Pascal Laugier took the horror world by storm with his cult hit Martyrs. A brutal movie that seemingly takes joy in its protagonists’ suffering. But, it is also immaculately crafted, with stunning cinematography, committed and intense performances from the two leading ladies, and a finale that takes a hard turn left and does not care what the audience thinks. For these reasons, it is a divisive movie, one that will turn certain audience members off. But one that, if you can stick with it, has a lot to say about how society and its treatment of woman. It puts the ugly truth right there in the gnarled bruises and deep lacerations the final girl is forced to endure.
Laugier’s latest movie, Incident In A Ghostland, continues the joy in suffering angle but fails to import a reason for the audience to invest or care. This leaves the movie as nothing more than a series of vicious acts of beating up teenage girls for no discernable reason.
Pauline (Mylène Farmer) and her daughters Beth (Emilia Jones) and Vera (Taylor Hickson) are moving to a new house. They are not there long enough to start unpacking when they are attacked by a towering, hefty man with severe rage issues (Rob Archer) and a skinny lady (Kevin Power) who drives a candy truck.
Years later, Beth (now Crystal Reed) is now an author and her latest publication, Incident In A Ghostland, is her most personal, as it directly deals with the details of that fateful night. It also garners her best reviews to date. One night, Beth receives a panicked call from Vera (now Anastasia Phillips), begging her to come back to the house. Beth rarely does promotional tours, so she decides to visit her sister. Once arrived, it is revealed that Vera has not gotten over the attack. She acts out by locking herself in her room and tying herself up as a way to appease the entities that torment her.
“She acts out by locking herself in her room and tying herself up as a way to appease the entities that torment her…”
However, to process everything that happened, Beth escapes to an elaborate fantasy where everyone survives. In reality, their mom was killed that first night and the two people responsible come back night after night to play with their ‘dolls,’ and if they scream or cry, they get beaten up even worse. Now that Beth is back in reality, can they sisters devise a way to escape?
Incident In A Ghostland boasts a creepy atmosphere. Danny Nowak’s cinematography ensures the movie is lovely to look at, even when it is ugly to watch. Vera is bringing in a box from the car, and the camera tilts up slightly, and headlights are just visible in the background. It is a subtle but visually unsettling thing to see. Late in the game, the sisters are trying to escape, and they are hiding on either side of a doorframe. The woman who tortures them is slowly searching for them. The camera is positioned in the doorway observing the woman and the girls. It makes for a compelling moment, and that is in part because no one is talking.
It’s not that the actors do a terrible job, it is that the screenplay, by Laugier is littered with exposition or awkward foreshadowing. Several times throughout the movie, the characters in Beth’s make-believe scenario tell her that she is so brave and that there is nothing left for her at the house. In real life, Beth is scared of everything, so of course, her arc is going to have her put herself in harm’s way for her sister.
There’s nothing wrong with the central theme being tried and true, as it is here. It’s about how the film interprets this and what it is offering the viewer to keep them watching. Since Incident In A Ghostland only has one character with an arc, those hoping for some semblance of engagement are left wanting. That leaves just the merciless pulverizing for the viewer to puzzle over.
The first attack sees the angry guy smash the mom into kitchen shelves in the kitchen. Vera is also attacked upstairs, as Beth tries to hide. The camera lingers on each bruise and cut endured. After Beth snaps out of her fantasy, the big man chooses her to dress up like a doll. If she cries, makes too much noise, or if she tries to flee, she’ll be beaten to a pulp. Each punch and throw to the ground is filmed with care as if the audience is supposed to take perverse pleasure in seeing this defenseless, scared girl be tortured. However, violence and gore shouldn’t be endgames unto themselves. Viewers do not love seeing the character of John Wick kill an entire Russian mob because they delight in their deaths. No, they related to his plight and his quest for revenge, so the violence had weight and meaning to it.
“…Nowak’s cinematography ensures the movie is lovely to look at, even when it is ugly to watch.”
The two villains don’t have names, as they’re credited as Fat Man and Candy Trucker Woman, much less motivation. There have been several great movies where the main characters don’t have names, or at least the killer does not, (the underrated 29 Palms springs to mind) so that in and of itself isn’t a problem.
The problem is all the questions still unanswered by the film’s end. Why did these two choose this family? Did they follow them all the way there (they pass each other on the highway)? Is it this house that is always used for their games? How many have these two killed? Why does a man play Candy Truck Woman?
That last question is serious. I don’t know Laugier’s intentions, but at best, having the character be trans is tone deaf in this day and age, since it adds nothing to the story. At worst, it constitutes another offensive, inaccurate depiction of an already marginalized group that will only further fear, misperception, and cruelty at the hands of those who refuse to accept them into society.
Incident In A Ghostland has a few good elements. The actors give it their all, the cinematography creates a sense of dread, and the score is excellent. Laugier knows how to direct a well-polished film. But as a writer, he has little regard for characters or world building (he only co-wrote Martyrs, which is superior in every way). This attempts little, and its brutal, nasty streak isn’t warranted.
Incident In A Ghostland (2018) Directed by Pascal Laugier. Written by Pascal Laugier. Starring Emilia Jones, Taylor Hickson, Kevin Power, Rob Archer, Crystal Reed, Anastasia Phillips, Mylène Farmer.
4 Gummi Bears (out of 10)