In 2008, Pascal Laugier received international attention for his gruelling mutilation-fest Martyrs, earning himself a place as one of the representative directors of the New French Extremity movement and the unaffectionate horror subgenre dubbed “torture porn.” But where the director gained notoriety through visceral brutality masquerading as nebulous philosophy, his latest film Incident in a Ghostland provides a similar scenario with a shift of focus from fetishised torture to fetishised sexual abuse, allowing his latent misogyny, ableism, transphobia and aesthetic fixations to ooze into view.
H.P. Lovecraft fanatic and best-selling horror writer Beth Keller (Crystal Reed) is visiting her mother’s (Mylène Farmer) house after receiving a distressing call from her troubled sister Vera (Anastasia Phillips), in which she could hear a vicious attack. Returning to the family home, Beth is confronted with the memory of a brutal invasion that left her, Vera and their mother with varying degrees of psychological and physical damage. As Beth inspects Vera’s living arrangements — bolted doors, padded rooms, shackles — it becomes apparent that Vera’s wounds may not be self-inflicted as originally thought, but the precise nature of these attacks will only be revealed when Beth commits to helping her sister and being a part of her life once again, only together can they survive.
The source of Beth and Vera’s terror are a pair of thinly characterised “monsters” consisting of a childish hulk named Fat Man (Rob Archer) who has a cleft lip, a learning disability and a baby doll fixation, and an older, cold-eyed trans-woman (Kevin Power, voiced by Angela Asher) with a Baby Jane fixation named Candy Truck Woman, who applies garish makeup to the sisters to make them more appealing to Fat Man’s sexual cravings. Both characters are lazy, ugly sketches of deviancy, leaning on ableist and transphobic stereotypes in the place of characterisation. With a notable lack of representation regarding these marginalised identities, another variation of either Buffalo Bill or Leatherface is not just old-hat, its toxic, and their predatory, paedophilic attacks on the (then pre-teen) sisters seems to be entirely justified on their identities alone.
What could have been an investigation into the eroding effects of severe mental illness(es) on a family unit and the struggles of familial responsibility — a theme drawn out more carefully in Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018) — instead quickly devolves into an easy assembly catharsis-through-violence endurance test that closes Beth’s character arc back in on itself, arriving exactly where she started with added blood, bruises and baggage, somehow justifying her ordeal as the necessary step in her evolution as fiction writer.
As I’m sure will be the justification for many reviewers, the gruelling nature of Incident in a Ghostland is part of the genre’s appeal, however it is not the gross-out factor that turns me off from Laugier’s second attempt at martyrdom, it is the casual virulence towards his characters, the haphazard assembly of psychological reasoning for their suffering and their catharsis. The flippancy of the film’s construction was poignantly revealed by an on-set accident causing Taylor Hickson (playing the young Vera) to receive facial scarring as a result of negligence.
Paul Farrell (@InPermafrost) is a freelance writer and programmer. He has contributed to MUBI Notebook, The Digital Fix and BLAM! Magazine. Paul also programmes independent & community cinema events in Birmingham, UK. When he grows up, he wants to be Zazie from Zazie in the Metro.