When it comes to movies about demonic possession, the devil isn’t the only thing that’s in the details. It helps a lot if the filmmakers take a few intriguing detours while covering familiar territory, and it helps even more if you have a first-rate actor who’s totally committed to the lead role. (Sorry: Richard Burton’s hambone turn in “Exorcist II: The Heretic” doesn’t really count.) “Incarnate,” the latest offering from the Blumhouse house of horrors, offers a relatively fresh take on standard-issue exorcism-melodrama tropes, along with a performance by Aaron Eckhart that is more than persuasive enough to encourage the investment of a rooting interest. It may sound like damning with faint praise, but this briskly paced potboiler is better than it has any right to be.
Eckhart plays Dr. Seth Ember, a scruffy, wheelchair-bound expeller of unclean spirits who insists that he performs “evictions,” not exorcisms, and claims that, unlike many in his chosen field, “I don’t clock in with the Vatican.” But on those rare occasions when holy water and crucifixes can’t do the trick, Catholic Church officials occasionally request Ember’s services as a subcontractor to beat the devil.
Employing a nondenominational methodology that suggests a William Peter Blatty-scripted remake of “Inception,” Ember aids demonically possessed unfortunates by “diving” into their dreams, where the victims are too busy enjoying deceptively wonderful interactions with loved ones (or smoking hot babes) to appreciate that they are in thrall to some minion of Satan. Director Brad Peyton and screenwriter Ronnie Christensen are proficient at establishing the ground rules for this gimmick, spelling out temporal limitations and escape-route necessities on the fly, and neatly tucking backstory into Ember’s dialogue exchanges with two dedicated assistants (Keir O’Donnell and Emily Jackson). A clever touch: When Ember is called upon to prove his expertise, he whips out his smartphone to present video documentation.
At the urging of a Vatican emissary (Catalina Sandino Moreno), Ember and his crew accept the challenge of freeing Cameron (David Mazouz of TV’s “Gotham”), an 11-year-old boy, from the grip of a demon with whom Ember has an old score to settle. The battle between relatively good and unspeakably evil unfolds sporadically in dream-world locations — a sunlit city park, a carnival midway — that provide effective visual contrasts to the usual exorcism-movie images of levitating and/or contorted bodies, inky-black eyes of demons, etc.
Eckhart spends much of “Incarnate” looking like something the cat dragged in, reconsidered, and tossed back outside, exuding a gone-to-seed, don’t-give-a-damn vibe that perfectly suits a character who claims to be more interested in exacting revenge than aiding innocents. (The aforementioned score-settling involves a demon responsible for the deaths of Ember’s wife and son, and his current paraplegic condition.) But wait, there’s more: An unexpectedly violent barroom encounter illustrates that Eckhart’s evictor may be the most intimidating physically challenged individual to appear on screen since a similarly gravelly voiced John Heard hobbled through “Cutter’s Way.”
Even at its comparatively short running time — scarcely 79 minutes before the closing credits — “Incarnate” isn’t quite fast enough to skate over a few distracting plot holes. (Los Angeles homicide detectives apparently turn the other way when the killer is a possessed child.) Overall, however, the film is a solid piece of work that should satisfy genre aficionados.