Incantation is embarrassing.
It’s a Taiwanese seemingly mockumentary(?) horror film that was released internationally through Netflix, of course, on July 8th of 2022. It was written and directed by Kevin Ko, and is currently the highest-grossing Taiwanese horror film of all time, apparently.
The premise of the film is that a dysfunctional mother named Ronan receives custody of her previously emancipated daughter, named Dodo, and attempts to rebuild their relationship. However, her history returns to haunt her, as we discover that Ronan’s life- and Dodo’s gestation- bear horrific consequences.
I had Incantation on my watchlist for a good while, and shortly after its release, I’d heard a notable amount of praise from sources I generally hold with esteem. Not to mention my established sweet spot for found-footage and mockumentary horrors, which this film was. Basically.
The first thing I noticed about Incantation was its presentation; the film seemed like it was supposed to just be found-footage at first, but almost immediately, the audience is met with generic and distracting music thrown over the scenes. Annoying and entirely unremarkable musical cues and transitions, the same “dramatization” tunes we’ve heard in absolutely every other shitty horror film. Initially, it was just a disappointing decision, but as the film progressed, it became egregiously distracting and annoying. There were scenes that I felt would’ve served pretty decently, had their quality not been robbed by bland and basic fright music that was clearly added in post-production.
There was a scene toward the beginning of the film where the protagonist hears a woman crying outside her apartment, and presses her ear against the door of an elevator to hear it more clearly, but the scene is absolutely trashed by shitty musical cues that muddy up the whole event and any other sound effects beneath them.
Yet despite that choice in directed presentation, the film doesn’t even feel like it’s intended to be displayed as an authentic documentary. The editing is consistently subpar and even cringe-worthy at times. It’s also another factor to the film that actually detracted from the material in some instances, robbing what would otherwise be adequate or even decent scenes with shoddy execution.
For example, there’s a scene where the principal at the child’s school is playing a game with her in a hallway, and he captures a shot of her standing in front of a pair of lanky, clammy arms protruding from the side. It’s even done in a way that I found reminiscent of YouTube “ghost” video examinations, like NukesTop5. But the way the footage ends is with a clearly deliberate and unconvincing shaking of the camera, and a cut to nothing. The shot doesn’t look as though the principal dropped his phone, or began running toward the child in defense, it’s just clearly synthetic jittering. Which is a small detail, admittedly, but just one example of many poor editing choices presented in the film.
The cinematography overall ranges from adequate and acceptable to blatantly staged and unconvincing. Ronan holds her camera throughout the film in a clearly deliberate and steady manner despite constantly being supposedly concerned for her daughter’s safety and the obvious supernatural activity. She just happens to drop and set down her camera in manners that very effectively capture everything critical in focus with absolutely no error? Fuck off.
The performances go from adequate to pretty shitty as well. The protagonist has instances of impressive range and delivery occasionally, but there were far more where I found her to be either very cheesy or very much over-performing. Other characters vary of course, and are generally fine, but certainly no one stands out with exceptional quality. And there are some scenes that are a complete mess in that regard all-around, notably I found myself cringing during a scene where a multitude of worms appear in a dressing room and two characters freak the absolute fuck out. (Which is another scene that I found to be edited rather shittily, I might add.)
Incantation’s script is definitely a mess too. A fair amount of dialogue is immediately heavily expository, or just less than authentic or engaging. It’s also a script very rife with cliches: Spooky little girl seeing supernatural entities that her mother can’t, getting into trouble at school. A group of young adults trekking into a secluded cult village in the mountains, which also has a spooky little girl worshipping a god that demands flesh, a dysfunctional horror mother trying to do her best by her child but just scraping by and otherwise making things worse, etc.
There were also facets to scenes that just didn’t make sense to me. So, like always: the following pieces of this review will contain spoilers for the film, and if you retain interest in watching it, I advise you do so now before proceeding.
There’s a scene early in the film that contains footage of Ronan, her boyfriend and his cousin, taken some years prior to the main story, where they feign a paranormal investigation of the boyfriend’s family’s village during a ritual he’s never participated in before. On the way there, their car is stopped by a fucking Buddha statue that just appears behind one of their back tires. It’s not even a big statue or anything, nor is it embedded by any means. They just run over something, stop the car and then see it sitting behind the tire. What kind of stupid shit is that? How would that even stay behind your tires, let alone hinder the operation of your fucking vehicle?
There is a scene where Ronan is rehabilitating Dodo, who is exceptionally weak and essentially incapable of using her limbs. Ronan is walking with her, but literally just falls to the floor with them both as though she’s also weak and somehow straining herself. Nothing tripped her, she didn’t faint from diabetes or something, she just collapses with her fucking anemic five-year-old. Is she just that dysfunctional?
There is a scene where Ronan has taken Dodo to a hospital for emergency care, and while in the waiting room, she decides to watch a clip of the footage from her village trip years ago that was otherwise unwatchable, having been repaired and sent to her phone by someone who investigated. We see her pull out her phone from the video camera she has stuffed in her bag or whatever beside her, and then we see what’s on the screen of the phone from a completely different and never previously-seen camera that is zoomed in perfectly over her shoulder to capture the entirety of her screen. Where the fuck did your 2nd camera come from? Is she suddenly being filmed by some stranger from directly behind her? Is that supposed to be a state-of-the-art crystal-clear 4K hospital camera that was placed in a way that perfectly zooms and captures her entire phone screen over her shoulder? What the fuck are you doing?
On top of all of that, the twist at the end is that Ronan’s narrations and displays of the cult’s symbol and recurring chant throughout the runtime of the film is supposed to spread the curse to everyone who watches her bullshit footage and lift the burden from those who bear it so she can save her daughter. A twist that is not remotely original, is ridiculously predictable, and ultimately disappointing.
There are some scenes in Incantation that I thought were notable. A scene in which Dodo climbs to a rooftop definitely stopped my heart for a moment. A scene where an old woman is filmed seriously injuring or killing herself with molten glass was pretty alright, albeit cut off a bit too soon for my tastes. Ronan’s footage of trying to escape the village was generally decent, and even captivating, but riddled with poor executions primarily in editing. And a scene with a possessed miracle woman was appropriately unnerving, but the conveniently and comically flickering light and jumpscare made me roll my eyes.
In closing, Incantation tried. I can’t argue against that. And there are some nuggets of quality to be found, I’ll fully concede. But the amount of annoying, unoriginal, amateur, subpar waste you have to sift through to find them just isn’t worth it to me. The film will not be remaining in my library.
That’s my piece.