends science, technology and ancient terrors in a pretty cool way.
In practice, Peyton’s vision slogs and disappoints. Whenever Seth turns the tables on dreamland demons, there’s never a fight of hellish proportions. Victims merely see dream inhabitants with black eyes instead of human ones to denote their separation from fantasy, and run away from one single aggressor despite being surrounded by crowds of imaginary civilians (think NPCs from video games).
Even the one boss battle Incarnate eventually climaxes to can’t scare up any worthwhile exorcism thrills. Seth’s undead nemesis is never fully shown on screen, and even when an arm or leg makes it into frame, it’s blurred worse than a Japanese porno. No contorted bodies, no gnarly creatures, no real aggressors to battle – and that’s not even addressing how Cameron’s happy places are the most obvious clippings from any horror textbook (Oh look, a carnival. Oh look, A FUNHOUSE. OH LOOK, A HALL OF MIRRORS).
Eckhart plays the only character worth a damn to Incarnate, and even he just sleepwalks (sleeprolls?) through Peyton’s dead-air rescue attempt. Keir O’Donnell and Emily Jackson play Seth’s stereotype punk-goth assistants – who aren’t even dating or anything. They just graduated from Damn The Man Academy with sterling degrees, and paired up with a grungy-rock looking madman. Even worse, Carice van Houten hams it up as a distraught mother and Catalina Sandino Moreno is a sexy Vatican contact, not really scoring one for the ladies. The farther you dig, the more you realize how Eckhart’s unenthusiastic portrayal of an obsessive demon hunter is somehow the best bit of acting in the whole production, and even at that, there’s a lack of spunk that someone like Thomas Jane might have delivered.
Peyton’s nail in the coffin is a choice to play Incarnate extremely straight, with no dramatic benefit. I mention Jane above because Eckhart’s performance is dry, and not made of genre material meant to embellished fear. Settings are pristine and cheery (or just black rooms with blue doors) even when victims are “running for their lives,” while characters all deliver lines with droll, unflinching faces. O’Donnell’s comedic quips are rarely met with laughs (unlike his washable tattoo body collage), which leads to dramatized horror that doesn’t even offer said horror. Possessions without paranoia. Exorcisms without excitement. What a characterless, ill-conceived tease.
Actually, there may be one person – or group of people – excited about Incarnate…musicians AWOLNATION! Their song “Sail” hasn’t been relevant since 2014, but not only does it find a home mid-film, it also plays us out during the credits. Surely you all know the synthy club hit from years back, no?! Take this example to note how out-of-touch Brad Peyton’s flatlining demonic daydream wills itself to be, never saved by stone-faced performances or a tone that favors drama over fangs-out exorcism nightmares. You’ve seen this collection of scenes a billion times over, probably with the same unenthusiastic veneer. Save yourself the ticket price and wait until it immediately hits Nextflix – then just watch Deathgasm instead.
Incarnate is just another buried Blumhouse special, and I assure you its neglect is with good reason.