starring Crystal Reed, Anastasia Phillips, Emilia Jones
written and directed by Pascal Laugier
by Walter Chaw Pascal Laugier, if he had made no other film than Martyrs, would still have made Martyrs: the cornerstone picture of the short-lived New French Extremity and one of the most startling (and nigh-unwatchable) films about faith ever made. It would be remarkable as the second half of a double-feature with Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc--maybe as part of a trilogy with Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ. Mad Mel's Passion of the Christ would fit in there, too. Make a weekend of it with Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew--martyrdom and ecstasy and the cinematic arts. Laugier's follow-up, The Tall Man, failed in comparison to Martyrs, as it must. He was briefly attached to a Hellraiser reboot with Clive Barker's blessing (of course with Barker's blessing: Martyrs is a film made by a Cenobite), but the franchise is cursed and it fell through. Folks have been waiting for Laugier to make another masterpiece. Incident in a Ghostland isn't it, but like The Tall Man it's a strong, technically-proficient genre exercise that deals in an interesting space with at-times striking images. Laugier is one of the only filmmakers who makes me queasy. His films aren't kidding around.
Incident in a Ghostland has garnered the wrong kind of attention. Hickson was badly injured and disfigured while shooting and is suing Laugier for the safety conditions on set--and for urging her to flail against a window until she broke through it and gashed her face. The poster art promoting the picture, disturbingly, is an image of a shattered doll's face. After its limited release, it also got attention for the Candy Truck Woman, who appears to be transsexual and thus the depiction of a vulnerable minority cast without much context as a sadistic monster. Both make the film uncomfortable: one extratextual, the other intratextual. I'm not quite sure what to say about Hickson's injury. I will say that there are so few roles for trans actors and actresses that it feels essentially wrong to have the villain be trans--largely, as I suspect, the effect is meant to be unsettling, uncanny. It plays on expectation and prejudice. It works, but it works at the expense of a community, and while I'm not taking it as manifesto, messages and images like this are too easily appropriated by the wrong side.
It's complex, I suppose, as is how Incident in a Ghostland slides between two timelines: the night of the invasion and then some time in the future, when Beth (now Crystal Reed) is a successful horror novelist while her mother and sister (Anastasia Phillips) have stayed behind in the old house, the former a steadfast guardian to raving Vera, who has taken to reenacting her trauma nightly in bonds and a padded room. One evening, Beth attends a cocktail party to celebrate the release of her new book and has a conversation with Lovecraft himself (Paul Titley). The narrator is unreliable, in other words--the suggestion being that Beth breaks out of her stupor occasionally, only to be sent back into her fantasies by the horrors her tormentors dealt her. Laugier is great with tension. He handles the shifting storylines and perspectives expertly even as he deflates hope after hope. (He's not unlike Michael Haneke in that way.) Even the final sting carries with it the possibility that salvation is forever a fantasy, thus aligning it in a way with Martyrs. But, look, it's desperately difficult to watch. It's fair to ask that if it's not dealing with big questions as Martyrs was--if it's merely going after how different people deal with trauma in different ways--whether it's all worth it to feel quite this shitty.