Following the massive success of The Exorcist back in 1973, there was a slew of exorcism based horror films that were nothing more than cheap knock offs. While the subgenre continues to thrive today, none can escape the inevitability of being compared to the William Friedkin classic.
Even the more recent ones which are incredibly highly regarded (such as The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Conjuring, and The Possession) are still following the same formula. It seemed impossible that anyone could do a truly fresh take on exorcism. That was until 2016’s Incarnate, which is uniquely brilliant in its own way, but sadly faded into obscurity in the last few years.
The Exorcist Meets Inception
Even the aforementioned highly acclaimed possession movies still followed the same beats and tropes of the subgenre. The demon slowly takes over the victim, and in the end it’s some sort of religious ritual that saves them.
Possession itself is very much a cerebral issue, with the demon acting as a foreign invader, taking over the mind and body of the possessed. Incarnate simply took this idea and ran with it. Dr. Ember (Aaron Eckhart) is by means a priest or religious leader, but his approach to expelling demons treats possession more like a physical/mental illness than a spiritual one.
It also gives us an interesting window into what the possessed feels during the process. We see how the demons create an idyllic world for them that’s artificial. And it begs the ultimate question (much like Inception did), how are we to know what’s real and what isn’t? If we were possessed right now, how could we tell if the aggressor gave is a beautiful illusion to live in?
Incarnate forgoes the holy water and “power of Christ compels you” dramatics for mind-bending dream worlds and the corridors of the mind represented in a physical space. Given how much the idea of possession is tied with mental capacity, it’s kind of surprising it took this long for a movie to use this approach.
Avoiding the Hi-Tech Horror Pitfall
While exorcism movies have their own clichés, there’s another subgenre that struggles even more. To be clear, we’re not talking about Sci-Fi Horror in general. There are plenty of amazing movies in that genre like Alien, Event Horizon, The Thing, and so many others.
What we’re referring to are the horror movies that tend to be set in modern day, but introduce some sort of hi-tech element to advance the plot. This can be seen on display in movies like Thirteen Ghosts, Flatliners, The Apparition, and The Lazarus Project (though to be fair, we’re referring the remakes for the first two mentioned films).
None of these movies are downright awful (except maybe The Apparition), but the hi-tech elements quickly became cheesy and dragged them down a bit. Incarnate manages to avoid this by keeping its dream-entering process/technology on the fringes and never really delving that deeply into it.
Had the movie featured a scientist giving some exposition heavy monologue about how it worked, it would have suffered the same fate as many of the previously mentioned films.
Ultimately, Incarnate succeeds because it doesn’t try all the same clichés and beats that every other exorcism movie tries. It goes for something completely different, and it deserves a lot more attention and recognition than it usually gets!
Incarnate is currently streaming on Netflix