I’ve been waiting to write this analysis and explanation piece for a while and now, over the course of three days and after rewatching the film twice, I’ve finally made it!
Since Incident in a Ghostland is, so far, my second favourite horror film of the last 3-4 years and I believe it’s also one of the best horror movies made in recent years, I strongly recommend you to check my 100% spoiler-free review and watch the movie first, since with this post I’m going to spoil the shit out of the film!
From now on, my analysis and explanation will feature spoilers, bigger spoilers than when [SPOILER ALERT] Bruce Willis turned out to be a ghost!
Incident in a Ghostland starts off with a mother (Mylene Farmer – Pauline) driving with her two daughters (Emilia Jones – Beth and Taylor Hickson – Vera) to the home she inherits from her aunt. On their first night there, two intruders (a bold, humongous man with noticeable mental issues and a skinny dude with a wig) assaults them: they’re two notorious serial killers, known for killing parents and torturing/raping their daughters to death.
Apparently, Pauline, Beth and Vera are able to fight off the opponents. Sixteen years later, adult and successful horror novelist Beth comes back home to her mom and sister (who’s naturally damaged good due to the aforementioned events) since she received a distressed call from the house.
Something seems really off there, as Vera gets disfigured, chained and hurt every night by unwanted presences… but this is no ghost story, despite the title, and that’s where the twist is brought to the table.
And it’s not just the mediocre twist of your middle-of-the-road horror flick: this is one of the most shockingly well-executed, brutal, disturbing and tears-inducing twists I have ever seen in a horror motion picture.
Beth and Vera are, in fact, both in the basement of the house, only a few days (or hours) after the events occurred. Their mother Pauline didn’t fight off the villains: she actually got stabbed to death and only her rotting body is still in the house. This twist occurs halfway through Incident in a Ghostland and, from that moment onwards, we see Beth suddenly realising what’s really going on and catching up with Vera’s despair and sufferance.
In a gut-wrenching scene (where the music, eerie and obtrusive in the best way possible up to that point, all of the sudden stops and leaves the viewer in the basement with the two miserable teens), Vera tells-without-telling Beth that she’s been the sex doll of the fat assailant all along and, now, Beth would be the next. This scene reveals to the viewer a horrific truth: Vera is scarred physically and psychologically – as it’s seen by Beth during her hallucinations to escape reality. Her face is ruined (the makeup department did a job equally as great as in Martyrs), her soul is damaged, hope is lost. Beth’s scream, which comes as soon as she realises the hell her sister went through awaits her, is a punch in the viewer’s stomach: it’s brutal and hopeless. However, Beth becomes strong to protect her sister and fights back to save them both.
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Before explaining how this motion picture moves on after the plot twist, I want to focus on what led to it and what’s so great about this build-up. First of all, Incident in a Ghostland doesn’t waste any time. Within the first 5-7 minutes, we know everything we need to know about the main characters; the intruders have already attacked; Beth’s hallucinations have already started. The movie is structured in three acts which, unconventionally, are spread over in an odd yet effective way: the first act lasts 7 minutes (usually they last 20/25…); the second act lasts 49 minutes (which is quite long in comparison to most horror movies); the final act lasts way longer than the average, going a bit over 44 minutes, causing the impact of the ending to expand over the course of a long period.
While watching the part that happens in Beth’s mind, my reaction was like: “this movie is great, yet it relies too much on horror tropes, even though they’re well-executed ones”. The twist “explains” that: Beth, who writes amateur horror novels, turns her hallucination into a horror film within a horror film. In other words, her reality – which is not the actual reality – is filled with jump-scares, entities and imagery that are typical of the horror flicks she grew up with (she even mentions Rob Zombie at one point, for example). Besides, throughout her hallucinations, there are many subtle hints to what’s happening in actuality, such as a few Pauline’s statements, Vera’s broken fingers, visions of things that are indeed around Beth, but she transforms into fantasies.
Most importantly, the twist never cheats – it’s unpredictable, yet grounded within the movie’s universe. As a result, it is an overwhelming blast!
From there on, Incident in a Ghostland follows Beth and Vera trying to get away from their assailants in a relentless run for their lives that, as the movie progresses, becomes more and more unlikely. However, unlike Martyrs, this film has a happy ending (sort of), with the two girls getting away from the intruders thanks to the intervention of police and paramedics.
In the very last shot of this film, Beth is asked from one of the paramedics if she’s a sport person, to which she replies: “no, I love writing stories”. What does it mean? If Incident in a Ghostland was written and directed by a random filmmaker, I’d say it’s just a sentence that implies Beth is scarred but not done with. She’s strong and will keep doing what she loves, regardless what she went through.
