Dir. Pascal Laugier – 99 Minutes
Starring – Morjana Alaoui, Mylene Jampanoi, Catherine Begin.
PLEASE NOTE THERE ARE SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW
A victim of terrible torture as a child, Lucie rocks up to the family home of a respectable middle class couple and quickly dispatches everyone with a shotgun. Helped by her friend Anna, Lucie is set upon by a demonic force intent on slashing her to ribbons. However as Anna scratches the surface of the slain family’s home, she discovers that things are much worse than she expected. Much much worse…
You can count on one hand the films this horror fiend doesn’t have the urge to revisit at least once or twice a year. There are some ‘never again’ offenders like ‘A Serbian Film’ and ‘The Human Centipede 2’, films that leave a taste in the mouth so bitter it cancels out any kind of scab-picking curiosity I may have to be shocked again.
‘Martyrs’ falls just outside that bracket. I’ve seen it 3 times for a kick-off. It came out of that boom of hardcore French horror that came in the last decade. Gore and tension so high (see what I did there?) that it locks you in and drags you screaming like a rollercoaster until at the end you’re kinda traumatized, but also exhilarated. Martyrs, however, came with an added ingredient that just got under my skin and still sits there today.
From the get-go you know something brutal is coming. 10 year old Lucie staggers out into the street, stripped to her underwear, cut and bruised. Fast forward to Lucie making friends with scared, timid Anna at an orphanage and the frights begin. Old school monster-under-the-bed stuff that packs a punch but makes you wonder if you’re just in for demonic fun the likes of which we’ve all seen a hundred times. So far, so good, so expected…
Then we’re hit with the breakfast from hell. Some time later, a happy middle class white family sit down to breakfast when there’s a knock at the door. Enter Lucie – much older and bent on revenge, brandishing a sawn-off shotgun. Both parents and children are dispatched in a blistering home invasion that’s shocking in its frankness. Dead behind the eyes, Lucie has seen their picture in the paper and is convinced – the preppy parents of this lovely family are the monsters that tortured her as a child.
Plucky Anna – the voice of reason – shows up too late and finds Lucie covered in blood and surrounded by dead bodies. Thus begins the day from hell for these two girls.
Looking back, the power of this film comes with the emotional punch it packs. You feel Lucie’s hurt – you know she’s not a one-dimensional psycho. You see the suffering these two girls have gone through at the orphanage – dealing with their demons both psychological and lurking in the shadows. When faced with burying the dead (and the mother suddenly waking up and trying to escape, meeting a grisly end with a mallet) you’re with the girls and feel the pain they inflict on themselves, not just their victims. No mean feat. Not even halfway through and this film thrashes you over the head with its imagery.
Add to the mix the spectre of the demon that haunts Lucie, a cruelly twisted, gnarled monster that jumps from leftfield and hacks at the poor girl’s back with a razor blade – and this is the epitome of a house of horrors. But Lucie’s shockingly dispatched at the halfway point and suddenly this is Anna’s story.
Although it is one of my favourite horror gimmicks, it’s nothing new. Psycho obviously made the kill-your-heroine motif world famous in 1960, and it’s been done to death. But where this film succeeds is taking things up a notch.
No longer the house of horror, demon in the shadows, pile-up of bodies shockfest… Martyrs becomes something else. Anna goes subterranean, and so does the film. And this is where my therapy bill begins to clock up. We see gentile, beautiful Anna set upon by the secrets of the house.
Yep, Lucie was right all along. The innocent family she murdered weren’t so innocent. At least not the parents. Beneath the sterile veneer lies a heart of incredible darkness. A bunker. A torture chamber. And before Anna can make her escape she comes face to face with Mademoiselle…
A grotesque monster in woman’s skin, she leads a secret sect on a mission to discover the secrets held just on the other side of death. During some rather shameless exposition we are dragged through images collected throughout the ages of martyrs. The look in their eyes on the very precipice of death shows complete understanding and tranquillity. Tortured to the point of death, the victim is believed to have seen ‘the other side’. What the sect are trying to do is get somebody to that point and then find out what the martyr has seen and learned. Secret of life. Got that? Good. It feels a little bit like ‘Here comes the science!’ moment from the L’oreal ads…
The only problem is their victims keep dying. Or, in 10 year old Lucie’s case… escaping…
That’s right. 10 years old. Tortured to the point of death. This is some dark stuff, and it’s only about to get darker.
Anna is taken from beautiful young lady with a mop of hair and a gorgeous smile, to battered, broken, shaven-headed, reduced to wetting herself in the basement. Chained up and fed vile mush by a husband and wife team who take turns scrubbing her filth and beating her black and blue, Anna’s spirit is crushed but somehow… she is still alive…
There is no light here. No fun, edge-of-the-seat, ‘will she get away?!’ moments. Not even any gore, splatter, demons jumping from the shadows… gone is the entertainment. Now begins the endurance test.
Much has been said about the torture porn genre. Saw, Hostel, The Collector… I’ve always been the first to dismiss them as cheap, shocks not scares, lazy exercises in cynicism. And on paper, the latter half of Martyrs falls into that category.
But it’s the lack of colour, of freakshow thrills, that sets it apart. As the light in Anna’s eyes is extinguished, you feel it. As she is sprawled on a filthy mattress and her head is literally pounded again and again by her male captor, it’s a horrific image and sound that stays with you long after the film ends.
And what an ending. Unrecognisable, Anna is dragged into an operating theatre for the final test. And as you hold your hands up to your face and go ‘Oh no they’re not gonna… oh no they didn’t!’ Yes. Without fanfare, without melodrama, Anna is skinned alive. And as Mademoiselle and her fellow psychos gather to hear the words she is uttering having crossed to the other side, we’re left to decide what it is she whispers into Mademoiselle’s ear before a gunshot rings out and the sect leader falls lifeless to the ground.
No matter how twisted my favourite French horrors get – ‘Inside’ with its scissors vs pregnant stomach, ‘Frontiers’ with its ‘fetch the pincers’ squealathon, ‘High Tension’ with its death by chest of drawers family massacre, they all had an element of rollercoaster joy. There is no joy to be had in Martyrs. From beginning to end what you experience is an ordeal. So why watch it? To see what you can endure?
It comes down to horror in its purest form. It taps into everyone’s fear of being abducted, of the monster under the bed, of harming children… and the sinking sensation that out there in the real world, atrocities like those that befall Anna are committed every day. Sometimes in the name of politics, of international security, carried out at the hands of our heroes.
There’s no doubt it goes for shock value. There’s no doubt I can fall into the torture porn bracket in parts. But Martyrs is the real deal. A true horror experience that stays with you longer after its bitter end.