A Simple Theory of Torture: Ghostland Explained
Spoilers ahead! This is not a rehashing of the story or critique of the acting all the while skirting the meat of the horror. Ghostland Explained will try and make sense of the movie and posit theories about the bizarre ending. Beware all thee that entire. Here there be SPOILERS.
Let’s get the mechanics out of the way first.
I’m a fan of Pascal Laugier. I find his movies simultaneously hideous and breathtaking in their viciousness. Incident in a Ghostland delivered more of the same but with a nod to Legion and other movies and series that question what it is to be sane. As per Laugier’s previous work, the film is shot beautifully and acted professionally. The set is dressed completely and is a veritable creepshow of weirdness. Prospective choices are smart and help drive home the utter confusion of the girls and the story. Visceral is a word that gets thrown around a lot in horror but it is appropriate here. The violence is hard to watch and unrelenting. Movies like this are for a specific audience. They are definitely not for everyone. The story is sparse, verging on nonexistent and the killers are not fully realized, explained, or even very inventive. The transgender woman is more a cartoon than an actual person and her inclusion without the benefit of backstory is trite and antiquated. The giant man-child monster is straight out of Goonies but lacking the sensibility or affability of that 80’s classic. With all that being said, I found this movie serviceable if flawed.
Mixing scenes from two different timelines or realities(more on this later) Laugier seeks to show just how pliable the mind can be in overcoming trauma.
Ghostland tells the story of two sisters who are beaten, tortured and held hostage by a couple of seriously twisted individuals. The small family of mom and two daughters are moving into an aunt’s house who had an eclectic love of hoarding. In small bits of dialogue, we meet Vera, the tougher more social sister, Ella/Beth an introverted aspiring writer and their mother. Quickly the family is attacked and terrorized by two individuals for unknown reasons. The attack is quick and brutal and leaves nothing to the imagination, which is good because shortly thereafter are imaginations are asked to run wild. Interlaced between these scenes of home invasion are scenes of future Beth.
Mixing scenes from two different timelines or realities(more on this later) Laugier seeks to show just how pliable the mind can be in overcoming trauma. Childhood scenes are mixed with hyper-real scenes of a perfect future and grownup Beth who has realized her childhood dream of writing horror novels for a living. She is now a successful writer making the rounds of the publicity circuit doing interviews. She is also married, well adjusted and happy. There are tons of early hints that all is not as it appears. Foreshadowing is used with a heavy hand to clue in the watcher that all is not as it seems. For example, our precocious writer explains in the very first scene that she escapes into her stories and they are her friends. In addition, scenes from the seemingly current reality feel very surreal and too polished, almost dreamlike with there blurred focus and ideal settings. Dialogue is superficial and coloring is a pretty on the nose rose-filtered.
On its face, this is a film about violent abuse and its effect on the mind.
Beth is an imaginative young girl and she and her sister have found themselves in the worst possible circumstances. With nothing but violence and death around her, Beth retreats into a fantasy world of the future and concocts a reality so rich she manages to convince herself for several days that she has survived the incident and went on to live a full and successful life. None of this is of course, true. While her sister is being tortured unmercifully for days she has shut down and left Vera to fend entirely for herself. Vera breaks through to her sister eventually and the two girls fight for their lives, but not before several more sanity breaks, two dead police officers, one unsuccessful escape attempt and one melted doll vision I can not shake.
That then begs the question, did Mom really take her girls to this house looking the way it did, out in the middle of nowhere?
By the end of the movie, the girls are seen being carried out on stretchers from the aunt’s house after being rescued. Views of the yard and inside of the house show a house that is well beyond eclectic and has veered completely into the land of a disturbed serial killer. That then begs the question, did Mom really take her girls to this house looking the way it did, out in the middle of nowhere? It’s one thing to be run down with huge amounts of “stuff” everywhere, but it’s an entirely different thing if all the “stuff” are comprised of creepy dolls missing limbs, in birdcages with melted body parts.
The family was first spotted by the killers who drive a candy truck of course in a convenience store not too far from their new house. Did no one notice the creepy abandoned house or the big-time creepers who evidently had been squatting there? If they did notice why hadn’t something been done before now? With these two weirdoes taking up residency and sniffing doll crotches how did they avoid capture all this time? The house clearly had been lived in by these two for a while. Perhaps the girls never made it to the aunt’s house and everything after the convenience store was part of the delusion. What if Mom had been killed on the road early on and the girls had been dragged to the killer’s house? That would certainly tie up some loose ends better than the view the film posits.
In addition one of the random paintings in her future house and torture house feature the face of her future husband. Little touches like this are barely noticeable while watching this movie the first time but become obvious when re-watching with the knowledge that nothing is as it seems. During one particularly bizarre scene, adult Beth has a conversation about her writing with H.P. Lovecraft at a dinner party. How that is possible since he’s been dead for eighty years shows just how far off the rails Beth has gone. Watching Vera in Beth’s delusion get assaulted by unseen forces and having impossibly twisted fingers are obvious cues that all is not as it seems.
One final question at the end does more to elevate the film than any other.
A sweet well-meaning EMT asks Beth if she’s into sports because she was so strong and brave. Beth looks straight to camera and breaks the fourth wall and says, “No I love writing stories”. At first blush, its a statement to her strength of character that after all, she has been through she is not broken. If it had been any other movie that may have been all it was, but this is Ghostland a delusion within a delusion and breaks from reality are the name of the game.
Two possibilities exist, her sister died in the house and Beth is the lone survivor.
Or neither girl has been rescued and are still in the house with the killers. Vera makes no sound as she’s being taken out by the EMT’s leading me to the conclusion that she is already dead. Her death stare maybe all Beth sees while she is being tortured still in the house. With Vera’s death, Beth’s sanity has broken and she permanently lives in her new rescued reality, at least until she is killed by the crotch sniffer. This would sit perfectly within the storytelling of Laugier who has a real passion for bleak storytelling. There is no rescue, no hope and no heroes, only death. I have read that the final line by Beth is just a nod to the fact that everything we saw was, in fact, the book she wrote as an adult. If Laugier is anything it is nihilistic and my theory fits much better within his sensibilities.
Whether you liked it or hated it this is a movie people are talking about. The strange cinematic choices, reality-bending views, and real-life tragedy and subsequent lawsuit from actress Taylor Hickson are all conversation-worthy. With all the buzz, both good and bad one thing is for certain. This will not be the last film by Laugier to feature the torture of young women.