Though the found-footage horror subgenre’s peak days passed several years ago, filmmakers still find ways to wring out scares from the mockumentary approach. Thus far in 2022, Netflix hasn’t offered much to horror fans, seemingly deferring to Shudder. And what the struggling streaming platform has delivered – Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Choose or Die, for example – has underwhelmed. As the latter half of the year kicks off, however, Netflix takes another shot at the genre with Taiwanese found-footage thriller, Incantation. Does Incantation live up to the quality of other recent horror movies like The Sadness, Suicide Forest Village, and The Medium?
Several years ago, Li Ronan and her fellow videographers, ‘The Ghost Busters’, travelled to a small village to investigate a paranormal mystery. What they find is a cult guarding the entrance to a mythical tunnel called ‘The Place You Must Not Enter’. Their failure to heed the warning has frightening ramifications. In the present day, Ronan is still haunted even as she finally reunites with her young daughter, Dodo. But Ronan discovers her past transgressions may now be haunting her daughter, she must return to the same village to appease the curse she awoke.
Incantation a Conventional Found-Footage Movie With an Unconventional Storytelling Approach
To a large extent, Incantation chains itself to found-footage conventions with a few twists included to mix things up. One of those twists is a non-linear approach to a story unfolding in two different time periods. One of those story threads follows Li and her fellow Ghost Busters – Yuan and Li’s boyfriend, Dom – as they try to uncover the secrets of ‘The Place You Must Not Enter’. And the second narrative takes place in the present as Li reunites with her daughter, Dodo. Director Kevin Ko and co-writer Chang Che-wei don’t initially offer many breadcrumbs to help audiences figure out which time period they’re watching. As a result, Incantation feels a bit disorienting for its first 30 minutes or so. This isn’t to suggest the movie is confusing or tedious. On the contrary, Incantation’s narrative approach adds intrigue to what’s essentially a well tread premise.
…Incantation feels a bit disorienting for its first 30 minutes or so.
In many ways, Incantation borrows familiar supernatural horror tropes. What sets it apart is Ko and Che-wei’s storytelling approach alongside their focus on Ronan’s relationship with Dodo. Their mystery ultimately requires heavy does of exposition at various points. Yet the non-linear narrative structure conceals some of this familiarity and shakes things up. With so much buildup, it’s maybe not surprising that the movie’s curse is underwhelming. Nonetheless, Ko and Che-wei’s ‘incantation’ that bookends the thriller gives it a final punch that markedly increases the overall creepiness factor. Most importantly, Incantation includes a strong emotional core – in many ways this is also a movie about a mother’s love for their child.
Incantation Saves Many of Its Scares for The Final Act
Though it’s never as scary as top-tier Asian found-footage thrillers like Noroi: The Curse or The Medium, Incantation takes the same approach to scares as these movies. That is, Ko adopts a largely subtle approach, making the maximum use of his mockumentary style. Scares aren’t announced with loud sounds or jolting edits. Instead, Incantation demands your attention while using the whole screen to good effect. Similar to its story, Incantation can’t quite live up to the horror teased by the mystery around its tunnel. And inevitably, audiences will want – and expect – to see something unsettling enough to warrant the buildup. To be fair few horror movies could live up what the slow burn here teases.
Yet Incantation’s power as a horror movie lies in what’s implied rather than what ultimately makes it way onto the screen.
However, Ko delivers a fair share of shocks that should elicit discomfort in most viewers. Much of the movie’s most unnerving moments come in closing act. It’s here that Ko unleashes quick shots of cringeworthy violence and haunting imagery. Yet Incantation’s power as a horror movie lies in what’s implied rather than what ultimately makes it way onto the screen. Moreover, Tsai Hsuan-yen’s performance as ‘Ronan’ necessarily adds a human element to the found-footage thriller’s supernatural events. Hsuan-yen looks and feels like a desperate mother in way over her head. It’s a sympathetic turn that ensures you’ll watch until the end hoping that just maybe things will work out for Ronan. Spoiler-alert – they probably won’t.
Incantation Overcomes Minor Faults to Deliver Genuine Chills
If found-footage horror has fallen out of favour, someone forgot to tell Kevin Ko and Chang Che-wei. Consider Incantation another spooky entry in Asian horror and one of the creepier new horror movies in 2022. Though it doesn’t reach the same heights as Noroi: The Curse, The Wailing, or The Medium, Incantation’s mystery and focus on its mother-daughter relationship serve to elevate it. Like most found-footage movies, it can’t fully justify why the camera keeps rolling. And it’s perhaps a little on the long side. But these are minor complaints that don’t diminish this horror movie’s ability to leave you chilled beyond the final credits.