Dolls

Incident in a Ghostland

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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

The Houses October Built

Every October, various haunted houses and corn mazes open up all over the country. Their sole purpose is to scare the living hell out of you. In this film, a group of childhood friends decide to make a documentary about the scariest, most extreme haunts in the United States. Along their journey they hear humors about one specific haunt that is the most intense scare a person could ever have. As they journey to find this elusive haunt, things start to happen that lead them down a dark path they may not be able to come back from.

The main premise of the film is how back in the day, a basic haunted house where people jumped out at you and said “boo” was enough to scare the pants off most people. I myself am a total wimp. I went to the same haunted corn maze two Halloweens in a row and it scared me to death both times. These days people want the more extreme kind of haunt where the actors go past the point of what may be considered legal in most places. I have even heard stories of haunted houses where you have to sign some kind of waiver before you even go in so that if any physical or mental harm comes to you there can be no legal action taken. While I don’t know if places like this truly exist, it is the kind of place mentioned in the film that these people are dying to experience.

Intermixed within the film are interviews with supposedly real owners and actors at various haunts. The people being interviewed tell stories about extreme things that have happened at haunted houses, even murderers and sex offenders being hired as actors and using the job as a way to find new victims. While I have heard of plenty of crimes committed on Halloween, I’m not sure how valid the claims are that crimes are committed within haunted houses. This does bring up a fear that I believe many people have before entering a haunted house. You know the actors are technically not allowed to touch you, but what if a serial killer really was hired at a haunt and hid the remains of their victims within the sets.

The two aspects mentioned above give you the two extremes. On the one hand, people want something that is so outrageous and horrifying that they will never forget it. On the other hand, there is always the chance that the people in your friendly neighborhood haunted house are much worse than what they appear to be. In that way, this film makes sure that it covers all the potential fears a person may have before entering a haunt. They even show the different kinds of scares you get in various haunted houses and how it has evolved over the years. It starts with your more basic evil clowns and creepy dolls then moves into more shock horror with people being gruesomely tortured before your eyes, culminating in the ultimate scare where you are the victim of an all too real haunt.

Looking beyond the story alone, one of the aspects of this film that made is so believable was the acting. This group of people had such amazing chemistry and genuine reactions when they were going through the haunted houses that it made the entire story that much more believable. The few characters that you see from the haunted houses were great as well. Even the more silent ones, like the iconic porcelain doll, really know how to creep you out. The various masks and makeup that were used on the haunt actors was quite effective as well.

In my opinion, this film did not get as much credit as it deserved. While the ending was a bit lackluster, like so many horror movies, the overall storyline was very interesting. It seems likely that the kind of people that would appreciate this film the most are those that love Halloween and love to be scared. With excellent acting and a fairly unique topic for this fake documentary, it was hard for me to not enjoy the movie. It is the kind of movie that will be a favorite when Halloween comes around each year.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10