Incident in a Ghostland. 2018. Directed & Written by Pascal Laugier.
Starring Crystal Reed, Mylène Farmer, Anastasia Phillips, Emilia Jones, Taylor Hickson, Kevin Power, Rob Archer, Paul Titley, & Adam Hurtig.
5656 Films/Inferno Pictures Inc./Logical Pictures
Not Rated. 91 minutes.
Father Gore’s been a fan of Pascal Laugier for years, since first seeing his 2004 feature debut House of Voices, a spooky little flick with a creepy location and a chilling atmosphere. After that, he took the world by storm with Martyrs— maybe the most unflinching horror movie in recent memory. Although his next effort, The Tall Man, wasn’t as great as its predecessor, it was a unique horror-thriller with lots of twists.
Now, in 2018, Laugier returns with Incident in a Ghostland— a story equal parts visceral terror and surreal psychological horror. The story involves two girls who, along with their mother, are attacked in their new home by a couple of psychopaths. Years later, one daughter who left must return when her sister calls in a frenzy, only to uncover dark secrets.
The story and plot feel typical at times, from the description alone this movie could be any number of random horror flicks. But Laugier’s new movie is frightening at times, tense and riddled with suspense, plus it’s got a lot to say about trauma, as well as the various ways in which storytelling functions as a means of both escape and survival. Several reviews out there have criticised Incident in a Ghostland as being misogynistic, when it’s actually critical of misogyny in horror rather than playing a part in perpetuating the genre’s problems. Sometimes you have to dig deeper.
Part of why Father Gore finds it flabbergasting anybody would say this movie is misogynistic is because it’s easy to see Laugier was at least trying to critique misogyny, particularly in the horror genre. His use of dolls is hit-you-over-the-head symbolism, yet it’s as if people have ignored it. The doll’s long been an image associated with the infantilisation of women. The house sisters Beth and Vera move into with their mother, inherited from their aunt, is full of dolls. We see the Ogre violently play with them, just as he does real girls. The Candy Truck Woman creepily tells Beth and Vera: “We just wanna play with dolls.” Because a doll is an inanimate, obedient thing someone can physically manipulate and to which they can do whatever they want. Until it breaks. The doll represents the misogynist’s ideal woman: no fighting, no talking, no complaining.
Also significant that, not long after getting to the house with all its dolls, Beth’s menstrual cycle starts for the first time. She’s suddenly becoming a woman. Where does that fit in? Well, the transition from girlhood to womanhood is of great significance when we tie it to the dolls and the killers.
Part of facing life, as a woman, is realising men are horrific. Father Gore knows it, and he’s a man! In terms of Incident in a Ghostland, confronting the misogyny – more often than not violent – of men is necessary for Beth to fully cross the threshold from girl to woman. Vera takes the brunt of the men and their violence because she’s already technically a woman— a little older than her sister. Beth has to go through a much more gruelling psychological process than a physical one before she can come to terms with the cruelty of men.
During one of Beth’s stories of the future, she’s confronted by her mother telling her not to go back to reality: “The world is an ugly place to be, honey.” Earlier on in reality her mother laments ever having to let boys near her daughters. The reality of men is never far from these women. Beth dissociates to escape the harsh realities of misogyny through her stories, though, sooner than later, she has to realise there is no life after it— just as we see in the multitudes of men killing men in the horror genre, life and fiction are mired in misogyny. When Beth finally accepts this, she’s able to move on from being a young girl stuck in that big house, like a doll locked in a cage.
Storytelling has always been a way of confronting fears and difficult truths. No coincidence Laugier chose to use the construct of Beth as a horror writer to drive surreal aspects of the plot. As a girl she loves writing stories. Then, as the killers attack, she dreams up a life built on stories to avoid trauma. In her mind, Beth becomes a bestselling horror author. She uses the trauma of her family’s past as fuel for her latest book. This is all a way to escape or survive. Such is the essence of storytelling: the stories we tell ourselves can be a way to keep us going, to make us keep fighting, or they can be a way for us to escape the world and ignore the fight.
Stories we tell ourselves sometimes mask those important, albeit difficult truths. One of which is, men are cruel and violent animals, specifically towards women. Beth uses stories to escape at first, refusing to see two psychopathic men have irreparably altered her life by murdering her mother + abusing her and her sister. Eventually she reconciles the hard truths and comes back to reality, using the stories she’s told herself to give her strength. Like another nail on the head, Laugier has Beth literally use her typewriter to do some bloody bashing— a perfectly symbolic weapon, figurative and literal, to subdue and control horror.
In the end, there’s also a wonderful message about the power of fiction. It’s often considered nerdy to love literature, more so to actually write it. Again, that idea of the stories we tell ourselves serving a function comes back. It isn’t hard to see how even the darkest minds can be indicative of strength, of survival, of power. As Beth is carted away by an ambulance she’s asked what sports she plays because she seems tough like an athlete. She replies with a smile proudly: “I like to write stories.”
Incident in a Ghostland, like good literature, can be read in different ways. It’s totally fine to enjoy Laugier’s movie as a good ole slasher-style horror, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre meets a haunted house romp. It absolutely works that way, too. It’s equally fine to read deeper into the themes and its surrealism, as Laugier touches on the power(s) of storytelling, using horror to critically engage with issues facing women, in reality and within the genre itself. It’s easy to say “There’s no backstory to these killers.” It’s easier to look at the killers and see their blank slates as commentary about the faceless nature of misogyny— it comes in all shapes, genders, and sizes! The use of a familiar trope here becomes part of the movie’s overall themes.
There are things that could’ve been better developed. Although, for the most part, Incident in a Ghostland hits many excellent notes. Regardless if you choose to just watch the movie and take a ride, or if you do a closer reading of its thematic interests, Laugier gives horror fans an entertaining spectacle. If it’s not every horror lover’s cup of tea, many can at least agree it tries to be different with its premise. Even if everyone else hated it, Father Gore finds Laugier a fantastic storytelling talent in the genre. Here’s to more of his terror in the future.