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 Canadian-French production, Incident in a Ghostland, had a limited theatrical release. But before the studio even released Ghostland, it was courting controversy. One of its stars, an on-set accident seriously disfigured actress Taylor Hickson. Following its initial release, a number of critics signaled out Laugier’s latest effort. Specifically, critics called out Ghostland for its perceived misogynistic and transphobic content. How much of this criticism is valid? And does Incident in a Ghostland offer scares and maybe some subtext alongside its controversy?

IMPORTANT – THIS REVIEW IS SPOILER-FREE

Synopsis

Sixteen years ago, bestselling horror author Elizabeth Keller and her mother and sister, Vera, experienced a traumatic event. Shortly after arriving at their deceased aunt’s abandoned home, two serial killers invade the home, subjecting the women to a brutal attack. Years later Elizabeth receives a desperate and cryptic phone call from her sister. Reluctantly, she returns to their family home where the memories of that night still haunt her family.

Incident in a Ghostland Offers a Disturbing and, Challenging, Story

It would be easy to dismiss Laugier as a misogynistic hack if his work wasn’t so intriguing. Similar to Martyrs, Laugier, who also wrote the screenplay, never takes his story in a predictable direction. Simply put, there nothing formulaic about the storytelling itself. After an early twist, Incident in a Ghostland delivers another curveball at the halfway point that completely changes the movie. That is, Laugier forces you to reconsider what happened in the previous 40 to 45 minutes. Even in its closing moments, Incident in a Ghostland raises more questions. It’s layered and complex storytelling that engages even as it also repulses.

It’s layered and complex storytelling that engages even as it also repulses.

And then there are the very obvious problems with the movie. Many of the criticisms leveled at Laugier are legitimate. In addition to complaints about misogyny, critics have accused Incident in a Ghostland of transphobia in its portrayal of one of the movie’s two killers. While this killer plays only a small role in the overall story, this is essentially the thrust of the criticism. Neither killer is fleshed out or elevated beyond being a ‘really bad person’. Laugier fails to give his villains motive or any sort of discernible characteristic. Moreover, horror has a long history of characterizing transgendered and gay characters as evil – from Dressed to Kill to Sleepaway Camp. While those movies can argue that their creators made them in a different time, Ghostland has no excuse. It’s a completely unnecessary aspect of the movie that adds nothing.

Incident in a Ghostland’s Violence Raises Difficult Questions

On one hand, Incident in a Ghostland falls short of Martyrs‘ onscreen brutality. Nevertheless, Incident in a Ghostland is an absolutely violent movie and, more importantly, its violence is uncompromising. Laugier doesn’t peddle in the cartoonish violence characteristic of most slashers. Here, the violence is grim and nasty, not unlike Laugier’s past work in the New French Extremity. Much if not all of this violence is directed at young women. This is also a movie filled with doll imagery wherein its killers literally dress their victims up as dolls. Maybe Laugier wanted to make some commentary on the objectification of women. If so, Incident in a Ghostland undoes it own message with its own excessive violence. Here is a movie that begs the question – hos much is too much?

…Incident in a Ghostland is an absolutely violent movie and, more importantly, its violence is uncompromising.

Where Incident in a Ghostland distinguishes itself from formulaic slashers is its relationship between the movie’s sisters. Initially, Taylor Hickson’s ‘Vera’ is a thoroughly unlikable character. She’s the typical surly teenager that is mean and petty to her younger sister. But if much of Ghostland is focused on violence against women, a significant part of its story is the sisters’ bond ]] and the strength it affords them. 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.

Incident in a Ghostland Proves to be a Challenging Film To Review or Recommend

Bottom line, Incident in a Ghostland proves to be a challenging movie to review or recommend. With so many twists, it’s hard to discuss the movie without spoiling anything. And while he’s no stranger to controversy, Laugier again invites more concerns in the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp. Undoubtedly, the movie’s brutal subject matter and violence will put off casual horror fans. As for more hardcore horror enthusiasts, Incident in a Ghostland is both flawed and 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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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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