Incident in a Ghostland: A Flawed and Challenging Psychological Horror Film

Controversial director Pascal Laugier, the creative force behind the divisive Martyrs, is dividing audiences and critics again with his latest release. A joint Canadian-French production, Incident in a Ghostland, saw a limited theatrical release earlier this year. Ghostland was courting controversy before it was event released when one of its stars, Taylor Hickson, was seriously disfigured as a result of an on-set accident. Following its initial release, a number of critics signaled out Laugier’s latest effort for what they deemed to be its misogynistic and transphobic content.

IMPORTANT – THIS REVIEW IS SPOILER-FREE

Synopsis

Sixteen years ago, bestselling horror author Elizabeth Keller and her mother and sister, Vera, experienced atraumatic event. Shortly after arriving at their deceased aunt’s abandoned home – an inheritance left to the mother and siblings – two serial killers who prey on families invade the home and subject the mother and sisters to a brutal attack. Years later, Elizabeth receives a desperate and cryptic phone call from her sister that prompts her to return to their family home where the memories of that night still haunt her family.

The Controversial Laugier Offers a Challenging Story

It would be easy to dismiss Laugier as a misogynistic hack if his work wasn’t so intriguing. Laugier, who also wrote the screenplay as well as directed, never takes his story in a predictable direction. Similar to Martyrs, Laugier structures Ghostland in such a way as to swerve his audience on multiple occasions, taking the story in completely unexpected directions. It’s layered and complex storytelling that engages you even as the subject-matter repulses.

It’s layered and complex storytelling that engages you even as the subject-matter repulses.

Ghostland successfully avoids the pitfalls of formulaic storytelling. Its first act ends abruptly, like a punch to the gut. Halfway though the movie, Laugier delivers another twist to the proceedings that not only alters where the movie is taking you, but forces you to reconsider what happened in the previous 40 to 45 minutes. The final moments of the movie then raise even more questions, once again challenging the audience to question what they think they have just seen.

For all the criticisms that people can level at Laugier, many of which are absolutely legitimate, there is no questioning that he is a proficient filmmaker and storyteller. Some of the more negative film reviews have dismissed Ghostland as a derivative slasher film, which is not only unfair but a completely inaccurate assessment. Love it or hate, Incident in a Ghostland is far from being a formulaic slasher film. In fact, I am not entirely convinced that this is a slasher movie.

Laugier’s Violence Raises Difficult Questions

Incident in a Ghostland falls short of the brutality that Laugier committed to the screen in Martyrs. Of course, few horror films can claim to be as raw and violent as Laugier’s challenging 2008 effort, so that’s not really saying much. Ghostland is indeed a violent film and, more importantly, its violence is uncompromising. Laugier doesn’t peddle in the cartoonish violence characteristic of most slasher films. Perhaps the best word to describe the violence here is ‘grim’ – it’s the kind of on-screen violence that prompts audiences to suck the wind in between their teeth.

Laugier is a challenging filmmaker – it would be easy to dismiss his movies if he was unskilled or turned out derivative low-budget trash.

Like his previous horror outing, Martyrs, much if not all of this violence is directed at young women, hence the accusations that the violence in Ghostland is misogynistic. Yet it’s far from a straightforward criticism to address. Laugier is a challenging filmmaker – it would be easy to dismiss his movies if he was unskilled or turned out derivative low-budget trash. But none of these things are true of Laugier. Aside from being an extremely skilled craftsman, Laugier layers his films with challenging subtext that demands his viewers engage with the film at a much deeper level than throwaway movies.

Ghostland is filled with doll imagery – it’s also a movie wherein its killers literally dress their victims up as dolls and expect them to remain motionless and silent. This aspect of the movie again calls back to Martyrs, a movie that quite explicitly addressed violence against women, Laugier seems to want to make some commentary on the objectification of women and misogynistic violence. The question is to what extent does one need to show the audience this violence to address the issue? How much is too much? This is where much of the criticism of Ghostland is legitimate – Laugier arguably could have addressed the same themes without including so much graphic violence and imagery. His raw treatment of violence against women doesn’t advance his story, or the underlying subtext, any further than if he had showed a little restraint.

Compelling Characters Buoyed By Excellent Performances

Another interesting aspect of Incident in a Ghostland that serves to distinguish it from other, more formulaic films is the relationship between the sisters at the heart of the story. Initially, Taylor Hickson’s ‘Vera’ is a thoroughly unlikeable character – a typical surly teenager that is mean and petty to her younger sister. But if much of Ghostland is explicitly focused on the violence committed against women, a significant undercurrent of the story is the bonds between its sisters and the strength it affords them. It is the initially unlikeable Vera’s sacrifice that shields her younger sister, allowing her to escape into fantasy and dreams.

As Laugier ratchets up the tension – an aspect of psychological horror at which he is quite adept – it’s the bond between the sisters that gives them the strength to fight back. Of course this part of the movie would have landed with a thud if not for the consistently compelling performances given by both Hickson and Emilia Jones.

Another criticism of Ghostland that emerged was that it’s transphobic in its characterization of one of the killers. First, the extent to which the portrayal of this particular character is essential to enjoying film or following it is pretty small. On the other hand, this is essentially the major thrust of the criticism. Neither killer is fleshed out or elevated beyond simply being a ‘really bad person’. Laugier fails to give his villains motive or any sort of discernible characteristic.

Furthermore, horror films have a long history of characterizing transgendered and gay characters as evil – from Dressed to Kill to Sleepaway Camp. While those movies can at least try to lean on the argument that people were less enlightened in those times, Ghostland has no such excuse. It’s a completely unnecessary aspect of the movie that adds nothing but rightfully draws criticism.

A Challenging Film To Review and Recommend

Incident in a Ghostland has proven to be one of the more challenging film reviews I’ve written for this blog. Aside from the inherent difficulties of avoiding spoilers (an imperative for this movie), Laugier’s latest movie raises a couple of significant social social concerns in the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp. At a later date, once enough time has passed, I intend to re-visit Ghostland to dig deeper into its subject-matter without having to concern myself with spoilers. In the meantime, I’m left with a movie that is undoubtedly flawed but still very much compelling, tense, and at times quite scary. For people who prefer their horror films to be hardcore and intense, Ghostland is worth investing the time.

THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: B-

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Author: Andrew Welsh

I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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