Wednesday, June 13, 2018


After surviving a horrific home invasion around a decade previous, that saw her intruders killed brutally in self defence by her protective mum, Beth has moved on with life and found herself to be a successful horror novelist. Delving into darkness and the macabre, she has become the literary world's next big thing, to the point that her popularity is starting to rival her hero, H.P. Lovecraft. For her latest book entitled “Incident in a Ghost Land”, Beth has returned to that fateful night that changed her family's life forever. Detailing what happened, albeit in a fictional world and characters she created for the book, the story is still no doubt very autobiographical, and her fans love it, claiming it to be her best yet. However, not all of her family recovered from that night as well as Beth, with Vera, Beth's older sister, still being plagued by nightmares and anxiety attacks on a daily basis, to the point that she never leaves the house, and that her mother must watch over her constantly to make sure that she does not harm herself. Essentially, Vera and her mother have been trapped in their lives (and the house) since the attack. One night Beth receives a panicked late night phone call from Vera begging her to return, and when Beth cannot reach her mother, she begins to think something is very wrong. Worried, Beth immediately packs her bags and heads home, however will returning to the scene of the brutal crime that has defined her, unravel her picture perfect life?

This is the latest film from French filmmaker Pascal Laugier, who is most widely known for his brutal 2008 horror film “Martyrs”, and after seeing the trailers for this new film, it was one that I was very highly anticipating. Right off the bat, from a visual standpoint, you can tell that Laugier has been inspired by both Tobe Hooper and Rob Zombie and is definitely playing in these director's wheelhouses when it comes to the intensity of horror that is found in “Incident in a Ghost Land”. The whole thing has a “House of 1000 Corpses” vibe to it all, thanks to the house itself that is filled with lots of old trinkets and creepy dolls, but also to the disturbing tone of both, the film itself and of the actions of its villains.

The film opens with a cracking sequence that is absolutely brutal, and again so intense. As Beth, Vera and their mother, Pauline, are viciously attacked by a pair of demented killers. The action in these scenes are terrifying and so incredibly violent as characters are slammed into walls, thrown down stairs and regularly stabbed. You can feel that this is a fight for survival and anyone that doesn't get it, will be the one that loses their life. These aren't cool horror movie death scenes, these are a “do anything and use anything you can to survive” scenes, and as such it is dirty, messy, bloody, and very quick. It also has the greatest moment when Pauline, who appeared knocked out earlier, proves herself to be the embodiment of all mothers doing whatever it takes to save her daughter's lives, even if it means battling against two men, double her size.

It is then something of a shock when we are suddenly thrust forward ten years in time, and we also feel somewhat cheated as Beth awakens from a nightmare. Had everything we just witnessed really happened? It is quickly established that yes, it had all happened, and that Beth herself hadn't escaped from that night entirely unscathed as she occasionally has nightmares reliving it all. While I do not want to sound harsh, but it is something of a letdown to find ourselves in such a bright and happy place, after the intensity and sheer brutality of the film's opening. In fact, it is from this moment that Laugier's film starts to have some (minor) issues. The biggest issue I had with “Incident in a Ghost Land” is in the way the story itself was structured. I felt that it undercut the drama of the film, and in some ways came across more as a clever gimmick as opposed to good storytelling. In a way, I guess I am saying that the film thinks it is cleverer than it actually is. In fact, when you strip away all of the film's facade and style, the underlying story is really rather simple. While some of my criticism may sound vague in its description, please understand that I am trying to keep the mystery of the film unscathed for first time viewers, whilst still trying to point out its flaws.

The other flaw with the film was in its non-descript villains. These two weirdos had, in my opinion, the chance to become iconic horror villains if more time was spent on defining them better. As it is, they are nothing more than ciphers in their current incarnations, not real characters but something to keep the plot moving. This is a shame too because obviously a lot of time went into designing their bizarre visages, that they were just screaming out for something more to make them stand out. Maybe that is a little unfair because their odd and rather disgusting behaviours can be seen as definite character traits, but I just felt it was a missed opportunity to do something more and create new horror icons.

