“Incarnate,” a thriller with prominent horror elements mixed in, is a film with a few interesting ideas connected by a cliché demonic possession story with little to keep its audience engaged for its 91 minute runtime. While containing a few genuinely fresh ideas, it seems too content to play it safe and keep it from becoming more than just a mediocre possession film that audiences are best left avoiding.
Directed by Brad Peyton of “San Andreas” fame, and produced jointly by Blumhouse and WWE Studios, it already has quite a bit working against it. WWE Studios is hardly known for its quality library of releases and Blumhouse, while important in the world of modern horror, they are responsible for the Paranormal Activity series and they are involved with as many popular releases as they are monumental flops.
It’s important to understand the lineage of “Incarnate” when digging into it because, by all accounts, there are a few elements that work surprisingly well in spite of itself. Lead actor Aaron Eckhart plays Seth Ember, a wheelchair-bound exorcist – and an atheistic one at that – whose all-consuming grudge against the demon that took his family is portrayed believably, although sometimes his performance comes across as hammy.
The film does a great job in regards to Eckhart's character, in that he does seem willing to do anything and everything to avenge his family, and admits to the mother of a possessed boy that he is in this for himself. It also portrays him, at times, as a genuinely intimidating figure regardless of his disability.
However, Eckhart is the only actor who really gets any chance to shine throughout the film and even then this focus is more to make him seem “cool” and “edgy” instead of a character with real depth. Because of this, not only do viewers never get to learn more about his deceased family, they also never learn much about the supporting cast either.
Ember is assisted in his exorcisms – or “evictions,” as he calls them – by his employees Oliver (Keir O'Donnell) and Riley (Emily Jackson) who call to mind the supporting cast of a show like “American Pickers” or “Counting Cars,” as opposed to something like the “Exorcist” – which is directly referenced at one point – or “Insidious.” This is actually a novel idea, which is why it’s even more of a shame that Ember was the only character the movie focused on.
Viewers who have seen any other “possession” horror film will likely be able to predict every beat and twist in “Incarnate.” While it is more of a thriller than a horror movie, this plays more of a role in the tone of the film rather than the story and presentation itself. There are no real scares, the story isn’t complex enough to serve as a real thriller and due to its one-dimensional characters, there is little to remain invested in.
The film does a good job of playing with the conceit of an atheist exorcist, and a few scenes make good use of this, pointing out how possessions and ways to handle them are hardly exclusive to Christian lore. Parallel to this, audiences also see church-sanctioned exorcists who play with the darker sides of science, including making drugs to better augment their powers and perform tests on possessed persons. Another interesting aspect of the film is the way in which “evictions” are accomplished; as the exorcist more or less engages in the task, similar to that in "Inception," of entering the afflicted person's mind and convincing them that the illusions the demons show them aren’t real.
Sadly, the film is nearly impossible to recommend. Almost every other possession film out there has been either scarier or had a more interesting cast. A few interesting ideas and questions won’t save “Incarnate” from being remembered as an ultimately shallow and clumsily written movie that plays out almost exactly as one would imagine.