Incident In A Ghostland (2018) Directed by Pascal Laugier. Starring Crystal Reed, Mylène Farmer and Anastasia Phillips. 14 years after murderous home invaders nearly destroyed her family and sanity, a successful horror author finds fresh terror waiting when she returns to the scene of the crime with her sister and mother.
The first thing that should be said is that this film contains no ghosts. Not even a white sheet carried by a strong wind. It’s very much rooted in the real world, and explores psychological concepts. If you were hoping for a supernatural fright fest based on the title, forget it.
“Incident In A Ghostland” begins with an homage to H.P. Lovecraft, the idol of 12-year-old aspiring author Beth Keller. We are introduced to her as she reads her latest horror story to her mother Pauline and sister Vera in the family’s station wagon. The two siblings don’t quite mesh, as Vera thinks Beth is kind of a freak for spending all her time at a typewriter and not dating. The Keller’s are moving into Pauline’s recently deceased cousin’s remote country house. They are passed on a lonely road by a candy truck with a blaring siren to attract kids. As it loudly passes them, shadowy figures inside the vehicle merrily wave. Beth and Pauline return the greeting, and Vera flips the bird.
At a rest stop, Beth spies the candy truck parked and catches sight of a newspaper with the headline: Family Killer Strikes A Fifth Time: Teen Tortured For Days!
She reads the story of killers who slaughter parents and keep children alive for days of rape and abuse aloud, but Vera dismisses it as another of Beth’s flights of fictional fancy. After arriving at the creepy and doll-filled house in the middle of nowhere, Vera speaks her mind.
“Jesus Christ, it’s Rob Zombie’s house.”
The sisters discover a bedroom mirror with a trick frame that ejects a cackling child-sized doll at onlookers. From the musty basement to the second-floor bedrooms, the place is stuffed with dolls of various shapes and sizes. And animal skulls and insect specimens behind glass.
While looking over her new digs, Beth begins menstruating for the first time in her life. The crotch of her jeans is stained dark with blood, and she recoils in terror until her mother comforts her. When Vera pops in to find out what’s going on, she finds her mother and sister embracing.
“Nothing is wrong. She’s like you now.” Pauline says to Vera.
Although it feeds into a sleazy plot point later on, I couldn’t imagine any actual mother saying that line. It’s unnatural, and the film has a bit of an obsession with puberty.
While unpacking the car outside, Vera fails to notice the quiet arrival of the candy truck. It boldly pulls up within a few feet of the house as Vera heads back in. While answering a phone call, Pauline is suddenly attacked by a hulking intruder. Disfigured, bald and well over 6 feet tall, The Fat Man smashes the mother into a wall, then picks up one of the dolls. He holds the old-fashioned toy’s crotch to his face and sniffs deeply, before being confronted by Beth and Vera.
As the two girls flee through the house, Candy Truck Woman steps out of the truck and joins the fun. She is tall and thin with greasy black hair and played by a man.
Beth and Vera are swiftly captured and dragged by their hair down to the basement. As they pass Candy Truck Woman, she gives them the middle finger Vera gave her earlier on the road. In the cluttered dimness of the cellar, The Fat Man lifts Beth high enough off the ground that he can sniff her crotch. Determining it to be unpleasant, he tosses the terrified girl away and picks up her sister. Determining her scent to be more satisfactory, he drags Vera off to a darkened room.
Beth takes the opportunity to escape, but is intercepted by Candy Truck Woman.
“We just wanna play with dolls.”
Before the strange female intruder can torture Beth, Pauline leaps back into the fight and has a brutal showdown in the kitchen as her daughter looks on. After being savagely stabbed with a broken wine bottle, Pauline slaughters both The Fat Man and Candy Truck Woman with a pair of scissors.
Pro tip: do not mess with Pauline.
14 years later, established horror writer Elizabeth “Beth” Keller (Crystal Reed of Gotham and Skyline) awakens from the horrifying memory of her tortured past. She is soothed from the night terrors by her caring husband, who is aware of her past trauma. We learn that Beth’s latest bestseller, Incident In A Ghostland, draws on her real-life experiences at the hands of the two killers.
