"Incarnate" is the latest from horror factory Blumhouse Productions, the studio behind the "Saw" and "Purge" franchises. I shared my screening with only one other person, an older gentleman who fell asleep about a third of the way through then left before it ended. I wonder which of us enjoyed the movie less. This is a ninety minute eye roll with fewer scares than I have fingers to a hand and hokey "thrills" more deserving of a Direct-to-DVD bargain bin than the big screen. It is so limp and lifeless a film that I can't muster up the give-a-damn to hate it. It has all the impact of wind broken on an elevator: deeply unpleasant but forgotten the moment the doors open and you go about your day.
The premise is familiar. A powerful demon possesses 11-year old Cameron and the Vatican consults Dr. Seth Ember to give it the boot. But in a twist on the typical formula, Ember is not a priest but a man of science. His work is eviction, not exorcism! Demons aren't hellspawn, they're just like any ol' malignant parasitic energy! Rather than compelling the demon with crucifixes and holy water and all that religious mumbo-jumbo, Ember evicts from within by using his aura to "dive" into the victim's mind - you know, with science! - where he punches the demon in the face while he convinces the possessed to reject the demon by jumping through a window.
An updated formula is still a formula though, and despite the pseudoscientific additions there are no surprises as "Incarnate" explains the convoluted logic and arbitrary rules of its poorly conceived "Inception" knockoff over pages and pages of clumsy exposition that both bore and hint at every plot twist and dramatic turn in painfully obvious ways. I may not be able to articulate why Ember's "dives" can only last eight minutes, but I sure as hell knew how the movie would end within twenty.
On the subject of the script, it's amazing to see talented actors struggle with such miserable material. The writing is incredibly bad. Conversations consist of a series of escalating clichés delivered with all the dramatic nuance of an afternoon soap. "That's why I'm the only chance you've got." "I'm the one she wants!" and so forth, endlessly. I actually made a game of guessing a characters' next line. It was a depressingly easy game to win.
I'm willing to give the cast a pass on their performances because the characters aren't written as flesh-and-blood humans. The actors are never given an opportunity to explore their characters beyond a single defining trait or part. Take Ember. He clearly had a falling out with the Catholic Church at some point and more importantly has personal beef with the demon possessing Cameron. But he is written as a generic gruff badass who never shows vulnerability, so Eckhart grunts and grumbles his way into through a bland performance. Mazouz, whose work on "Gotham" is quite good, plays the stereotypical possessed child. He does exactly the things you'd expect and nothing you wouldn't. Boring. "Game of Thrones" veteran Carice van Houten plays Cameron's mother and is reduced to staring at a screen saying very worried-sounding things. Ugh.
At one point "Incarnate" winks at itself, joking that it avoids the spinning heads and vomit that are so typical of the genre. But in directly referencing "The Exorcist," the film drives home how lessor a copy it is, stripped of compelling themes like loss of self, faith and doubt. It portrays possession through digitally-deepened voices and red contact lenses, positively G-rated compared to Regan MacNeil's shocking transformation. Exorcism itself - sorry, eviction - is reduced to a couple of lame action sequences; there is nothing as compelling as the deeply personal struggles of Fathers Merrin and Karras. It's not even scary! I counted a total of three jump scares that were so telegraphed I actually become annoyed waiting for them to hit.
Well, it got my six bucks anyway. After the credits rolled, I processed the movie over pizza and decided to compare my notes with a few reviews by professional critics. The first one I pulled up suggested that a sequel could be really good. As I read, a chill ran down my spine.
Finally, "Incarnate" managed a scare.