2 stars out of 4
As I mentioned in last week’s column, I make a concerted effort to see any movie with a Satanic theme because I spent a lot of my childhood scared shitless of the devil. Not only does this make the movies a bit scarier for me because of some vestigial terror, but it does double duty as a bit of therapy.
But it can have a negative effect too, because I am more disappointed by a bad movie about the devil than I am any other kind of horror film. Can’t they see what makes him so scary? Why can’t they all be as complex and disturbing as, say, Robert Eggers’s fascinating The Witch? As audacious in their casting as Constantine (a seriously underappreciated action horror film; watch it again for the great Tilda Swinton as a gender-swapped Gabriel and Peter Stormare as a literally unctuous Satan)? As literary in its pretentions as The Ninth Gate? As just-plain-wacky as The Devil’s Advocate?
How come they’re so often as dull as The Incarnation? Is it one of Old Scratch's evil plans to bore us so?
You can tell how rote Incarnate will be from the first five minutes. A young boy with the requisite bowl haircut (the haircut of horror movie children, boys and girls alike, since at least Danny from Kubrick's Shining adaptation, if not before) is menaced by a growling homeless woman as he and his mother, played by Game of Thrones’ Carice van Houten, enter their apartment building. This is a misstep; the film seems to think that a homeless woman with mental health issues is an appropriate first scare, and it is not. From a liberal perspective, class- and mental-health shaming are cheaply offensive, and from the horror fanatic’s view, there has only ever been one scary homeless person in the history of horror film, and it was in Hellraiser. Two, if you count the dwarf from Don’t Look Now, although I cannot recall from that film whether she owns a home, rents, or has another arrangement.
At any rate, the snarling-homeless-person is a trope that has been used so often that its inclusion in a contemporary horror film feels like it should be a red herring, a distraction from something more sophisticated and less obvious. Not so in Incarnate, which has, moments later, the homeless woman dropping from the ceiling onto the aforementioned Bowl Haircut Boy, possessing him.
We know this because he spends the remainder of the film sitting cross-legged on the floor of his bedroom, staring. We are invited to shiver with fear at the sight of a boy sitting quietly. I am not a parent, but I have worked in retail for a long time and there are times when a child’s bawling mixes perfectly with the awful pop song playing with tinny cheeriness over the store’s speakers. Perhaps the song is "Best Day of My Life" by American Authors, one of the worst songs ever written, and one which plays constantly at every place I have ever worked. In such moments I like to thank God that the kids are not sitting quietly, possessed. But personal experience ought not to effect critical acumen. The actor playing Bowl Haircut Boy, it must be noted, is very good at remaining still.
The movie also stars Aaron Eckhart as a someone who is not an exorcist (“Let’s get one thing straight,” he growls early on. “I’m not an exorcist). He is, instead, an evictor. He goes into the heads of people who are possessed and evicts the demon, although the specifics of this are vague and largely cobbled together out of more memorable films. There are story and character beats collected here as cheaply as if they fell out the back of a truck. Think Inception, The Matrix, The Shining and The Omen all boiled together, after the English style, until they lose all flavor and shape.
At one point Bowl Haircut Boy kills a man by lifting him into the air and then dropping him from a height of about seven feet. Now, malnutrition and a lack of exercise have rendered me nearly as fragile as a fat little dauphin, but I think that even I could survive a fall like that. But in the film the descent is fatal. Perhaps there is a subplot somewhere on the cutting room floor in which they reveal that the man has glass bones, or is allergic to the floor.
Since Aaron Eckhart the evictor must go into people’s minds, the viewer is forgiven for hoping that there’ll be some trippy shit once they go into Bowl Haircut Boy’s demonic dream. Not so. The boy dreams that he is in a public park and then later a carnival. It is as if Inception took place in Norman Rockwell’s afternoon catnap.
The Arch-Demon, when we meet her, is in the guise of (surprise) a scary old lady who mutters mock-demonic gibberish about torturing everyone the Evictor loves. This occurs for no reason. The demon has no reason to dislike him, except that it gives the movie a reason to start and, by extension, eventually and mercifully end.
Things would be whole plots in other movies are dispensed with in one or two lines of dialogue so vague as to be funny. At one point, Eckhart the Evictor tells us his origin story.
“When I was 29, I discovered I could enter into the dreams of people possessed by the devil.”
How was this discovery made? This seems like the kind of thing that would be difficult to accidentally discover. Did he work at a day care for possessed kids at nap time? Was it maybe on a long flight? I assume that might have been an interesting story for us to hear, but the movie, maybe because it is bored with itself, keeps it to itself.
I cannot say anything more about the movie because it was instantly forgettable, and so I have already forgotten all but the broadest strokes. There was something about a capsule of blood harvested from a Vatican exorcist, I think. There was also something about a car crash, which I think was supposed to be tragic. Also, a lot of the actresses looked the same.
One thing is for certain – no one sheds a tear for the poor homeless woman who gets her neck broken in the first scene. Maybe if she had been an heiress or something the movie would have cared enough to at least give her a name. I think that Bowl Haircut Boy must have had a name, but it was not memorable enough to recall it. All that I clearly remember, in fact, was sitting quietly staring straight ahead, like a thing possessed.