After only three films, Pascal Laugier (The Tall Man) has become a key figure of the current landscape of Horror cinema. Both celebrated for his approach to the genre and criticised for the radicalism of his films, in particular his controversial second film Martyrs, the French director nonetheless continues to fascinate with his fourth film, Incident in a Ghostland (I’ll use film’s original title, Ghostland, instead of its inexplicably extended version for the US/UK market, throughout this review) by continuing to propose an original, yet still radical, story centred around strong women.
The subject of a brutal home invasion along with her mother (Mylène Farmer, Giorgino) and sister (Taylor Hickson, Deadpool) several years ago, horror novelist Beth (Crystal Reed, Crazy, Stupid, Love) has found solace in her writing – detailing the harrowing ordeal in her latest book, “Incident in a Ghostland”. But when she receives a call from her sister Vera (Anastasia Phillips), apparently in a state of extreme distress, Beth is prompted to return to the isolated family home where the terrifying truth of that awful night soon begins to unravel…
Ghostland first strikes by its implacable efficiency; in only ten minutes, Laugier manages to establish a purposeful and genuine Gothic atmosphere while throwing the audience in the middle of an unapologetic nightmare. Yet, most of the violence is out of frame (there is very little gore in comparison to recent horror movies like Leatherface or Raw), and its impact relies more on suggestion via Beth’s point-of-view. The rest of the film is in a similar vein to this introduction and it emerges from its vision an impression of dryness and a true sense of purpose in which nothing is superfluous.
Laugier also reinforces the efficiency of the film by his use of direction, cutting and sound design creating a constant state of tension for both the characters and the audience, and often making the mandatory jump scares feel like escape routes to the ordeal lived by the sisters and their mother.
This transition in the writer-director’s filmography, initiated by The Tall Man, and characterised by less graphic violence, joins a willingness to tell purposeful stories, in this case, a reflection on trauma and the ways to deal with it. Ghostland uses concepts of fairy tales (as the reference to the Ogre and the Witch denomination used for the bad guys clearly suggests), a form of storytelling well known for its underlying meanings, but Laugier’s approach is to emphasise details that are usually not told; in short, what really happens to the little girls captured by the witch.
Similar to the director’s previous films, Ghostland will invariably lead to comparison with previous Horror films, and books, but Laugier refuses to adopt the type of meta-references which are unfortunately still prominent in the Horror genre. If there are references in the film they are just part of his cinema as he has now digested them. This is the reason why the influence of Lovecraft on the story doesn’t make it a Lovecraftian film. Ghostland actually proposes a clever spin on the status of auteur by presenting the end of the auteur’s gestation and his passage from amateur of the genre to ‘maker’ of the genre, in this case writer. This is the reason why Beth remains at the centre of the story.
The writer/director is helped in this task by a great cast led by Emilia Jones and Reed as Beth, Hickson and Phillips as Vera, and Farmer as their mother Pauline. For most Francophone viewers the use of the megastar singer/actress (basically the French Madonna) represents another key point of interest because of the artistic mythology she represents.
With Ghostland, Laugier has made his most accomplished film to date and, through the combination of a subtle yet confrontational direction and a purposeful story, he has managed to revive a certain idea of 70s Horror cinema.
Ghostland is released in the UK by Arrow Video on 3rd September.
The film is presented in a beautiful 1080p transfer which perfectly fits the film’s Gothic photography. No issues to report here.
On the sound side, the Blu-ray disc features two audio track options, uncompressed English 5.1 and English 2.0 Stereo, which are both very efficient and honour the amazing work done by the composers. The disc also proposes optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing.
Arrow Video’s Blu-ray disc contains the following extras (note: these extras reveal several key aspects of the plot and it is therefore advised to watch them after watching the film):
A Point of View on Terror (15 min, in French with English subtitles) - This is an exclusive, newly-produced, interview with Laugier in which the writer-director discusses the contradictory reactions to his films, his perception of the Horror genre, his work on the final cut of the film, his attitude towards references in the genre, the current state of the genre and his point of view for the film.
The Phantom Image: The Making of Incident in a Ghostland (73 min, in English and French with English subtitles when French is heard) - This is a fascinating feature-length French documentary taking a look behind-the-scenes of Ghostland. It features commentary by Laugier and other cast and crew members (Rob Archer, Hickson, Reed, Jones, Kevin Power, Georges Boukoff and Phillips) over behind-the-scene images of the shoot and post-production. Overall it gives very specific information about the film, for instance the connection Laugier makes between his work and 2001, A Space Odyssey, his collaboration with Farmer and the other actresses, how the movie shaped up, his frustrations, the reaction of the crew to the film, his idea of a cinema crew during the production of the film. It can, at times, actually be quite disturbing because of what you can see and the actors expressing their feeling about it (especially in the case of Archer).
This documentary might resonate more with French viewers as the subtitles are sometimes a bit approximate but also in the description of the relationship between Laugier and Farmer (who, as mentioned earlier, is a massive star in France) and his feeling towards the production of Genre films in France and the supremacy of English language films in the world. Nonetheless it provides a passionate insight for anybody interested in film-making and is a must watch.
Interviews with actors Crystal Reed (9 min), Emilia Jones (9 min) and director Pascal Laugier (9 min) (English and French with English subtitles for Laugier) - These interviews (filmed during the release of the film in France as the poster behind them suggests) give the opportunity for the two actresses interpreting the main character to express their feelings towards the film, their director, their favourite/hardest scene to shoot, Farmer’s megastar status, the relationship between the two sisters, the sets and the violence of the film.
In his interview Laugier evokes his expectations with the film and his point of view again, the choice to shoot in a real house and the actresses.
At the heart of the film’s music (26 min, French with English subtitles) - This is a featurette with Laugier and composers Boukoff, Anthony D’amario and Ed Rig in which we witness Boukoff playing the themes of the film and the director and composer explaining the process they adopted to create them. We also hear D’amario and Rig explaining their involvement in the film and their collaboration with Boukoff. The featurette also allows to see them, and Laugier, playing.
The disc also contains the UK trailer for the film.