A mother and her two teenage daughters move into the home of a recently deceased relative. On the first night, intruders attack and force the family to fight for their lives. After seeming to escape, the women move on as best they can. 16 years later they reunite in that same house, but the tragedy of their past may still be part of their present.
Writer and director Pascal Laugier (Martyrs, The Tall Man) once again brings his horror expertise to the screen with Incident in a Ghostland. Immediately Laugier sets the tone with a creepy story and an even creepier candy truck. When the intruders arrive at the rural home, the family’s worst nightmares become reality. As the plot weaves the past and the present, there is almost a supernatural element. Yet the truth may end up being more terrifying than any ghost.
This plot has two main focuses. The first is the relationship between sisters. At first the two girls are at odds with each other and don’t get along. It takes the extremely horrifying event of the home invasion to bring the two together. Between terror and time, there is little that can keep these sisters from fighting for each other and for their survival. The second focus is the lengths the mind goes to in order to cope with that trauma. The mind can do incredible things in reaction to trauma. Sometimes the mind erases the trauma, sometimes it generates false memories, and sometimes it allows you to escape to another place where the trauma doesn’t exist. Laugier did a gorgeous job of conveying this aspect of the plot into the film, although certain aspects that are meant to be surprises are telegraphed too obviously.
There is one part of the plot in Incident in a Ghostland that is quite problematic. This is evident in how the villains of the film are portrayed. There are two villains who seem to have a sort of mother-son relationship. The son is a giant beast of a man who appears to have a mental disability. He doesn’t speak and is very childlike in the way he acts, communicating primarily in grunts. His “mother” is played by a man. It’s unclear if this person is meant to be a transgender woman or a man who dresses in drag. The biggest issue I have with this is how it perpetuates the unfortunate horror trope of mental illness and LGBTQ+ individuals not only being the same, but also being evil. In this day and age one would hope filmmakers would move away from this trope, but it is still very common.
The performances from the female protagonists are truly moving. Most notable are the two women who portray Beth. Emilia Jones (High-Rise, Brimstone) gives viewers the first glimpse of Beth as a young teen. Jones’ performance is absolutely breathtaking as she portrays Beth going through terrifying experiences most people will never have to experience in their lifetime. Her adult counterpart is played by Crystal Reed (Teen Wolf, Swamp Thing). The adult version of Beth is quite different. She is very poised and put together. Reed does a great job of portraying Beth as the more successful and well-adjusted member of her family 16 years after the tragedy. Yet, both young and adult Beth have denial in common when it comes to what happened in that house and that is where both Jones and Reed truly shine. It is important to note Taylor Hickson (Deadpool, Deadly Class) as young Vera and Anastasia Phillips (Reign, Skins) as adult Vera also deliver powerhouse performances.
On top of the compelling tale of sisters and survival, Incident in a Ghostland is also truly stunning to look at. Between the set design, the props, and the makeup, there is a lot to look at. The house where the horrible events take place is dark and old, yet still beautiful. It needs some sprucing up and it is filled with old antiques. Yet the thing that stands out is the abundance of creepy dolls, which play an important role in the film. The dinginess of this places offers a stark contrast to the life adult Beth leads, which is very neat and clean. The brightness of it offers a great juxtaposition to the time spent inside the rural home. The young versions of the sisters get put through the ringer and the physical wounds from that are very well done with the help of makeup and prosthetic application. At one point, doll-like makeup is applied over these wounds and it creates a haunting image for the viewer.
Incident in a Ghostland is a stunning look at the bonds of sisterhood and dealing with trauma. Laugier clearly knows how to convey extremely traumatic events and the lengths the human mind will go to in order to protect a person from that trauma. He also has a great handle on creating dynamic sisterly relationships that are complicated, but grounded in love for each other. The plot still has its problematic areas, such as the portrayal of people with mental disabilities, mental illness, and LGBTQ+ individuals. It is something I hope to see change in the horror industry over time, but the story of Beth and Vera is still a fascinating one.
OVERALL RATING: 7/10