Movie Review: Laugier’s ‘Ghostland’ Haunted by Jump Scares

Movie Review: Laugier’s ‘Ghostland’ Haunted by Jump Scares

A mother and her two teenage daughters are stalked and attacked by a pair of demented killers in Ghostland, but that’s just the beginning of a twisted narrative in this new film from Pascal Laugier, director of the infamous Martyrs

Despite a limited filmography, Laugier has displayed an adept hand at both extreme horror (in the French-language Martyrs) and extreme narrative twists (in the underrated The Tall Man, which must be seen to be believed). 

But Ghostland doesn’t just fail to live up to the director’s previous films, it introduces an irritating new gimmick that completely overtakes the movie: wall-to-wall jump scares, which are so prevalent here that climactic scenes are set to a score of almost nothing but ‘stingers’ that don’t even correspond to the events unfolding on screen. 

The frequent and obnoxious jump scares - loud bursts of noise on the soundtrack after seconds of apprehensive silence - suck the narrative tension out of the movie and also rob Ghostland of much of its creepy horror-movie atmosphere. 

At the start of the Ghostland, Pauline (French singer Mylène Farmer, in the film’s standout performance) and her two daughters, H.P. Lovecraft fan Beth (Emilia Jones) and her surly sister Vera (Taylor Hickson), are off to an isolated country home after the death of an aunt. Que creepy candy truck (candy truck?) and gas station newspaper headline that mentions the murders of parents and assault of their children, and you know where this is headed. 

The deceased aunt’s home doesn’t help relieve the tension. Creepy dolls are stuffed into every corner of every room, and even include that old favorite: a full-length mirror that opens to a void of darkness and life-sized porcelain doll on a spring that pops out like a jack-in-the-box. 

But before the ladies can even settle in for the night, the house is invaded by an oddball pair of killers left over from a Rob Zombie film: a grunting oaf less coherent than The Goonies’ Sloth (Rob Archer), and his deadly crossdressing sidekick, on loan from The Silence of the Lambs (Kevin Power).

Before we find out just what happens, Ghostland flash-forwards a decade as the adult Beth (Crystal Reed), now a famous horror writer, has just released her latest novel, Incident in a Ghostland, detailing what went down with her mom and sister all those years ago. A phone call from Vera beckons her back to the old house, where some new revelations await. 

We’re only 20 minutes into the movie, but to reveal more would betray the story of what bizarre charm it does contain; figuring just what’s going on here is most of Ghostland’s fun.

But the stage is set for Ghostland’s showstopping sequence, in which Beth is dressed up like a doll and placed among the others in auntie’s home. She remains completely still and silent while the oaf has fun during doll time, hoping he won’t notice her. 

The sheer lunacy of what we’re watching during this extended bizarre-o scene, a fevered dream that makes no sense within the logic of the narrative or outside of it, is almost worth sitting around through the rest of the movie to get to. 

But despite how well-made Ghostland is - under Laugier’s taut direction, some wonderful set design, and rich cinematography by Danny Nowak - I couldn’t get past the oppressive jump scares that await behind every corner. 

In an era where most mainstream horror movies have abandoned the jump scare in favor of creating a foreboding atmosphere that maintains horror movie tension, Ghostland comes off as an oddball relic. It’s not without interest, but a disappointment coming from its talented director.

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