Horror films aren’t admittedly for everyone. Not everyone can stand the adrenaline and point of watching a film that would elicit never-ending nightmares. What makes a horror film great however is the combination of its goal to bring out fear which we all have, together with a meaningful story. This is what the Taiwanese found-footage horror film, Incantation, hoped to bring to the table and we took the time to subject ourselves to the potential of being scared out of our wits to review the film in its entirety.
As mentioned, Incantation is a Taiwanese horror film which is directed by Kevin Ko, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Chang Che-Wei. It immediately rose to success in Taiwan by becoming the highest-grossing Taiwanese horror film of all time.
The film follows a woman named Ronan as she speaks directly to us, the audience as the film in itself is supposedly a retelling and compilation of the events that have occurred in her life — both in the past and present. The film shows two specific timelines and events that switch back and forth throughout the movie. The first occurs six years in the past, with Ronan and her boyfriend Dom and his cousin Yuan breaking a religious taboo and sacred ritual in a remote village which they went to film for their internet channel, Ghost Busters. During this particular sequence, we also learn that Ronan, to her surprise, is also pregnant.
This brings us to the second timeline/footage in the film — the present. Here, Ronan fights to regain full custody of her daughter Dodo who has been in a foster care home for the past six years while Ronan sought help in a psychiatric ward. Ronan tries to prove that she has healed from the trauma that occurred six years ago and that she is mentally fit to take care of Dodo. This proves to be a difficult task when malevolent forces haunt Ronan and more importantly her daughter, Dodo. Ronan captures every single moment on cam and must do all she can within her power to save herself and her family.
Incantation Review: Spoiler Warnings
This review of Incantation will for the most part be free from spoilers. We will therefore keep our Incantation review focused on the effectiveness of the found footage cinematography style, the film’s story, and the overall horror direction.
I will immediately answer the question above with a hard no. Incantation’s effect in a horror movie doesn’t occur after. You won’t really get many nightmares from the film per se. It is still however terrify as you watch it. The scares and thrills all occur as you view the film but it doesn’t have a long-lasting impact. In fact, the film as a whole may be a tad bit forgettable. This isn’t to say that the watching experience isn’t fun or exciting as it truly is. There is even a heavy looming vibe that surrounds you as you watch it and the after-effects may take a few minutes or hours causing viewers to keep the light on as they make their way to the bathroom but it will immediately pass. If you are looking for the fun and thrill that come with a horror film, Incantation draws you right in from the first few seconds alone.
I must admit that the overall direction of the movie is truly terrifying and in a good way considering the goal as a horror flick. It was attention-grabbing how the film opened up and it managed to keep my attention for the most part. I do have to mention that the back and forth between the two timelines in Ronan’s life was a bit tasking to follow as it occurred abruptly and without warning at times. The transitions, therefore, weren’t as seamless and smooth and can be confusing at times. The way the film established the connection with the audience however was what made Incantation truly horrifying and remarkable in terms of its storytelling devices.
The film, through Ronan, often broke the fourth wall — talking to viewers directly for the majority of the film. This was what made the movie even scarier — audience participation. As viewers, we are dragged into the story itself and are made into characters that have a very important role. It’s scary to think of it that way because there is almost a mind game effect happening here that puts the viewer right smack in the middle of the horrifying story. The moments where Ronan asks the audience to recite the very incantation and memorize some evil and Satanic-looking symbols are enough to raise the hair at the back of your neck and on your arms as you watch. I personally had to put my device on mute as the incantation was uttered and closed my eyes every time the demonic-looking symbols were flashed on the screen. It has that capability to mess with rational thinking at times but it’s also a brilliant and creative manner of adding more horror elements into the mix.
Is Found Footage Horror Still Effective?
The answer to this one isn’t as simple. The found footage sub-genre in itself poses some logistical and logical concerns. The idea that a person — most of the time in the form of our main character — is wielding and recording all the action is quite preposterous at times. It’s illogical to be running around being haunted by ghosts or aliens while still hanging on tight to record everything that occurs. Maybe in the age of smartphones, it wouldn’t be an overly far-fetched idea but it’s still funny and weird if you think about it. A lot of films especially in the horror genre have done this type of film format, however — Paranormal Activity, The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, and even a time-traveling sci-fi flick called Project Almanac.
Incantation falls under this illogical use of the sub-genre. It does however manage to innovate it to some degree. The inclusion of the viewers as mentioned manage to create a very innovative manner of utilizing a filming technique/trend that honestly should have ended years ago. There is that immersive quality in some parts of the film and it does feel like a documentary type of found footage, meant for a specific audience, which apparently is us. There are a variety of various techniques and formats used to make the found footage all the more exciting to witness such as slow motion replays, the aforementioned breaking of the fourth wall, and even the collage-type editing of other clips and images. Incantation for the most part however focuses on the shaky camera experience that gives the illusion or feeling of Ronan using a handheld camera. There is that raw element that comes with this effect and despite being shaky it veers away from being overwhelming and strenuous on our part.
Incantation however also falls under the trap of being inconsistent and forms some logistical dilemmas as well that come with the said genre. It becomes confusing at times as to who is really holding the camera given that it’s not just focused on one character and therefore the vehicle of filmmaking in the world of the movie itself becomes tasking to follow. There are moments when the abrupt shifts can catch viewers off guard. It does become clear after a while but a little backtracking must be done in order to fully follow what occurs in the movie.
A Film With Substance?
This is where Incantation admittedly has some success. The story. There is a proper backbone of a story embedded amidst all the jump-scares and horror elements that make the film worthwhile to see. At the core of Incantation is a story about a relentless mother who will do everything to love and protect her daughter. The relationship is highlighted to the best of the film’s ability despite losing its way sometimes with the seemingly meaningless flashbacks. This brings meaning to the story that most horror films lack as the primary goal at times shifts to becoming just about the scares. This film on the other hand presents everything as a supporting element to the main story that takes place and despite a mixed ending — positive and heavy at the same time — Incantation still succeeds in terms of its story.
Tsai Hsuan-yen has to be given props here for her impeccable portrayal of Ronan. I’m not that familiar with Taiwanese films so I have to point out comparison when it comes to this actress and her other works but seeing Hsuan-yen in this film for the first time showed range and the ability to showcase the fear and at the same time protective nature of a mother. It was believable for the most part and being that this specific role required Ronan to be the primary vehicle of the story, the actress allowed viewers to be pulled further into the story.
Incantation Review: Final Verdict
As seen in our Incantation Review there are admittedly some flaws to the story and overall use of the found footage sub-genre. The story in itself doesn’t provide anything new and is just plain and straightforward. At times it’s even confusing due to the two-part story-telling device it entails with its back and forth and abrupt return to flashbacks. The manner in which the story is told however is fascinating as the found footage genre has been elevated in adding even more horrific elements with the use of b-rolls, breaking of the fourth wall, and a variety of creepy imagery and camera angles. It’s a pretty decent horror film that brings just enough fear while allowing a meaningful story to take center stage.
Hype Meter: 6/10
Do you agree with our review of Incantation? You can watch the film now on Netflix.
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