PLOT: Following an unimaginably tragic home invasion, horror writer Beth goes to great lengths to deal with her PTSD when her sister Vera calls her back to the scene of the crime.
REVIEW: A decade has passed since French grue-hound Pascal Laugier sunk hearts and churned guts with his punishingly unremitting MARTYRS, and half as long since he failed to satisfyingly untie the twisted knots of THE TALL MAN. Now, with his new outing INCIDENT IN A GHOSTLAND, Laugier admirably attempts – if never entirely succeeds – an inventively interwoven sub-generic rug-pull that, while at times cheesy and confusing, surreally crisscrosses into an upsetting psychological-home-invasion-slasher-film. While the sum never quite equals its individual parts, there’s no shortage of Laugier’s trademark penchant for making one squirm, writhe and fidget in their seat. Alas, the movie tone-deafly functions best in its visceral depictions of vilely misogynistic sadism. Conversely, the movies grand ambition of narrative trickery – the one aspect of the story that should supersede all else – barely hits the target with halfcocked aim. Still, for an otherwise B-level, VOD tableau, INCIDENT IN A GHOSTLAND makes the most of its rote material by imbuing a handful of legit squint-worthy scares across its innovatively framed conceit. The underlying takeaway: writing is therapeutic!
The first twenty minutes of the movie prove to be a flashback. Twelve year old Beth (Emilia Jones), an HP Lovecraft acolyte and aspiring horror scribe, her derisive sister Vera (Taylor Hickson), and their French mother Pauline (Gallic pop-star Mylene Farmer) drive to their new abode inherited from Pauline’s aunt. Upon arrival at the requisitely unnerving country manse – festooned with moldering antique dolls, dusty corners, crawling bugs and the like – Beth picks up a newspaper and learn that someone in town has been breaking into houses, murdering the parents, sparing the teenage daughters, and to cap it off, remains in the house with the girls and their parents’ fetid corpses. Almost as fast as Beth can relay this story to Vera, a malevolent candy truck storms onto the premises. A bald half-witted ogre (Rob Archer) lurches out and, under the directive of some kind of gangly androgynous warlock (Kevin Power), proceeds to gruesomely vitiate Pauline, sexually ravage Vera, and leave Beth in an ungraspable torrent of post-traumatic stress. How can Beth deal?
Cut to the present, where Beth (now played by Crystal Reed) has turned her nightmarish past into a bestselling horror novel entitled Incident in a Ghostland. Somehow able to put her devastating girlhood behind and successfully lead a healthy life with a husband and young daughter, her vertiginous post-traumatic stress symptoms get triggered one day when Vera (now played by Anastasia Phillips), who is much worse off psychologically, calls on the phone claiming Pauline is danger. Summoned back to the house where her family was savagely assaulted (why they never moved is insipid beyond belief, but actually serves as a telltale hint as to what is really happening), Beth is thrown right back into a harrowing history of murderous memories and deep-seeded psychic scars in a way that fuses tropes and tenets from varying horror subgenres. What starts as a home-invasion slasher film careens into the vexing territory of psychological horror, the acquired distasteful blending of which comes across as a taut, inescapably surreal whirlwind of torturous hell. When the crucial key behind this rare mixture is given, it’s not wholly sold, or even all that unforeseen, but damn is it hard to fault the attempt.
Indeed, GHOSTLAND offers a new wrinkle in the home-invasion template we’ve not seen before. Unfortunately, as exciting a prospect that is, the lack of airtight engineering detracts from that sense of enthrallment. We can admire the intended twist, if not entirely fall for it, and are instead left to lean on the undoubted strength of the movie, which happens to be the unbearably barbarous treatment of women. I’m guessing Laugier didn’t get the #MeToo memo. The ogre’s odious transgressions include rounding up his female captors, dressing and making them up to appear as dolls, petting and stroking them in his lap, sniffing their crotches for fresh menstruation, sexually abusing their bodies before ditching them to die in dishonor. Laugier keeps almost all of the action confined to a single room, and there’s an exhaustive level of indefatigable disturbance throughout. Not to mention one freakily electrifying doll! And so credibly achieved is the violence that reportedly actress Taylor Hickson gravely injured her face on set while filming. The injury ended up in litigation. There’s an undying nastiness to the proceedings that, despite the diegetic misgivings, aren’t easy to shake. For horror fans desperately needing their nerves left astir, much of this ought to suffice.
Above all else, that is the primary perquisite for a fright flick; making the audience quake with unease. Laugier has a knack for the graphically squeamish, and by this curriculum alone, GHOSTLAND is meritoriously macabre enough. That isn’t the issue. The real indictment of the film is the narrative device through which it frames its clashing genres. And not so much the device itself, but how it’s actualized in the end. That is, the very thing we’d happily laud as an original spin is the very thing that tends to undo the action as the story resolves in the final reel. Again, the attempt is supportable; the execution almost. Another way to contextualize Laugier’s work here is to say that GHOSTLAND isn’t quite as deplorably violent as MARTYRS, but its grand-twist is handled a bit more deftly than in THE TALL MAN. Make of that what you will, but one thing’s clear: Laugier’s personal stamp of biting cinematic carnage, even with a six year absence, is really progressing to discern itself.