These minor issues shouldn't dissuade anyone from seeing “Incident in a Ghost Land” as there is plenty of good in the film for horror fans. As I have alluded to earlier, the production design of the house is both brilliant and oppressive. Together with Danny Nowak's very dark cinematography, they have created a location that is intensely creepy and that drips in nightmare fuel. While it seems to becoming more and more of a cliché in horror, I still think that doll imagery is something that makes viewers hair stand on end, (when done well), but then when human characters are also made up to look like dolls themselves, well that takes the horror to another level.

Intense bleak horror is something that I am a fan of, and this is another aspect of the film that works very well in this film. You feel the danger of every moment, and the pain of all the violence inflicted. It is a brutal film, both from a physical and mental point of view. This is not fun horror; it is disturbing, bloody and yes (here is that word again), very intense! While “Incident in a Ghost Land” isn't necessarily something you would consider an actor's piece, all involved do good work at showcasing heightened emotions during the horrific encounter, and they are equally as good at showing how this encounter has affected each of them, following their survival. It is an interesting look at grief and how certain people can end up being ruled by their tragedy whilst others can use it as inspiration to create and thus escape that pain by dealing with it through art.

I cannot finish this review without at least mentioning the real life horror that happened on the set of this film to actress Taylor Hickson, who plays Vera, and whose face suffered horrific lacerations when a glass door she was being violently pushed against in a scene shattered. The accident left her scarred both physically, (she has a massive scar down the left side of her face, from her cheek to her chin) and mentally, to the point that she couldn't bring herself to attend the film's premiere. Hickson has rightly sued the producers for negligence, as no actor should ever have to go through something like she has for a piece of entertainment.

Overall, while I had some misgivings with the film's structure, for the most part I was entertained by Pascal Laugier's brutal horror film, “Incident in a Ghost Land”. While it is not as clever as it thinks it is, nor is it free from a few clunky moments (a scene involving H.P. Lovecraft, and a poorly staged one involving cops at the end, come to mind), the film's extreme intensity is its saving grace. While it didn't become the classic I was hoping for, I still think most horror fans would get something out of “Incident in a Ghost Land”.

3 Stars.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018


Back in 2012, I was bowled over by a Saudi Arabian film that told the simple tale of a young girl trying to purchase a bike for herself, that was also used to highlight the prejudices and double standards women of that country are subjected to on a daily basis. While the subtext was heavy, the story itself was told with the lightest of touches, giving viewers a door to be entertained by this little girl's plight whilst at the same time putting a focus on big issues within Saudi Arabia. The film was “Wadjda” and it was written and (beautifully) directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, who with this film became the first female director to shoot a feature in Saudi Arabia. From that moment, I have kept my eyes peeled for Al-Mansour's follow up, which turned out to be “Mary Shelley”. Such is my love for “Wadjda” that I had no hesitation in putting Al-Mansour's sophomore effort on my list of most anticipated features of 2017, back when the film had the more poetic title “A Storm in the Stars”. It has been a while coming in terms of release, but the film (now branded with the unimaginative title “Mary Shelley”) has now seen the light of day, so has it lived up to the potential that Haifaa Al-Mansour showed in her directorial debut?

As would seem quite obvious, “Mary Shelley” is a bio-pic dedicated to the woman who ended up writing one of the most famous horror novels of all time, “Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus”. The daughter of famous writers herself, she seemed destined to become an author but while her parents dabbled in more “respected” forms of writing, Mary was drawn towards darker fare. She was born as Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, to mother Mary Wollstonecraft and father William Godwin, both who were philosophers and novelists in their own right. Sadly Mary's mother passed away soon after she was born, leaving her to be brought up by her father. She had a love of literature, and always wanted to write but it wasn't until she met famous poet Percy Shelley, that her life headed down the path it was always destined to. With the scandal that came with being together with a married man, Mary and Percy's life was tough. It was filled with sadness, betrayal, death, loss as well as love, and it was the culmination of all this, of a life lived, that saw Mary create her novel and famous monster.

