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”.