French director Pascal Laugier’s first English-language feature, “The Tall Man,” wasn’t seen by many, perhaps because that convoluted mystery-thriller with Jessica Biel wasn’t really the straight horror film it appeared to be. Maybe that explains why Laugier’s first film in six years returns to the terrain of his more successful 2008 breakout, “Martyrs.” While not as graphically icky as that film, his new “Incident in a Ghostland” adds up to much the same thing: It’s thoughtfully, even elegantly crafted, light on plot, character development, and explication, but very heavy on the torture inflicted on terrified young women. For some horror fans, such “extreme” content in a relatively upscale package made “Martyrs” special, and they may enjoy a similar frisson here. The rest of us will again feel a tad queasy about the way Laugnier meticulously showcases sadism while seeming comparatively indifferent to matters of basic storytelling logic and suspense.
At the start, single mother Pauline Keller (veteran Canadian/French pop star Mylene Farmer) is driving her two teenage daughters to their new home, a rural house inherited from an aunt. This is fine by Beth (Emilia Jones), particularly once they reach their destination — a baroque, decrepit manse cluttered with creepy dolls and moth-eaten hunting trophies — as she’s a shy type mostly interested in writing macabre stories in the vein of her idol H.P. Lovecraft. It’s anathema to the more conventional, bratty Vera (Taylor Hickson), who’s had to leave a boyfriend behind and resents her mother’s presumed preference for Beth.
En route, the trio are briefly menaced by a speeding ice cream truck, then glimpse a local headline about a rash of brutal crimes in which mysterious intruders kill parents and torment their daughters at length. The Kellers have barely begun settling into their new abode when a figure in black of indeterminate gender (Kevin Power) and a Tor Johnson-like imbecilic hulk (Rob Archer) turn up uninvited to make that recent history repeat itself.
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At this 20-minute point, the film leaps forward some years, the family members having evidently survived their ordeal. A grown-up Beth (Crystal Reed) has become precisely the famous horror novelist she’d dreamed of being, with a doting husband (Adam Hurtig) and young son as further reward. She still has nightmares, however, and after receiving a panicked call from her sister, wastes little time before reluctantly returning to that inherited house where her mother ans sister still live. Pauline is eerily unchanged, but Vera (Anastasia Phillips) is a paranoid mess who keeps “reliving that night over and over,” imagining herself still brutalized by hostile presences. It takes Beth a while to realize maybe her sister isn’t delusional at all, and that in fact she herself may be the one in denial.
Most of the tale’s remainder is taken up by our protagonists — their faces already cut and swollen from prior abuses — screaming, crying, trembling, and attempting to flee as they’re punched, choked, groped, dragged, chained, even threatened with a blowtorch. What distinguishes “Ghostland” (the film has actually been released in some territories under that shorter title) from most films in the “torture porn” vogue of a few years ago is that considerable care went into the film’s aesthetic trappings, not just its sadism. Danny Nowak’s cinematography is handsome, while production designer Gordon Wilding and his collaborators make the house an impressively detailed setting for malevolence (even if the details themselves, like those creepy dolls, are familiar stuff). Other tech/design contributions are also well-turned.
Yet it all seems slick, intense, and unpleasant in the same hollow way “Martyrs” did, because all the cruelty is so meaningless. Replacing that film’s empty pseudo-mysticism are villains for whom Laugier doesn’t bother providing any motivation or backstory. It’s not even clear what they are: “Ghosts,” as the title suggests? A “witch and an ogre,” as dialogue briefly proposes? Or just really, really bad people who might be stopped with knives, gunfire, and such?
Some of the best European horrors of yore (by Bava, Rollin, Argento etc.) have suspended disbelief by creating a dreamlike alternative reality in which there’s no escape from the bogeymen. But despite its Gothic stylishness and some rote “This is just a nightmare” narrative ruses, the movie is content to close on a denouement that leaves nearly every key question (Who are these villains? How could they elude police for decades?) still dangling.
The performers here are fine, but there’s something depressing about the near-constant hysteria they must enact onscreen. The rancid icing on this pretty but distasteful cake is that then-19-year-old actress Hickson has since sued the production company for accidental injuries suffered during a scene that left her facially scarred.