Movie Review: The Incantation

The Incantation follows a young American girl, Lucy Bellerose, who visits a castle in the south of France, where she learns of her family’s nefarious past. It is here where she is acquainted with the region’s history of witchcraft and occult folklore, meeting a domineering vicar, a nosy chambermaid, a friendly gravedigger and a devious salesman. This is a directorial debut for Jude S. Walko, who substitutes experience with ambition and a passion for film, concocting a gothic fairy tale horror with some throwbacks to old world horror and traditional narrative structures. 

Dean Cain is best known for his titular role in The Adventures of Superman and hosting Ripley’s Believe It or Not. In The Incantation, Cain gets a chance to shed his good guy persona in exchange for the antithesis, a much scalier character – for all intents and purposes his evil brother, aptly named Abel. Dean Cain makes an appearance as a salesman with ulterior motives and tries to get into a rather limited character.

While Cain dons the poster, Sam Valentine is the intrepid heroine who finds herself at the mercy of the old castle, guarded estate and its dark staff. Picture perfect and reminiscent of Amanda Seyfried, in a role one could actually imagine Seyfried playing, Valentine gets to grips with a conceited, confident, curious and not-so-innocent American girl. While beautiful and quite captivating, she is tasked with fleshing out a fairly vapid character. A leaf in the wind, the story takes Lucy over without much resistance, leaning into the selfie generation – essentially playing an Instagram model version of Belle from Beauty and the Beast.

JP, the gravedigger, is brought to life by Dylan Kellogg and while his French accent needs some work, he tackles a role you could envisage for Orlando Bloom. Jude S. Walko has a great look as the mysterious wizened vicar and while his accent doesn’t quite fit the scenario, his presence is considerable. The rest of the ensemble deliver a mixed bag in terms of performance, struggling with consistency and presence, moving from flat-footed to fairly wooden performances.  

“We are not amused by your insolence, milady.”

 While there are hints of Dracula and Transylvania, the producers have managed to secure an amazing location in the south of France, surrounded by forests in a very medieval setting. A nearby town, the graveyard, all of these elements certainly add to the overall production value.

While technically competent, in terms of cinematography, production value and production design, The Incantation struggles with a number of issues across the board.

While there is a definite horror element at play, it’s riddled with clichés, old manuscripts and seeing-eye paintings. This is compounded by a cheesy script, which includes some pedestrian writing and a few flights of fancy. Instead of being grounded in memory and real-life events, the screenplay is contrived and seems to have been built primarily on fantasy and film influences.

Some of the dialogue is off-key, in the wrong register and unnatural without much of a flow. This awkward and artificial environment takes away much of the intended suspense, inverting it and creating some unintended comical scenarios. Then, it seems strange in terms of perceived etiquette and class systems – at one point the chambermaid dines with the guests. The framing of many of the scares is not quite right, and while there’s been a good attempt at delivering low-key visual effects, some of them haven’t been addressed properly and come across as rather camp. One jump scare involves a bed being made up, which just doesn’t send the right message – who’s afraid of good room service?

The editing is also uneasy, splicing cutaways to fast-forward visual effects and including flashback footage at inconvenient times. These choices break the flow of the story, interjecting at points where suspense should be built up, thus breaking the overall tension. Unfortunately, through missteps and a comic undercurrent, The Incantation isn’t all that chilling or scary. Instead of hinting at things, the direction is on the nose and tonally adrift. Struggling with the right buildup in terms of sound and addressing many of the heightened moments in a flat-footed and revealing manner, diminishes the scare factor, when it should have been a case of less is more… harnessing the audience’s power of imagination.

The setting and production design is enviable, the film has a fairly ornate feel and is steeped in history with fine finishes, old world art and an otherworldliness. In fact, the story and setting make it similar to the Gabriel Knight video game series in its dark and adventurous pursuit. With a title like The Incantation, one shouldn’t be too surprised by the film venturing into the quagmire of witches and the occult.

While you get the impression that the filmmakers are committed, the screenplay deserved more time, research and development in terms of the characters and grounding. The Incantation is intriguing, bolstered by a beautiful lead, a magical setting and a curious fairy tale tone, but fails to live up to expectations. The most entertaining aspect is being able to see a writer-director finding his feet in this curious, naive, promising yet deeply flawed debut. At best, it may have some scope as a niche cult horror favourite in a similar capacity to The Room. One would hope that the steep learning curve is applied into Walko’s next project with just as much fortitude.

The bottom line: Naive