3 out of 5
Directed by: Pascal Laugier
Okay! Let’s get into it:
The main criticisms of of Pascal Laugier’s Ghostland are apt: that it doesn’t offer much beyond its premise, and that its villains are just images. Depending on how gracious you are with assumptions based on production dressing, the two kidnappers that plague our lead sisters, Beth and Vera, have no clear motivations beyond doing things that are meant to be creepy. And, again, depending on how you want to apply your take on the film, that one of these baddies is androgynous – though visually is a man wearing women’s clothing – there’re some problematic issues concerning how and why this is visualization is applied. As well put in a Bloody Disgusting editorial / review, lack of motivations and an androgynous baddie are not instantly red flags, but Laugier’s film is rather flagrantly lacking in substance so as to make the former more of a bug than a feature, and the latter concerning. I also have to say that learning that actress Taylor Hickson was physically scarred while shooting a scene, upon pressing from the director that caused some glass to break, casts a further shadow over the film. I have no further details on this, of course, and a lack of film inner-workings to say who should be to blame in that scenario, but it’s definitely more fuel to the ‘ill-considered’ fire for this movie.
Now, the following that I’m going to propose is, admittedly, my trying to reconcile this, as per the above, flawed film with the Laugier I’ve enjoyed and loved from House of Voices through Martyrs and Tall Man, but I do think there’s evidence of my proposal based on the themes from those films and the very blunt look-straight-at-the-camera conclusion to Ghostland. (Noting that it still doesn’t excuse the recklessness that injured Hickson.)
Ghostland, like Martyrs, is better when viewed not as a twist film, but one with a shift. Martyr’s shift, to me, was jaw-dropping; a hard right turn that was perfect. Ghostland’s isn’t so surprising; it sits with what’s established in the film’s first act and there are enough story oddities that you can pretty much suspect what’s what before it occurs. Even if you hadn’t, I don’t think it’s shot and written to be a shock, but rather part of the journey. Because that is a common thread in Laugier’s works: dragging oneself through the steps. Pardon the further comparisons to Martyrs, but there is, I think, some purposeful duality here: Martyrs was torture porn with purpose. It’s a visceral flick, punishing you for being part of it, and then questioning the reasons for your complicity. Hostel tried to do something like that but Roth gets more of a kick out of the exploitation and is a bit too forward with his “point;” Martyrs juxtaposes good and bad in a way that truly leaves you hanging with naught but your own thoughts on the matter… Ghostland, which focuses on a sudden, and seemingly pointlessly-motivated, home invasion, and then subjects us to around ninety minutes of two young girls abused while trying various methods of escape, slaps our girls around, but isn’t, for the most part, directly violent toward either one, at least that we see. Their mother suffers, that’s undeniable, but that’s a rather quick scene; otherwise, more blood is visibly shed by our attackers. Said attackers – an “ogre” and a “witch” – are almost cartoonishly evil, just as those tags may suggest. The ogre character has a harelip, mental issues, and picks the girls up by their ankles to smell their crotches and carries a mini-torch that he flickers menacingly. Why? The witch is in drag, and enjoys forcefully applying makeup to the girls to make them look like dolls, a fascination that also extends to the character collecting and placing creepy dolls in cages all around the house. Why? Negatively critical of these questions leads to the first mentioned interpretations. More favorably, I’m brought to wonder if the overblown ridiculousness – including the potential offensiveness of the witch’s androgyny – isn’t purposeful.
Beth (played by two actresses, Crystal Reed and Emilia Jones), in her various escape attempts, reminds us that she’s a writer. She adores Lovecraft. She hopes her writing is good. Her last line is the one that concludes the film, and it seems to amount to: I’ll keep writing.
Based on Martyrs, Laugier struggles with his own fascinations and intentions. The Tall Man was a step away from ultra-violence and it wasn’t too well received. What I’m suggesting is that Ghostland is a reluctant return to Martyrs’ intensity – echoed in some of the movie’s plot structure – with a baitingly purposeful lack of “reason.” But it’s not so much intended as a fuck-you to audiences, rather a condemnation of his own lack of will. Pascal’s movies have tended toward the internal, and I don’t think Ghostland is any different. Unfortunately, the questions, this time, are toward his own creative process: Why these images? Why these events? and an actual conclusion that, no matter the outcome, he must keep writing. Without adding that forced layer of over-analysis, I think Simon Abrams stumbled on to the same concept in his review, considering Ghostland a critique of the torture porn genre. We’re agreed, excepting that I think the critique is more of a mirror for Pascal than a finger pointed outward.
I wish Hickson wasn’t injured; I wish Laugier had wended his thoughts more effectively throughout the film. But: I was intrigued throughout my ninety minutes, and the above thoughts were not applied in retrospect – I felt them while viewing, which made me feel a connection with the material and writer / director. So I’m still team Laugier, and I hope to see him again sometime soon.