When you’re settling in for your fifth horror film in a 36-hour period, it’s easy to feel like nothing could scare you anymore. I thought I was a jaded cynic when I sat down to watch Incident In A Ghost Land, on the second night of FrightFest, but by the time the end credits rolled… well, I’m not ashamed to admit that I’d been reduced to a blubbering wreck.
The warning signs were there, to be fair: writer-director Pascal Laugier scared cinemagoers senseless with last outing, the much-loved Martyrs, but still I thought I could handle his latest effort. Even as the eerie opening scenes of Ghost Land set up an uneasy family dynamic in a suitably sinister location, I was hitting the heighest heights of my horror hubris. My mind, so convinced that I was impervious to fear after binge-watching back-to-back bloodbaths, was even wandering towards the overpriced refreshments I could nip out and nab.
Now, with the benefit of hindsight and a puddle of cold sweat in my wake, I thank the film gods that I didn’t step out for Coke Zero and mixed popcorn combo. If I had answered the siren song of the snack stand, I would’ve missed Laugier’s intricate unpicking of early expectations: the foreshadowing here is made of subtle stuff, and the scares never crop up quite where you’d predict.
Ghost Land opens in a flashback of sorts, with single mum Pauline (played with quiet charm by French pop star Mylène Farmer) relocating her two daughters into a rickety old house. This creaky, creepy home was recently bequeathed by a dearly departed relative, who clearly had a penchant for collecting old dolls.
If you’re expecting another spin on the Annabel/Chucky/[terrifying toy of your choice] formula, or perhaps a family-goes-nuts thrill fest akin to Hereditary, you’ll want to reset those expectations, let go of the wheel and Ghost Land take you where it wants to go. I knew, going in, that there was a home invasion story in the film, but even that foreknowledge didn’t protect me from the many horrors in store.
To save you from knowing too much and having the scares spoilt, this review won’t delve any deeper into plot specifics. Instead, some thoughts on how Ghost Land made us feel: in just 91 minutes, there was paralysing dread, hand-on-mouth gasps, and plentiful moments of pure silence among the audience. A mountain of tension has mounted by the film’s midway point, and it stays at nerve-jangling levels all the way to the end. We’ve not witnessed such a nervously inaudible audience since A Quiet Place.
Laugier orchestrates every element of Ghost Land to achieve this anxious atmosphere: the set design constantly unveils unnerving new corners, Todd Bryanton’s score shifts on a sixpence between plonky pianos and palpable parps of ominous bass, the camerawork never lets you sit still, and the core action is jumpy in every sense of the word. There are jump scares, jump cuts, jumps in time and even a logical leap or two to keep you on your terrified toes.
To stop us slumping to the floor or storming off because we evidently can’t handle terror as well as we thought, Laugier sticks to his core cast like glue and uses their raw emotional performances to keep us entrenched in the experience. We only know a select few details about the family members on display – one of them is a huge H.P. Lovecraft geek, for example – but there’s something universal in their panicked survival attempts and relatable family squabbles that makes it impossible to disengage from their story. Special mention should go to Emilia Jones and Taylor Hickson, who make emotional heavy lifting look easy in their sisterly central roles.
Its villainous presence is the only area in which Ghost Land really falls down. The evildoers of the movie don’t feel like particularly woke choices in 2018, and it’s a shame that conscious script decisions must have been made in order to bring these baddies to life. They’re scary, sure, but we felt a bit uneasy at times watching these characters – who are very specific sorts of people – being presented as demented foes, without any explanation being given regarding their backstories or motivations. Thankfully, this uneasy feeling doesn’t detract from the frightfulness on display; if anything, it throws another hard-to-handle emotion into a cocktail of fear and dread.
When Incident In A Ghost Land comes to its close, you’ll feel like you’ve battled through the longest 91 minutes of your life (or at least the longest 91 minutes in recent memory). Rarely does a running time so short feel this emotionally exhausting, which is all down to the Laugier’s masterful knack for cranking up the tension at all times while pulling in ever-closer to the trauma on display. It may have its troubles, and it will surely leave you terrified, but mostly this is just terrific filmmaking.