Fans of writer-director Pascal Laugier’s vicious, bleak Martyrs (2008) have been patiently waiting for the filmmaker’s next exploration of human suffering. For better or worse, six years after his last film (The Tall Man, 2012), Laugier brings us Ghostland aka Incident in a Ghostland, a thoroughly cruel dive into the effects extreme violence and degradation have on a young girl’s mind.
Bordering the line of sadism and artistic voice, Ghostland tells the story of a small family – mother, Pauline (Mylene Farmer), and daughters Beth (Emilia Jones) and Vera (Taylor Hickson) – in the process of moving into the large, cobweb-ridden home inherited from a strange aunt with a penchant for collecting antiques and oddities. Not long after arriving at the house, the family is still unloading the car when two intruders enter the home, attacking the mother and throwing the girls in the basement. The girls are held for days, being beaten and dressed up as dolls to fulfill the perverted fantasies of the attackers. Beth’s mind fades in and out of reality as she tries to cope with these horrific events.
Immediately noticeable is that the film is wonderfully shot and very well-made. The color palette and house are both atmospheric, and the film achieves a look of high production value. The story works to seamlessly blend timelines, creating a sense of disorientation and hopelessness. Ghostland is equally brutal and utterly visceral, and is therefore successful in its aim to be shocking. Less successful, however, is the film’s truly offensive idea of what’s scary.
A decent amount of tension is ratcheted up throughout, especially in scenes where the sisters are trying to escape or are aware that they are about to endure some sort of assault. However, one of the attackers used as a key source of this distress is the character of a trans woman, credited only as “Candy Truck Woman” and played by Kevin Powers. The problem is not that a trans woman is a villain, it’s that she is framed as “scary” simply for how she looks. The Candy Truck Woman only has one scene where she plays a hands-on role in the initial attack on the family. After that, she mostly appears as a shadowy figure, relying on her very appearance (which is unfortunately stereotypical) to seem ominous. Even divorced from personal beliefs, this tactic to conjure up fear just doesn’t work. Harsh angles and strategic lighting alone do not a strong villain make.
Additionally, the level of violence inflicted upon these characters seems forced into the narrative. It works as a vehicle to remind viewers that trauma can damage the human psyche, but Ghostland doesn’t seem to have anything to say beyond that. The reminder does not work to support a broader idea, so the barbarity just isn’t earned. The story is simply too paper-thin to warrant what its characters endure, making the violence seem targeted and misogynistic. Laugier already brought us a thoughtful meditation on trauma with Martyrs, wherein all of the abuse was necessary, or at least made sense. This makes Ghostland feel quite cheap in comparison. It’s shock value for the sake of it, wrapped up in a half-baked story.
It is somewhat baffling to still be discussing archaic issues such as transphobia and misogyny during horror’s so-called golden age, when mainstream critics are applauding the genre for being more progressive, inclusive, and intellectual. Are those the new cornerstones of what makes a great horror film in 2018? That’s a matter of taste, personal experience, education, and context.
Objectively, if you can put its flaws aside, Ghostland is a decent-enough film for the horror fan looking for sheer brutality (or those who purposely seek out offensive content). With his latest, Laugier proves that he can still shoot a film that looks good and can make the audience squirm. How he provokes this reaction and the film’s airy story, however, detract greatly from Ghostland and its overall quality.
Incident in a Ghostland premieres today in theaters and on VOD.