On trauma, guilt, fairy tales, and Incident in a Ghostland's inextricable bonds between childhood and adulthood
Incident in a Ghostland Vertical Entertainment
Director: Pascal Laugier
Screenplay: Pascal Laugier
Starring: Emilia Jones, Crystal Reed, Taylor Hickson, Anastasia Phillips, Mylène Farmer, Rob Archer and Kevin Power
Not rated / 1 hour, 31 minutes / 2.35:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)
Pascal Laugier's Incident in a Ghostland is a movie about remembering childhood trauma, or it's a movie about forgetting childhood trauma. At its best, it's both. The structure allows Laugier to experiment with the psychological implications of both interpretations before eventually settling on one or the other. Even when he does, the reality the film confirms - or chooses - is less important than the manner(s) in which first-hand horror and violence are experienced and processed.
"I like to write stories," says 12-year-old Beth (Emilia Jones) at a key juncture in the film, before turning her head to face the camera in a tight close-up. She's about to live one of them, in a sense. She's been writing for some time by this point, penning horror tales she acknowledges are overly derivative of Lovecraft. She reads her stories aloud - in all their gory, corporeal detail - to the delight of her proud and protective mother and the annoyance of her older sister Vera (Taylor Hickson), who mocks Beth for writing about things she doesn't understand, hasn't experienced, or couldn't handle. "I don't get why she'd write these stories when she falls apart at the first sight of blood."
On the very first night in their new country home - inherited from their eccentric Aunt Clarice - Beth, Vera and their mother are brutally attacked by a pair of intruders, the conclusion of this near-death experience violently flashing forward to a future in which Beth (Crystal Reed) is a bestselling horror author whose latest novel is based on that traumatic night. In this future, Mom (French recording artist Mylène Farmer in only her second live-action acting role, and first since 1994) still lives in that old country home - along with Vera (Anastasia Phillips), who lost her mind after the attack and has been stuck re-living the memory of it ever since.
Except ... not. The cycles of memory and dream, past and future, reality and invention get more complicated as Beth's adult life grows increasingly suspect, particularly as it pertains to the memory - and the sister - she left behind. Is the past envisioning a future or is this future remembering the past? As a grotesque examination into reconciliation of personal trauma - through art, through dissociation, or through the dissociative qualities of art - Ghostland is remarkably committed. The film sees artistic creation as a sort of madness - and, at the same time, a rational and perhaps even necessary way to come to terms with trauma, or at least wrestle with it.
The two sides of the narrative - the dueling consciousnesses of Beth's mind; on one end the present, on the other the fictional coping mechanism she's devised to escape it or scrutinize it - constantly and inexorably inform each other. In a couple of memorable moments they come into direct conflict, as if one reality is accepting the truth of the other. As if a spell is being broken. Which is just as well, considering the depraved fairy-tale flavoring of the event itself. One of the girls describes the two intruders as "a witch and an ogre," and the description fits. The former (Kevin Power) is the silent ringleader - wiry frame and long, straight, jet-black hair; the latter (Rob Archer) is a disfigured beast of a man who emotes in unnerving grunts and moans. Their mode of transportation is a candy truck - a sort of roving gingerbread house.
Their folkloric quality - in particular the way such figures in storybooks prey on children - is imbued with added significance here, in a film specifically about the relationship between childhood and adulthood. Within minutes of the family moving into their new house, Beth menstruates for the first time - putting Vera's snide comment about her younger sister's reaction to blood to the test - and it's that blood that repels the ogre the most. He doesn't want living, breathing victims - he wants toys to play with. Dolls, specifically. They cannot make noise, they cannot speak, they cannot cry, and they certainly cannot bleed. He dresses Beth and Vera like porcelain dolls, but of course treats them as anything but - beating them, strangling them, violating them.
His state of mind is a kind of inverse of our protagonist's. He is permanently stuck in a suspended state of childhood play - the mind and emotional temperament of a baby, but with the physical size and strength of a monster. Beth, meanwhile, is constantly escaping toward an adult life in which she's moved on from this scarring moment of her childhood. (Or the very end of childhood, by the movie's thinking.) A future in which the monsters are gone. A future of fame and success tempered by a form of survivor's guilt.
Of course, both Beth and the ogre are, in a sense, doing the same thing. Playing make-believe. Using their imagination to put themselves - keep themselves - in the only mental space in which they're comfortable. He - this savage, brutal creature - dresses up his victims and uses them like toys. (At least until they make him angry enough that he permanently breaks them.) And Beth takes people from the real events of her life and assigns them roles in the fiction she has created. Only for her, the reality she has abandoned keeps pulling her back in, almost - but not quite - against her will.
There's a more all-encompassing interpretation of Ghostland as well. One in which Beth has imagined - or at the very least embellished - all of this. Invented this entire traumatic experience as a way to manufacture artistic empathy - to justify the imaginings of the artist. In an early scene, before they've even reached their home, Beth picks up the local paper and tells Vera about an apparent series of abductions and murders - with the killers apparently targeting girls fitting the sisters' profile. "You made that up," Vera insists. When they get to the house a few minutes later - an accomplishment in and of itself by production designer Gordon Wilding and set decorator Sara McCudden; the ornate details transforming a standard Midwestern house into a dusty, neo-Gothic museum so authentically curated you can almost catch its musty scent - Vera delivers an offhand remark about her sister that resonates through the rest of the film: "It's like an extension of her brain."