Incantation opens with a series of images: we as the audience are shown these directly, guided by a voice-over narration. The speaker explains to us that changing the world around us ultimately comes down to an act of pure will; to prove this, optical illusions are played for us… one in which a Ferris wheel appears to turn either clockwise or counter-clockwise, and another where a train appears to be heading both towards us or away from us. The variables of these illusions are based solely on what the viewer chooses to see, and with a bit of effort, we can even switch back and forth between the two.
From there, the prelude concludes with some pretty gruesome imagery, and we’re into the main story. Any attempt to adequately explain the intricate plot would be futile… in any case, it’s definitely one you should discover for yourself. Instead, all you need to know going in is this: there’s a cult, there’s a curse (think Ringu), and there’s a mother who wants very badly to protect her child from these things. The mother, Li Ronan, is played very convincingly by Tsai Hsuan-yen, who competently captures all the desperation, terror, and love felt by a mother who wants nothing more than to protect her child. Her chemistry with Huang Sin-ting, the young actress who plays her daughter, Dodo, is also effective and believable.
It’s that relationship which provides the emotional grounding for Incantation, and one which not only dictates the film, but also the fact that the footage exists in the first place. This is a found-footage movie… in the technical sense; it is comprised of recordings taken by its characters and compiled into a narrative. What separates the film is the way it’s presented to the audience; this is not footage found on a camcorder in the middle of the woods, but rather compiled by its characters with the express intention of showing it to us. Ronan, while serving as the protagonist of this grueling tale, is also something of a guide, since she’s the one who so desperately wants to share her story.
All this lets Incantation find a unique and intriguing setup, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. Considering the unique presentation format, we never really see all that much of Ronan and her daughter before the plot starts physically and psychologically abusing them, and it was difficult to find sympathy for characters I hardly knew yet; the film doesn’t give you enough time to really care about them. There are also time jumps in spades, as the narrative erratically bounces back-and-forth between the present and events from six years prior. Instead of serving as an interesting back and forth, it mostly just complicates an already disjointed and hard-to-follow story.
I also found Incantation’s format as found-footage horror to be tedious. It abuses its own subgenre by constantly breaking the rules with too many cuts, cameras in unlikely places (like a teddy bear’s head, apparently), and a plot which has its main character filming everything like professionals. Sure, the camera quality is sketchy (on-point), but the filmmaking talent is on display far too much; when the story centers around amateur filmmakers shooting a documentary, the last thing you want is for a final edit which looks wholly scripted and professional. It’s with the utmost irony that found-footage is judged in this fashion, but it’s really the only genre in which poor filmmaking is often for the better… just look at something like The Blair Witch Project. I will say, though… the twist at the end was clever; it creepily breaks the fourth wall and involves the audience in a very intentional and eerie fashion. And while it’s an interesting payoff, it was still the only time I wasn’t ripping my hair out at the choice to make this found-footage.
Incantation is best described as an ambitious but inconsistent vision. While it’s bookended by a jaw-dropping intro and conclusion, the bulk is underwhelming and dull, save the odd moment of creativity. The fact a cinematic vision like this exists makes it an honorable pursuit in and of itself… I just wish it had resonated with me more.
Overall rating: 5/10