Writer: Pascal Laugier
Cast: Crystal Reed, Anastasia Phillips, Mylène Farmer, Emilia Jones, Taylor Hickson, Kevin Power, Rob Archer
Running time: 91mins
What’s the story: Years after a violent home invasion, successful horror writer Beth returns to the house where her mother and traumatised sister still live. But, the pain and horror lingers on.
What’s the verdict: Six years have past since Pascal Laugier’s criminally underseen The Tall Man snuck out straight-to-DVD. With Incident in a Ghostland he returns to the themes and screams of his brutal sophomore feature Martyrs for another astonishing five-star experience.
As with Martyrs this centers on two young women, here sisters Beth and Vera, trapped in a large mysterious house with psychotic figures of murky motivation.
The abode here belongs to a deceased aunt, and the antagonistic siblings relocate to the large, ominous farmhouse with mum Pauline (Farmer, the French Madonna). Beth (Brimstone’s Jones), harbours ambitions of becoming an author in the style of her idol, HP Lovecraft. The pragmatic Vera (Hickson) resents the attention Beth receives from Pauline.
On their first night in the house, the three are attacked by an androgynous figure in black (Power) and a huge, disfigured brute (Archer). Incident in a Ghostland then audaciously flashes forward a decade. Beth (Reed) is now a successful horror author, but haunted by the attack they endured. Vera (Philipps) has remained in the house with their mother, and repeatedly relives the nightmare.
After a panicked phone call from her sister, Beth returns home. There she discovers not all ghosts have been laid to rest.
While not as gruelling as Martyrs, Incident in a Ghostland remains strong meat and has been slammed in some quarters. Laugier depicts the home invasion with terrifying fury, abetted by an aggressive soundtrack. But, as with the director’s previous movies, there is more here than torture porn griminess.
A puzzle box plot plays tricks with memory and perception. Lovecraftian themes of hidden knowledge and inescapable fate knock characters and audience off-kilter. Laugier is expert in bending reality, particularly during a second terrible night as past secrets are exposed.
Film Studies students will have a field day with notions of male suppression of burgeoning female sexuality, female resilience in survivalist cinema and multiple Freudian symbols (basements, attics, keyholes).
Laugier and cinematographer Danny Nowak have also created one of the most visually rich horror films of recent years. From desolate landscapes to the “flea-market chic” interiors of the house, this is a world pitched midway between grim reality and fairy tale (the two villains at one point are described as “a witch and an ogre”).
Compounding this is an absence of most modern technology, the setting a never-never time of the last three decades.
As with the director’s other movies (including his little seen debut House of Voices), committed performances are essential to tell the tale. The cast are uniformly arresting, with special mention to Jones and Hickson as the young Beth and Vera. Quavering and ferocious, they are sensational together (although in an unfortunate post-script, Hickson suffered an onset facial injury and is suing the producers).
As with The Tall Man, Incident in a Ghostland is bypassing cinemas and going straight to streaming services and Blu-Ray. Don’t let that fool you into thinking it is second-tier filmmaking. It’s one of 2018’s best movies.