New French Extremity darling Pascal Laugier’s 2018 film Incident in a Ghostland (2018) presents thematic continuance of elements introduced in his 2008 film, Martyrs (2009). Both films feature violent attacks on a family and focus heavily on the killing, torture, and abuse of young females, including children and teenagers. Much attention is paid to the long-lasting effects of trauma on the psyche of the inflicted.
Martyrs is a grim and hard movie to watch. There are no happy endings or triumphs to celebrate. The characters are crushed and ultimately destroyed by their experiences. The first half of the film is dominated by the massacre of a family by a lone gun woman and her partner. It is a very intense, in-your-face experience as Lucie, the killer, pursues and dispatches her victims with a shotgun. So much so that I skipped to the end and watched it backwards.
At times, Incident in a Ghostland was almost as hard to watch. However, it is very re-watchable. I put it on my list of favorite films from the 2010s. In addition to a unique narrative structure, which I will explain later, and a very different ending, Ghostland also reinterprets many popular horror movie tropes, defying their conventional usages.
One of horror’s most overused tropes is the false ending that reverses the outcome. In this scenario, the surviving characters believe they have made it to safety, and their ordeal is over. Suddenly the film’s antagonist reappears to finish dispatching the victims. More jaded viewers expect this turn and wait for it. Incident in a Ghostland has a false ending, but it is early on and is used to signify the start of the much darker middle a section. This is part of Ghostland’s unique narrative structure.
Another trope that Incident in a Ghostland inverts is the helpless victims. This most commonly happens in a chase scene when the fleeing victim inexplicably trips and fails to get up. Ghostland’s main characters, a pair of teenage sisters, don’t give up or accept their fates. They fall, but then they get up and run, or they attack. The last act is a brutal, extended fight-chase-fight sequence. This aggressive self-preservation and the satisfying ending are two things that make Incident in a Ghostland stand out.
A third trope, popular in slasher films, is the androgenization of the final girl. Not only is she sexless (or at least celibate), but she also eschews feminity. When she fights the villain, she “mans up” with phallic, penetrative weapons. Beth and Vera remain female throughout their ordeal. They don’t don tool belts or pick up weapons (except a typewriter). Beth is menstruating, and this saves her from being the first victim in the beginning of the film. In the last act, they are dressed in Victorian-era doll clothes! In the final fight, it is Beth who forces the Witch to switch gender by biting large, vagina-shaped wounds on him.
Martyrs and Incident in a Ghostland feature a deadly attack on a family from opposing perspectives. Martyrs from the attacker’s viewpoint, Ghostland from the victims’. Lucie, the focal character from the first half of Martyrs, single-handedly kills a family, including a teenage daughter, as an attempt to undo the damage she suffered as a child where she was orphaned, kidnapped, and tortured. When she realizes that retribution will not free her from the lingering effects of her childhood trauma, she kills herself.
Beth, the older sister from Incident in a Ghostland, is a victim of a similar attack. Unlike her Martyrs counterpart, she survives the initial attack and finds herself trapped and tormented by the Witch and the Ogre, Ghostland’s two killers. Her response is to retreat to a fantasy life, creating the “fake” false ending that upends the trope. She imagines a happy future, leaving her sister Vera alone in the present. In Beth’s dream logic, her mother survives and rescues the girls. The events of the real world become subsumed into her fantasy and transformed into a success story where the perils she is enduring supplies the ingredients of a perfect future.
Drawn back into reality by Vera, Beth finds herself possessing a cunning and courage that she did not have before. Once Beth comes out of her fugue, she and Vera work together to stay alive. She outsmarts the killers, and they flee. Recaptured, the sisters battle tooth-and-nail for their lives. They survive until the police rescue them.
Due to high levels of violence, it’s tempting to dismiss Incident in a Ghostland as torture porn, where the viewer participates in the torture of the victims by watching their distress. The voyeuristic thrills torture porn offer are hard to digest. As a viewer, I have to ask myself, why watch this? Especially when coupled with the hope-crushing ending that torture porn movies often employ. This hopelessness is why I have never re-watched Martyrs.
The Witch and the Ogre, Ghostland’s pair of killers, function together like the Freudian construct of a single personality. The Ogre is imposing in his size but with a round babyish face. He is inarticulate, making sounds very much like a pre-verbal child. He is the id, a body ruled by the desire to fulfill its primal wants. The other killer, the Witch, is the damaged superego, a twisted version of what he was taught. He wears women’s clothing but is not transgender, so much as he is co-opting the symbols of femininity and power to strengthen himself. He believes women are more powerful (and therefore need to be feared) than he is.
The sisters are in a liminal space, no longer children but not yet women. The Witch and the Ogre’s purpose is to prevent them from completing that transition. Dressing the girls up as dolls takes away their power. The doll fetishism freezes them in a permanent state of powerlessness, as beautiful creatures with no will or agency. This is how the two killers’ ego functions.
Given the choice, Vera and Beth would choose not to have their mother murdered and undergone their ordeal. While they have survived the physical attack, there is another struggle ahead of them. Their transformation from adolescence to adulthood has been derailed by the trauma they endured. As survivors, they will be tasked with re-imagining themselves. As Lucie illustrated in Martyrs, it is a process that not everyone survives.
At the end of Martyrs, the audience is told to keep wondering as one of the characters puts a gun in her mouth, promising us that there are no answers to the cruelty and deprivations in this life. But Incident in a Ghostland continues beyond where Martyrs ended. Ghostland doesn’t give any answers either, but what it does offer is a glimmer of hope.