There are a lot (a lot) of ways in which Netflix is one of the most frustrating, underwhelming streaming behemoths in the game, but I will give them this: they’re a useful conduit for international genre cinema. Most of the American-market content that floods that platform’s splash page is dull, overlit, purposefully disposable dreck, but if you know what you’re looking for, there’s plenty international genre gems lurking in the search pages – Indian action epics like RRR, Korean sci-fi adventures like Space Sweepers, Indonesian martial-arts romances like Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash, and now the Taiwanese found-footage horror Incantation. Just three months after Incantation premiered to great commercial success in Taiwanese theaters, it was available to stream globally on Netflix . . . as long as you knew to look for it. That’s a remarkable turnaround when you think back to the video store days of the aughts, when horror nerds would spend years waiting to track down bootleg copies of then-obscure J & K-horror titles that fell through the cracks of American distribution (i.e. weren’t backed by Tartan Extreme). I don’t want to give the money-torching, art-minimizing, transphobe-enabling corporate chuds at Netflix HQ too much credit, but they can be a good resource when it comes to international genre pictures.
I honestly don’t know much about the general history of Taiwanese horror (which is partly why it’s cool to have it beamed directly into my living room like this), but it is easy to see why Incantation was such a runaway success – the biggest Taiwanese box office earner of 2022 so far and the highest-grossing Taiwanese horror film of all time. It’s spooky as hell. The movie does little to overcome the decades of post-Blair Witch found footage fatigue in its mood, look, or story, but it does craft some genuinely terrifying images that will soon be making guest appearances in the audience’s nightmares. Its writhing bugs, rotting flesh, flaming demons, dental mutations, and cursed Buddhist statues should shock even the most jaded viewers. There isn’t much to the central story of a single mother who “violated a religious taboo” in a sacred tunnel, then spent the next six years fearfully protecting her daughter from the evil “deity” that seeks revenge for the transgression. If anything, the movie deliberately obscures the rules & specifics of its mythmaking, explaining that “the more you know about it, the more it plagues you”. That makes watching Incantation feel like a dangerous risk in itself (à la Ringu), but it also frees it from having to fully sketch out the shape & boundaries of its central threat. There’s just a general curse hanging over our anti-heroine in distress, represented by a wide range of fucked up, bone-chilling images that linger in your mind way longer than the narrative that justifies them.
In theory, I’m all for Incantation using a bare-bones Evil Curse premise as a broad excuse for a loose collection of ghouls & scare gags. In practice, I was a little disappointed by how much it cheats on its own found-footage conceit, muddying its believability & narrative immersion with non-linear editing of dual timelines and preposterous camera placements that violate the basic rules of the format. The movie isn’t interested in working within the found-footage medium, so I’m not sure why it bothered, other than camcorder, smartphone, and CCTV security footage being cheap to replicate. At the very least, it could have shot the flashbacks to the inciting religious transgression in a found-footage format, while shooting the present-day fallout of that blunder like a Regular Movie, since it wanted to use multiple camera set-ups & professional editing techniques in those sequences so badly. Of course, this an embarrassingly nerdy thing to complain about, since the movie is spooky enough to (mostly) get away with ignoring its own premise. It’s just that I’m usually very forgiving to that kind of rule-bending, and even I thought it cheated a little too much to get by unnoticed.
Pedantic nitpicking aside, Incantation joins a lot of the better over-the-plate horror freak-outs of the past couple years, titles like The Medium, The Empty Man, and The Queen of Black Magic. It’s just as cool to be spooked by its tangential scare gags as it is to watch that strand of modern horror reach into a new cultural context most international audiences don’t often see onscreen. And those other titles were not nearly as substantial of cultural hits in their own countries (Thailand, America, and Indonesia, respectfully), while Incantation measurably resonated with its domestic audience. In its most ambitious moments, it asks its audience to participate in Buddhist prayer, actively getting further involved in a curse that gets exponentially worse the more you learn about it. I’ll never understand the full cultural significance of those prayers, but it’s the kind of big, abstract idea that cuts through the petty scene-to-scene concerns of its found-footage cheats. The eeriness of those audience participation prompts combines with the shock of its individual scares to make the film worth a look for any horror audience no matter where they live on the globe, and thanks to Netflix’s international genre acquisitions the entire globe has access to it while it’s still fresh.