Pascal Laugier, however, is no random filmmaker. Thus, this final scene might imply that everything we saw in the film is the retelling of the events from the pages of a book Beth will write in the future (appropriately titled Incident in a Ghostland). My interpretation would make sense as adult Beth, i.e. Beth as she imagines herself in her detachment from reality, actually wrote a novel about her experience with that specific title. Bear in mind, in this scenario the assault and what the girls went through actually happened; however, they had a more cinematic feel to them because they got sifted through the filter of Beth’s imagination.
If this interpretation is correct – I’m not certain about it, which is the main reason why I would like to interview Pascal Laugier for this blog – it would mean Incident in a Ghostland is a flawless, perfect horror film. Why? Because the few minor, minute issues with the movie – which I will be tackling in the next paragraphs – could be easily explained by the fact that the events are filtered by the mind of a horror-fanatic 14-year-old girl.
What are the issues I’m talking about? Upon attentively watching Incident in a Ghostland multiple times in the space of 10 days, I could notice them and make up my mind about them too. Basically, my minor complaints with the film regard the sound design and the villains. As for the sound, some of the noises are overly exaggerated (especially punches and slaps), which makes them a bit less realistic: however, they were executed like that due to the lack of music in the beating scenes. As the supervisor and mixer on the movie explained to me: “The big fight between Pauline and the Candy truck woman needed that sort of exaggeration to work, as there was no music. We tried to keep the mix very dynamic as a whole”.
When it comes to the villains, I noticed the second and third times I watched Incident in a Ghostland that they look like caricatures: they aren’t just criminals, they’re monsters even in their physical appearance.
Now, if the interpretation I gave to the film is correct, it would makes sense that
- the two villains are monsters, because Beth would imagine them as actual deformed intruders since, in her eyes and mind, that’s what they are in fact.
- the sound is exaggerated on purpose, since in Beth’s mind the events are bound to be exaggerated. That’s the definition of imagination: it overdoes reality.
If my interpretation is wrong, those two aspects might bother some people. I want to restate that they didn’t bother me regardless: the film is great as it is and my grade didn’t change upon multiple viewings.
On a side note, this film is going to be one of the most controversial movies in recent times for two reasons: a tragic event on set and a few accusations Laugier received.
As for what happened on set, Taylor Hickson (young Vera) was performing “an emotionally charged scene” in which the director had asked her to pound harder and harder on the door, with her face right next to the glass pane, according to the suit filed with the Queen’s Bench in Winnipeg. I won’t delve into that, because I know nothing about legal stuff, but it sure reaffirms the rumours according to which Pascal Laugier pushes the actors he works with to the limit in order to achieve a realistic performance. To me, this only shows passion and dedication. He does that mostly with female cast members, which leads to the second controversy.
Not unlike Martyrs, Incident in a Ghostland has been accused of being a misogynistic movie, because it shows women being tortured, slapped, punched and kicked without holding back. I’m not going to sugar-coat my answer to this accusation: it’s bullshit! Cinema is a form of art, the best movies aren’t just entertaining (and sometimes, like in the case of Ghostland, they’re not enjoyable at all), they are powerful, offensive, crude, relentless and uncomfortable. Great films speak to human emotions and, in order to trigger a response, they need to be unapologetic. As long as violence is not gratuitous (and sometimes even when it is gratuitous), it makes no sense to ask for restraints. Look, I’m a pacifist, a feminist and a liberal: however, when I watch a film (or read a book, or attend a play…) I don’t necessarily want to watch tiresome feel-good Hollywood shit! Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy – on a mindless entertainment level – the Fast and Furious movies, summer blockbusters, Hollywood monster flicks… but those movies are made to appeal to masses and, thanks God!, we also have underground filmmaking which is allowed to go beyond the morals we are used to. Criticising a great film because it utilises imagery that is ‘offensive’ and far from traditional morals isn’t just dumb as fuck, it’s also dangerous because it doesn’t allow other forms of thinking to feel free to express themselves. Long live movies like Incident in a Ghostland and Martyrs that are pure expressions of art at their finest!
Okay, I’m done with this rant. Hopefully, I could get my point across.
I truly hope this post helped to explain why Incident in a Ghostland is a masterpiece – and bear in mind I use that word parsimoniously – and helped providing my readers with an analysis of the film. Also, keep in mind I always analyse the movies I review but I don’t usually go as much into minute details I did with Ghostland: I reserve that treatment for films that I potentially consider to be great or masterpieces.
Let me know in the comments what you think about this mumbo-jumbo and have a nice day!