I must admit that I was surprised that Haifaa Al-Mansour chose this project as her follow up to “Wadjda”, but this is mainly because all I knew about Mary Shelley before this film was that she created Frankenstein. I was unaware of her early struggles in life and the struggles she found at trying to get her work published simply because she was a woman. Knowing these elements now, they are an extension of the themes Al-Mansour tackled in her earlier film, although set in a different time and place, which makes her choice to tackle this story more obvious, almost like a natural progression. What is interesting about Mary Shelley is that the creation of her book is definitely the high point of her life, and obviously what she is remembered for, but without leading the life she did or suffered through the things she did, perhaps it would never have been written. You come to understand that her monster is anything but, and that he represents the abandonment, loss, pain, betrayal and unhappiness that Mary herself felt during the hardships of growing up, falling in love and living with Percy. Because of all this, he is a tragic character rather than a monster.

In other reviews for this film, I have read that a lot of people find the second half of “Mary Shelley” to be much stronger than the first, and while that is true as this is where she brings to life her creation, the first half is actually more important in that you need to understand how she lived her life, what tragedy's she endured and what she had to fight through and against, in order to see where her head was at when she began writing her novel and what she was trying to express within it. While it is true that her life may not have been that much different than most women living during that time, and thus not the most dramatically impactful, like her sister says in the film, the book gives voice to so many women and to what they felt during that time, that it makes it important.

Haifaa Al-Mansour has created quite the handsome film in “Mary Shelley” with some gorgeous cinematography and some lovely production design that transports us right back to 18th century London. We visit the opulence of high society, where excess seems to never be out of style, to the lower classes and modest dwellings of the poorer side of London when Mary and Percy are forced to live in shame, cut off from their family's wealth due to their love affair. Both classes have been defined well in what appears to be accurate period detail. Also Mary's brief stay in Scotland has been lovingly rendered as well, and gives a great counterpoint in the quieter lifestyle that she fell in love with while there. As good as Al-Mansour's work is on “Mary Shelley”, make no mistake about it, this is Elle Fanning's film. She is simply amazing, and had to be for the film to work at its best. Initially I was worried that Fanning's age may have seen her struggle at convincing audiences of the kind of deep emotions that Shelley felt or the emotional turmoils that she was struggling through, but Fanning is amazing and nails every moment. It is actually shocking to think that Mary Shelley herself was in fact as young as Elle Fanning (or younger) when she went through all of this in reality. It feels like a big step up for Fanning, almost like she has finally stepped in and embraced an adult role completely and she totally convinces. Personally, I found her performance incredibly powerful and increasingly heartbreaking as it went along, and I thought her scene at the end with Percy where she explains how she regrets nothing of her life up until that point, as a highlight. Speaking of “high”, god damn Elle Fanning is tall; she towers over her cast-mates. Douglas Booth is also excellent as Percy Shelley, both in being charismatic as the famous poet and lover, but also in being despicable and pathetic when being contradictory in his beliefs when it suits him, while at the same time accusing Mary of the same when she stands by hers. Percy is a man with many flaws, and Booth is never afraid to expose these to the audience, which makes him a fully rounded character. It goes without saying that Fanning and Booth bounce off each other fantastically, both during the happier times and the darker periods; the two have great chemistry.

The biggest issue I have with “Mary Shelley” was the casting of Bel Powley in the role of Claire, Mary's younger stepsister. I understand that Powley looks much younger than her real age, but she has got to stop taking these roles as each successive performance comes across more and more like she is a child talking in baby talk. If you are a parent and you have seen your child acting like this, you know how annoying it can be, but it is worse seeing a grown woman doing it. Her performance in this was, to me, akin to dragging fingernails along a chalk board, especially early on. As she ages in the film, it becomes a little more easier to handle, but I really was not a fan of Powley in this at all.

Overall, though, I was quite the fan of “Mary Shelley”; it opened my eyes to the kind of life she led and how this life defined the creation of the novel and monster that she became famous for. I also thought that the later scenes where she struggled to publish the novel, simply because she was female and it was not considered conducive with the subject matter within it, were fascinating. It is sad to think that she initially had to publish her novel “Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus” anonymously, because of this. It is lucky though, that later editions restored her name as its creator and she became famous for it. Haifaa Al-Mansour's movie is a fitting tribute to this pioneering woman.

3.5 Stars.