I Hated This Movie: Incident in a Ghostland
When I started this blog, I wanted to use it to celebrate my favorite genre. I'd much rather write about exciting films and aim the spotlight on films I think people might have missed or should watch. Even in movies I can't completely recommend, I try to find some good or give it a spin that might help people decide whether it's for them or not. So, reader, it hurts me to type the following: I absolutely hated Pascal Laugier's new movie, Incident in a Ghostland.
I hated it so much I have to talk about it.
Laugier burst onto the scene during the French New Extremism movement, as it's been coined, with the fiercely divisive Martyrs. That film's violence was, in my opinion, perfectly married to its socio-philosophical themes as it examined the torture porn phenomena that took hold of the horror genre just a few years before. Torture porn was the biggest in horror during the early 2000s and spawned a few films of substance and, as success does, many, many knockoffs. I think it's safe to say that the popularity and ubiquity of these films during this time period is a result of the culture.
Throughout the decades, horror has always pulled from societal fears of the time. So, I don't find it surprising that the events post-9/11, including the establishment of GTMO and the horrific stories that came out of it, had the populace contemplating and fearing torture. It was subconsciously (consciously?) on everyone's mind. Spin it how you like, our government was torturing people. In fact, the torture porn subgenre was at it's zenith between 2003-2009, smack dab during the Bush administration and directly after GTMO's establishment in 2002.
Towards the tail end of this popularity came Martyrs, which halfway through changed from a psuedo revenge thriller/home invasion movie (albeit a bloody one) and became something else. It becomes a question of violence and what someone could get from it. Personally, I find the film to be a slog to get through after the midpoint. But that's kind of the point. By putting the viewer through such horrific visages, we become the tortured Anna. Laugier has stated that part of the raison d'etre was to put the audience "through it."
You can debate the merits of Martyrs, but you can't deny Laugier had a thematic reason behind the violence. The individuals inflicting the pain and torture on our protagonist ultimately discover it's for naught. The woman behind it all kills herself after discovering the truth of the afterlife. The entirety of the torture and violence that preceded this shocking moment was ultimately meaningless; much like the torture porn craze also preceded the movie. I found the film transcended the violence and torture of the earlier films, but I've only seen it once and I truly have no desire to sit through it again.
Laugier hasn't made many movies since Martyrs. I kind of wonder if the controversy and success of Martyrs made it difficult. His next movie was Tall Man, which I'll admit I haven't seen but from what I've read, it seems like the kind of movie an individual would make to try to separate himself from his previous movie. To prove he wasn't a one trick pony. That movie came out in 2012 and it's now 2018. Six years have passed and his followup has been released. Before Incident in a Ghostland came out, I kept hearing two things. The first is the tragic injury. The second was that this was the second coming of Martyrs. Martyrs 2.0, if you would. But if Martyrs' nauseous focus on violence and pain was saved by its philosophical and metaphysical yearnings, Ghostland ended up just being a nasty piece of exploitation that has no ulterior motive for existing.
It's about a family moving into a house belonging to their late aunt. The night they move in, their home is violently attacked and truly horrific things are done to the family. Like Martyrs, the two protagonists are young women; teenagers in particular. The opening moments of the film are horrifically punctuated with violence against the mom and her two daughters, Beth and Vera. It was an incredibly intense and uncomfortable opening. The violence and horror escalated so quickly. But the women fight back and eventually the mom saves the day. We cut to 18 years later and Beth has become a successful author. She's turned the horror of that night into a bestselling book. She has a family of her own. Then, she gets called back to the house where it all started because, while she has turned the tragedy into financial success, her sister is still tormented by the events.
Now, I must tell you that I have to discuss spoilers. There is no way for me to critically talk about this movie without divulging this next bit of story. This is your warning.
When she returns to the house, her sister seems to be attacked by some invisible force. As I was watching, I started thinking that maybe this would be an interesting discussion of PTSD and how horror and violence can affect victims, years later. But, no. Not really. Instead, it slowly becomes obvious that this future that Beth has retreated into her active imagination to hide from the truth: the monsters are still there, repeatedly beating (and presumably raping) the sisters over the course of 18 years. Vera's face is a bruised and battered visage; she's been utterly broken. And the rest of the movie follows this mantra of abuse. It's like the last half of Martyrs, but without any commentary that could potentially add context or narrative rationalization to the violence. Instead, it apes the same types of movie that Martyrs criticized. It's nothing but torture porn. It wallows in the misery it inflicts on the two women for practically the entire runtime.
It's been hailed as Martyrs 2.0, but I wonder if those giving it this moniker even understand the movie they're referencing. Maybe it's partially because tastes change over the years. Maybe I've just grown tired of constant violence against women. Maybe it's because Laugier has taken away any real agency from these women. They take the violence until they escape, get dragged back in and eventually are saved by a cop. The rest of the movie is devoted to them being nothing more than punching bags. I have little patience anymore for this type of narrative.
The thing is, I love when movies put characters through the ringer. I remember loving the The Hills Have Eyes remake because it put its characters through trial after trial. But the main difference between these two movies that feature intense violence is that the characters in The Hills Have Eyes had agency.
The poor women in Incident in a Ghostland weren't given that opportunity.