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Just when you thought it was safe to move to an isolated country house filled with creepy antique dolls, dead bugs and way too much floral wallpaper, in comes Ghostland, a violently twisted take on the home invasion tale from French horror junkie Pascal Laugier.
Like the director’s gory debut, Martyrs, which took the torture porn genre to untold levels of unpleasantness, this taut — if somewhat corny — slasher flick once again features two young women subjected to all kinds of abuse both real and imaginary (though mostly the former) as they’re locked inside by a pair of first-rate psychopaths. Why any of this happens remains unclear, although Laugier does make some inventive narrative moves to render his Franco-Canadian, English-language effort more interesting than it should be. Still, it’s neither for the faint of heart nor the sharp of mind, which should turn it into perfect VOD fodder for most territories.
Following in the footsteps of fellow Frenchies Alexandre Aja (High Tension), David Moreau and Xavier Palud (Them), and Alexandre Bustillo (Inside), Laugier tackles the well worn trapped indoors scenario with a considerable amount of carnage, trailing teenage sisters Beth (Emilia Jones) and Vera (Taylor Hickson) as they move out to the boondocks with their single mom, Pauline (Gallic pop star Mylene Farmer).
With news reports of killings in the region, and an extremely menacing candy truck roaming the neighborhood (because, why not?), it doesn’t take long for the girls to fall victim to a prolonged and vicious attack right at their doorstep. After their mother is brutally sacrificed on the kitchen table, Beth and Vera hide down in the basement as a mentally handicapped ogre (Rob Archer, credited as “Fat Man”) and his witch-like guardian with an Iggy Pop vibe (Angela Asher) subject them to an array of cruel and usual punishment.
But wait — was it all just a nightmare? That’s what we’re led to believe when Beth (Crystal Reed) wakes up screaming a decade or so later in a comfy Chicago highrise. Not only is she a happily married mother, but she’s also a bestselling macabre author whose latest book (entitled “Incident in a Ghostland”) details the very incident seen at the start of the film. No sooner is this made clear then she receives a terrifying call from her sister, Vera (Anastasia Phillips), who still lives in that haunted house with their mom, prompting Beth to go back and visit the source of her trauma.
Another major twist is still in store, with Laugier jumping between past and present, dream and reality, to keep catching the viewer by surprise. The structure feels fairly novel for such a B-grade fright-fest — call it Last Year at Amityville — but it’s soon outdone by the litany of torturous scenes that the director piles on one after the other.
Like Martyrs, though with less gore, Ghostland seems single-mindedly obsessed with the idea of making young women suffer. In this case, Laugier subjects Beth and Vera to the ogre’s pedophilic sadism, which includes dressing them up like dolls, stroking them, smelling their vaginas to see if they are menstruating, then savagely beating and raping them on the floor. It’s all rather painful to sit through, with each scene teased out for maximum stomach-churning tension.
Laugier tries to frame — perhaps even justify — the nonstop nastiness through Beth’s obsession with the great early 20th century horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, who even makes a cameo appearance. But while the latter conveyed fear in his stories through suggestion and cultish fantasy, Laugier can only double down on the violence at every step, tossing in tons of prosthetics to show in sinister detail what a grown man’s fist can do to a girl’s face. You can’t exactly call that “Lovecraftian.”
Still, the director deserves a bit of credit for trying something different here — even if, for his second film in English after 2012’s The Tall Men, he could have brushed up more on his dialogue, which rings awfully flat. In terms of chills, Ghostland does however deliver a few good ones in the jump scare mode, with DP Danny Nowak and production designer Gordon Wilding contributing to the atmosphere of sustained dread.
Fans of Farmer, who was the Gallic equivalent of Madonna in the late ‘80s and throughout the 1990s, may be either amused or appalled to see their favorite singer beaten to a pulp, stabbed repeatedly and pronouncing her lines with an unruly French accent.
Production companies: 5656 Films, Mars Films, Logical Pictures
Cast: Crystal Reed, Anastasia Phillips, Emilia Jones, Taylor Hickson, Mylene Farmer
Director, screenwriter: Pascal Laugier
Producers: Clement Miserez, Jean-Charles Levy, Matthieu Warter, Nicolas Manuel, Ian Dimerman, Scott Kennedy, Sami Tesfazghi, Brendon Sawatzky
Executive producers: Stephane Celerier, Gregoire Melin, Frederic Fiore
Director of photography: Danny Nowak
Production designer: Gordon Wilding
Costume designer: Brenda Shenher
Editor: Dev Singh
Composer: Todd Bryanton
Casting director: Carmen Kotyk
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