While spending the night with her husband and young son at home, Beth gets a frantic phone call from the adult version of Vera begging her to return to the old house in the country. The next morning, Beth packs her things and drives out to the Keller family home. The first sign that something isn’t right is that Pauline has not physically aged a day in 14 years. The house is exactly the same as well, still stuffed to the rafters with freaky dolls. We are eventually reacquainted with Vera, who now lives inside a padded cell in the cellar. She’s hysterically insane and often injures herself when she’s able to escape the chains that bind her. After helping to calm her sister down, Beth explores the spooky house after dark. She opens the trick mirror to find it missing the massive porcelain doll that once jumped out at her years before, and is suddenly pulled into the black space the doll occupied.
She instantly awakens in the morning, and finds that the mirror has a message written in lipstick:
Beth finds Vera wandering around the house completely nude with bloody and scarred hands. When the mentally ill woman is secured in her cell, Beth heads outside for a breath of fresh air and witnesses the candy truck leaving the driveway.
Later, another mirror in the house bears a message calling for help and Beth discovers Vera chained and cuffed to a bed. She is dressed to look like one of the dolls, and her hair has been styled to imitate the toys. Her face is now painted white with bright pink lips and rosy cheeks. It is reminiscent of the Lucky McKee film May, in which the title character dresses up like a beloved doll.
When Vera is set free, she has a bizarre Tyler Durden-esque fight with invisible adversaries smacking her around and pulling her hair. Eventually, the cracked voice of the Candy Truck Woman issues from behind the basement door.
“We broke your sister. Now it’s your turn.”
While waiting for something logical to happen, Beth falls asleep. She wakes up in the predawn hours to find Lil Miss Candy Truck standing over her and is grabbed. Then she wakes up AGAIN in the light of morning, covered in scratches and bruises. Holding herself between her thighs and barely able to walk straight, she sobs in horror.
Okay, that’s it. What in the actual hell is going on here?
To go beyond this point would breach spoiler territory, so I’ll stop here.
Ghostland’s problem is that the film’s ultimate intrigue rests on a single question: is Beth an adult escapee from the hideous violence of her youth, or is she still a 12-year old prisoner of her psychotic abusers, and only dreaming of a future life as a novelist?
The answer materializes far too fast to generate suspense, creating a narrative void that Laugier fills with scene after scene of torture and misery.
At one point, The Fat Man begins molesting Beth beneath her pajamas while holding a lit crème brûlée torch as the girl urinates all over herself in abject terror. It’s not a pretty picture.
Certainly, horror films have no obligation to be feel-good cinema or pleasant in the least. But when I see one filled with sickening exploitation and screaming victims, I need those elements to exist for a solid reason in the story. I need them to be redeemed by a certain plot twist or emotional realization, and that isn’t the case here. But if you’re a Lovecraft fan, the famed author does make a rather odd appearance.
Eventually, we see scenes from the past illustrating the sordid truth of what actually transpired during the initial break-in. “Incident In A Ghostland” actually shares plot points with the 1991 drama “The Prince Of Tides,” though without all the romance and Barbra Streisand.
Both films involve a home invasion that changed the lives of a family, and both involve distorted memories of the past painfully coming to light in the present.
Buried amongst all the needless confusion of shifting time frames and abuse, there is an affecting exploration in Ghostland of sibling loyalty and the destructive effects of trauma on the psyche.
Laugier’s film looks good. The visual elements, the set dressing, the performances, sound design, and editing are all fully realized. The issue is purely script related. Like a gymnast tumbling through the air who missed a step in the initial leap, Ghostland fails to land the dramatic weight of its central twist correctly. We should be reeling in mindblown awe, not shrugging agreeably and thinking: “Okay, I guess. Sure.”
It’s a deeply strange failure of a film, in that so little effort is put into charging up the twist with maximum drama and so much attention to detail is lavished on misogynistic brutality.
Somewhere in the development phase of the screenplay, an essential ingredient in the concoction went missing and the end result tastes sour.
Body count: 7
- A man is stabbed to death
- A woman is stabbed to death
- A woman is repeatedly stabbed, then has her throat slit
- A man is shot to death
- A woman is shot to death
- A man is shot to death
- A woman is shot to death