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Derivative 'Incarnate' mixes sci-fi with horror, but forgets to be scary

"INCARNATE" — 1 star — Carice van Houten, Aaron Eckhart, David Mazouz; PG-13 (intense sequences of horror violence, terror, disturbing images, brief strong language, sensuality and thematic elements); in general release

If you’re the kind of person who likes to mix up the holiday movie season with a good horror movie, “Incarnate” is going to leave you awfully disappointed. Director Brad Peyton may have wrapped up his film in the trappings of demonic possession, but inside that packaging is a watered-down “Inception” laced with a mild horror aftertaste.

The first 10 minutes of “Incarnate” show some promise, quickly introducing a young possessed boy named Cameron (David Mazouz) before cutting to a surreal exorcism scene that ushers our protagonist onto the stage.

Dr. Seth Ember (Aaron Eckhart) is a kind of secular exorcist who has reduced the business of demonic eviction to ions, IVs and REM infiltration. He’s been tracking a demon named Maggie who he blames for the death of his wife and 11-year-old son, and when a pretty Vatican rep named Camilla (Catalina Sandino Moreno) shows up to tell him about Cameron’s predicament, Ember decides he’s found his mark.

The plan will sound familiar to anyone who saw “Inception.” Ember will put himself to sleep and enter Cameron’s mind, where Maggie is keeping him captive in an idealized dream state that distracts the boy from his predicament. Once inside, Ember will have to convince Cameron that his dream is not reality and get the boy to follow him to freedom. Luckily for all involved, Maggie is happy to keep Cameron sitting calmly on his bedroom floor while Ember does his thing.

A derivative story is a forgivable sin, but there’s just no getting around a horror movie that isn’t scary. “Incarnate” is not scary. To his credit, Peyton doesn’t throw a lot of cheap jump scares at the screen. But “Incarnate” fills the leftover space with boredom.

Part of the boredom stems from a supporting cast with nothing to do. Cameron spends most of his time sitting on the floor, brooding. His mother Lindsay (Carice van Houten) and Camilla are just hanging out looking worried, as are Ember’s assistants, who at least get to look at monitors for a little interaction. Only Ember takes any real action in the film, and even he spends most of his time stuck in a wheelchair.

Without much in the way of compelling story to hold the audience’s attention, viewers are more likely to play Six Degrees of Batman, and note that Two Face from “The Dark Night” is trying to cast a demon out of the child actor currently portraying a young Bruce Wayne on TV’s “Gotham.” And given how young Mazouz looks, it’s obvious that “Incarnate” has been sitting on the shelf for a little while.

The filmmakers could have used that extra time to close a few plot holes. At one point, Maggie/Cameron kills a supporting character, and a subsequent shot shows paramedics wheeling the body away on a stretcher. Moments later, everyone’s back in exorcism mode like nothing happened.

So was there an investigation? Did the cops have a pressing dinner engagement? Didn’t anyone think it was suspicious that a death occurred in the same room with the brooding preteen who is meditating in the middle of the floor and speaking with the distinct tone of a demon spawn?

Oddities like that are easy to forgive if filmmakers show enough self-awareness to inject a little camp into their movies (see last year's "Krampus," another holiday horror release), but “Incarnate” is still taking itself too seriously. It could be because Peyton, who recently helmed the Dwayne Johnson disaster flick "San Andreas," isn't exactly a veteran horror director. Yet too often, "Incarnate" feels like it's just checking off genre boxes like "false ending" and "character is crouching in wait on ceiling" rather than having fun with its content.

Not every December release has to be a Christmas movie or an Oscar contender, but even within the horror realm, “Incarnate” carries the distinct smell of an afterthought. And this time of year, there are just too many better things to spend your money on.

"Incarnate" is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of horror violence, terror, disturbing images, brief strong language, sensuality and thematic elements; running time: 91 minutes.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who appeared weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" from 2013 to 2016. He also teaches English composition for Weber State University. Find him online at