Incantation (Taiwan, 2022)
In the run-up to October, a number of people suggested I put Incantation on my list for this year. Maybe its popularity is largely because it shines in comparison to most horror films on Netflix, but it does seem to have a vocal fan base. I was also keen to watch more Taiwanese horror after last year’s superb mon mon mon MONSTERS, so on the list it went.
I’ve also been giving a lot of thought recently to my long-standing dislike of found-footage horror. The recent episode of the Tear Them Apart podcast about Lake Mungo and subsequent discussion with the hosts on social media has me reconsidering some of my prejudices. Maybe the comparative recency of the format makes the bad films stand out more. Sure, it offers an easy way for unskilled filmmakers to cash in with cheap, artless efforts, but that’s hardly unique in horror cinema.
I’m slowly coming around to the view that found footage is simply as susceptible to Sturgeon’s law as any other creative endeavour. Sure, there are tropes that irritate the hell out of me (read on for a couple of examples) but, again, that isn’t any different from horror in general.
So while I’m not exactly a born-again found footage fan, I am endeavouring to be more open-minded. Shit, if I’m not careful, I may even start watching zombie films again.
Incantation is currently streaming on Netflix in the UK.
We open with a woman named Li Ronan speaking to the audience directly, asking us to memorise a sigil and an incantation. She is being reunited with her young daughter, Dodo, and believes we can help lift a curse from them. Ronan’s belief in this curse led to her institutionalisation in a psychiatric hospital when Dodo was born. This self-shot video documents Dodo’s homecoming — a so-called “new life diary”.
As the film progresses, we learn the root of Ronan’s fears. In the early days of her pregnancy, Ronan used to make ghost hunting videos with her boyfriend, Dom and his cousin, Yuan. When Dom and Yuan received an invitation to visit their rather cultish family in the countryside, Ronan joined them to document their religious practices.
The family venerate a sinister deity, who they call Mother-Buddha, whose worship is shrouded in superstitions and taboos. Even knowing about her invites misfortune. When our ghost-hunters break the greatest of these taboos, entering a forbidden tunnel on the sect’s grounds, death and misfortune strikes them all.
The footage of this disastrous investigation is interspersed with Ronan’s ongoing documentation of her daughter’s life in the present day. It seems the curse is still very much active, and Dodo starts seeing a “faceless baddie” floating around her. Ronan’s attempts to protect her daughter risk her own mental health and, by extension, her increasingly tenuous guardianship of Dodo.
Can Ronan save Dodo from a terrible fate? What precisely did her companions find in that forbidden tunnel? And what is the true purpose of the video Ronan is making?
Although long for a horror film, Incantation doesn’t hang about. More creepy stuff happens in the first 15 minutes than in the final act of most found-footage horrors. Li Ronan’s initial monologue, in which she asks us to memorise the symbol, sets a note of foreboding (although having aphantasia made me feel smugly safe). Similarly, her explanation of how perception shapes reality has the feel of something genuinely occult. By the time we get to more normal ghostly manifestations — windows breaking, lights going out, doors opening and closing — it almost feels like a relief.
The cult compound in the flashbacks is also particularly creepy. While some of the practices merely seem eccentric at first, they escalate into full-blown nightmare over time. Unfortunately, this is also when Incantation plunges into lazy tropes. So much of what happens in the temple and its surroundings is glimpsed by characters running around and screaming in the dark, using cameras as light sources. For what has been an unusually creative film until this point, it feels like a real step backwards when Incantation starts acting like every other bloody found-footage film out there.
As a western viewer, it’s interesting and refreshing to see a horror film so rooted in Tantric Buddhism. The presentation of the sect’s rituals, beliefs and iconography is clear enough that we don’t need much greater context to understand what is happening. At the same time, the more esoteric aspects of the sect’s faith prepare us for the assault on reality that lies at the end of the film.
While Ronan is a deeply flawed character who does some terribly unwise things, we always feel like she is trying to be the best mother she can. The scene of her trying to explain mental illness to Dodo by acting out her therapy with stuffed animals is especially touching. It would be hard to sell the payoff of the film as effectively if we didn’t feel this connection with her.
In the opening scene, Li Ronan talks about how you can shape reality by willing yourself to perceive events differently. By the end of Incantation, I sort of felt that way about the film. What appears to be a relatively standard found-footage horror is transformed into something more insidious by the final 10 minutes. As well as providing a much-needed sting at the end, this also retroactively justifies the inclusion of almost everything we have just watched. At times, you may find yourself wondering why certain scenes were either filmed by the characters or why Ronan chose to include them in the narrative she is presenting. In a lesser found-footage film, they might have turned out to be pointless or even gratuitous. Here, however, everything ultimately serves a purpose. Even if you find your patience tested by Incantation at times, wait for the payoff before coming to a verdict.
As I mentioned in the opening of this review, I am trying to be more open to found-footage horror. While Incantation is far from perfect, it offers a strong use of the format and a lot more imagination than we often see in films of its ilk. And, perhaps most importantly, it is damn scary in places.
Incantation is definitely worth a watch, even if the prospect of people running around in the dark with cameras dismays you as much as it does me.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- Werewolves Within (USA, 2021)
- Crystal Eyes (Argentina, 2018)
- Super Dark Times (USA, 2017)
- Thirst (Australia, 1979)
- A Ghost Waits (USA, 2020)
- Cemetery of Terror (Mexico, 1985)
- I Came By (UK, 2022)
- 100 Monsters (Japan, 1968)
- Sea Fever (Ireland, 2020)
- Mill of the Stone Women (Italy, 1960)
- Glorious (USA, 2022)
- All the Moons (Spain, 2021)
- Broadcast Signal Intrusion (USA, 2021)
- Incantation (Taiwan, 2022)
- The Gore Gore Girls (USA, 1972)
- Luz: The Flower of Evil (Colombia, 2019)
- Butterfly Kisses (USA, 2018)
- The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (Italy, 1971)
- Saloum (Senegal, 2021)
- The Addiction (USA, 1995)
- Good Madam (South Africa, 2021)
- The Freakmaker/The Mutations (UK, 1974)
- The Long Walk (Laos, 2019)
- Errors of the Human Body (Germany, 2013)
- Eyes of Fire (USA, 1983)
- Caveat (Ireland, 2020)
- The White Reindeer (Finland, 1952)
- His House (UK, 2020)
- Tourist Trap (USA, 1979)
- Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (Sweden, 1922)
- Flux Gourmet (UK, 2022)
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Night House
- The Changeling
- The Endless
- Our favourite Cthulhu Mythos media
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!
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