(Content Warning: Slight Discussion of Sexual Violence)
A single mother and her two teenage daughters, Beth and Vera, move to an inherited home in the country. Within hours of their arrival, they are brutally assaulted by unknown assailants. Years after the incident, Beth returns to the site of their assault. This sort of bare-bones description could lead to a boring, droll film. Incident in a Ghostland (which we will abbreviate IIAGL) is anything but droll. Fans of the New French Extremity and Torture Porn subgenres will know why. IIAGL is directed by Pascal Laugier, perhaps best known in English-speaking audiences for his directorial work in Martyrs. IIAGL is a brutal, psychological piece of work.
So, for the record, I am not typically a fan of Torture Porn. I find it to be a subgenre that is too rooted in sexual violence and wanton mayhem for me to really appreciate. But that is not to say that the subgenre as a whole is without merit. IIAGL does draw from this well, which will be addressed later.
It’s important to note that IIAGL is not precisely a straightforward film of home invasion. Nor does it merely wallow in gore. Instead, the film leans in more towards the psychology of extreme shock. IIAGL deals instead with the surreality of a shocking incident.Try to put yourself into the shoes of the protagonists: you’re young. You’ve been uprooted to new house that you wouldn’t willingly visit, let alone inhabit. And in the middle of stress and annoyance of “move,” you are suddenly attacked. You’ve been overpowered by unknown people who clearly have on thing on their mind: violence.
No adult could brush this off, much less a young teen. Add into this hellbroth sexual assault and it’s impossible to say how things might look or seem. Beth and Vera are fighting for their very lives. Asking them to craft a coherent narrative out of this situation is not only unrealistic, but also obscene.
The physicality of IIAGL is absolutely noteworthy. Horror movies are known for being physically demanding, and this film takes the cake in that regard. The violence is direct and shocking. Laugier’s camera does not pull away from most of the violence, lingering long enough for the audience to see the end result of every blow, of every attack. It seems perverse to use the word “lovingly” to describe the applied filmcraft of these scenes. And yet, the attention to detail paid in these moments, from audio to the actual reaction of the actors, is genuinely amazing.
Where the film loses me is in the very tropes of Torture Porn. It’s use of doll imagery and attempts at perverting childhood symbolism can feel a touch ham-handed. Moreover, the portrayal of the attackers (dealing with non cis-hetero presentations and mentally challenged) can feel cheap. The use of the “depraved crossdresser” and “violent mentally handicapped” villains are not new. They often are used merely to shock. There is an element to this sort of characterization that does, in a way, add to the plot. Earlier I mentioned the surreality of IIAGL’s violence and trauma. These elements might be cheap in a different environment, but they add a further level of disorientation to an already mind-bending film.
So are these problematic elements necessarily bad? That depends on how they are used inside the context of horror. In a recent video on the Scaredy Cats Youtube Channel the question is asked: “Is Horror Too Problematic To Enjoy?” The video illustrates a point I have often felt about Horror. Much of the genre deals with subject matter that is outside of polite society. Violence, the fears of the unknown, the monster that might be in the woods, all of these are concepts not well received at the colloquial dinner table. Horror, be it in print or video, has long been a place to discuss and explore the feelings too disgusting to handle in everyday life. Moreover this sort of media can use the more marginalized members of our society as convenient foils to our fears. Unfortunately we live in a society that has been slow in accepting others outside the supposed “norm.” Media has thus been equally slow in addressing these issues.
So is IIAGL too problematic? Does it go for the cheapest routes of the genre instead of delving into the complexities of human relations? My answer is a resounding “No!” At it’s heart, IIAGL is a story of strained relationships, of sibling rivalry, and the bonds that develop in crisis. Beth and Vera are thrust into an unrelenting nightmare of isolation and degradation, and are forced to save themselves by saving each other. A less competently written script or director could easily cheapen this story to mere titillation, but instead opts for a higher approach.
Granted, that approach is soaked in blood, but it’s no less valid than other ways of representation. Horror is not supposed to be comforting. And even when a decision feels potentially cheap it is still living up to it’s promise: to horrify.
IIAGL is not a film for everyone. If you are a fan of kinetic, nerve shredding horror, it offers a lot. This audience may not be as broad as the slashers of old. It’s far closer spiritually to a movie like Angst than something like Midsommar. And yet, IIAGL does offer a heady punch. It’s not a film for people who just want jumpscares or a simple bloodbath. IIAGL is for a braver, darker sort of audience, one that likes their fear spiked with the unsettling surreal.
Lucas Yochum is a writer and podcaster from St. Louis. For more of his non-horror related work, visit the website for his podcast, Blinders Off, at www.blindersoff.show