Tuesday 2 October 2018

Incident in a Ghostland (France/Canada 2018: Dir Pascal Laugier)

With the exception of 2012's The Tall Man, Pascal Laugier has been relatively quiet on the feature front since the release of his searing and divisive movie Martyrs in 2008. Incident in a Ghostland sees a return to the visceral and punishing excesses of his breakthrough film (albeit this time largely in English but still with a very European sensibility), but it's an approach that offers diminishing returns.

Bookish, Lovecraft obsessed novice writer Beth and her petulant sister Vera travel with their French speaking mother Pauline to take up residence in an old house left to them by a recently departed aunt. The house, filled with antique nick knacks and lots of creepy dolls (The Conjuring may have been a set design influence), revolts Vera but speaks to Beth's gothic tendencies. But on their first night two doll obsessed deranged killers - whose modus operandi is to break into family homes, murder the parents and torture the kids - invade the house and attack our cast.

The three women seemingly survive the assault, but the incident changes the girls' lives forever; Beth moves away and becomes a bestselling author, whereas Vera remains in the house with her mother, hopelessly lost in an eternal loop, replaying the attack in her head. When Beth receives a phone call from Vera, hysterical and seemingly out of control, she travels back to the house for the first time since the incident and realises that things are not as they should be.

Incident in a Ghostland offers one major plot twist about halfway through the film which dependent on your frame of mind is either revelatory or just plain daft. Either way it shapes the rest of the movie, which largely concentrates on Beth and Vera's attempts to leave the house. There is sadly very little content other than described above, and Laugier instead relies on scene after scene of extreme peril with both daughters undergoing all kinds of indignities as they try to escape.

In a 'behind the scenes' feature included on the DVD, the director is clearly shown to be a very intense and committed man. He's also aware - and slightly proud - that his work will not achieve universal popularity but soldiers on to create his art, which, and based on his current and previous output, hinges on the suffering of women (it's probably why he can only finance one film ever five years or so).

The small cast do well to ratchet up the tension - perhaps the most surprising bit of casting is Mylène Farmer as Pauline. Farmer, a French Canadian singer who the director had long admired, had a reputation for including controversial lyrics in her songs and was apparently the first singer to appear fully naked in one of her videos back in the 1980s. Farmer is very convincing as a first time actor, entering into the physicality of the piece as obligingly as her younger (and more trained) co-stars. Kevin Power and Rob Archer cut frightening figures as the unnamed killers (Laugier turns the clock back by having Power as a cross dressing maniac) and Emilia Jones and Taylor Hickson are more convincing as the young Beth and Vera than their adult counterparts.

Incident in a Ghostland is intended to be a difficult watch, and while I'm sure the director wants his film to say things about the indomitability of the human spirit and the passion of storytelling, this is really just another film where women go through things in the name of drama and haute tension. And he's done that already.

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