Incident In A Ghostland (2018)

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Lots of horror films open with portentous quotes from the writings of H. P. Lovecraft. Incident In A Ghostland appears, initially to embrace that same cliché, only to confound it. For it begins with a photographic image of the famous horror author, as well as his full name and dates of birth and death – but then the quote that appears letter by letter beneath this, accompanied by the sound of typing, reads: “Freakin’ awesome horror writer. The best. By far.” 

Obviously these are not Lovecraft’s own words, but rather words written about him by an enthusiastic young fan. That would be Beth Keller (Emilia Jones), who, just entering her menarche, is already penning her own Lovecraftian contes, and dreams of one day being as famous as her idol. As she travels with her older sister Vera (Taylor Hickson) and their no-nonsense mother Pauline (the singer Mylène Farmer) to an old house in the country that they have inherited from their eccentric aunt, a careful contrast unfolds before us between Beth, who has her head in the clouds and her eyes on the page, and Vera, whose more grounded allegiance to realism is reflected in her very name. 

“Jesus Christ, it’s Rob Zombie’s house,” declares Vera when they first set foot in the spooky old place, full of even spookier antique dolls and puzzle boxes. Yet if the film’s décor, and even its title, is suggestive of gothic, this latest work from writer/director Pascal Laugier is very quick to shift into home invasion territory, as, only a few minutes after the Kellers have arrived, two strangers carry out an extremely violent incursion, with rape and worse on their minds. Cut to years later, and though she still has nightmares about her past, the adult Beth (Crystal Reed) is living the dream – moved to a swanky apartment in Chicago with her nice husband and son, and now the successful horror author she had always wanted to be. As she tells a TV chatshow host, she wrote her latest bestseller, Incident in a Ghostland, “to keep me from going insane.” Her sister, however, has had no such outlet to escape the trauma and, with a frantic phone call, summons Beth back to the primal scene of the crime. There, Pauline is still looking after the arrested Vera (Anastasia Phillips), who has become a danger to herself and others as the horrors of that assault never end for her. 

The relationship between Beth and Vera is not unlike that between Anna Assaoui and Lucie Turin in Laugier’s Martyrs (2008) – the one calm and centred, the other manic and delusional. Yet as past threats persist into the present, and Vera’s body becomes a map of torment, Laugier proves as adept at modulating and manipulating subgenres as he was with his breakout film and its follow-up The Tall Man (2012) – and if Beth is taking a novel approach to survival, her best weapon may be the typewriter. 

It’s a clever, twisty tale of two sisters, where different fantasies clash amid deep, dark trauma – and the focalising perspective of a naïve young girl, introduced by that text about Lovecraft at the film’s beginning, permeates all the escapist child’s play that goes on in this doll’s house.  

Summary: Martyrs maestro Pascal Laugier delivers another horror story of trauma, delusion and escape.

© Anton Bitel