by Steve Habrat
Way back in 2008, when horror was still in its torture porn cycle, France contributed Martyrs to the orgy of depravity. While Martyrs is much more thought provoking than some of the other genre entries (Saw), at times you can tell it doesn’t have much more on its mind than skin crawling violence. After a nasty yet attention-grabbing opening sequence, Martyrs slowly begins falling apart right in front of our eyes as it begins to resemble Hostel with each passing second. The film does pull a last act twist that you won’t be expecting and that is where the wheels in your brain will start turning and an icy chill will consume your body. Yet I had a hard time with Martyrs because, being a French film, there is strong sense of superiority to the project, like it is under the impression that it is much smarter than it actually is. The problem is the questions it raises will only stick with you for a short while after the film has ended, and then everything dries up or fades away.
Martyrs starts off with a young girl, Lucie, fleeing a gloomy torture chamber, making a mad, whining dash for her life. Lucie is picked up by authorities and then placed in the care of an orphanage where she meets another young girl named Anna, who she becomes extremely close with. Lucie also finds herself suffering from strange sightings of a horribly scarred girl who continuously torments her. Speeding ahead fifteen years, Lucie shows up at the door of a seemingly normal family and when the mother opens the door to greet Lucie, she opens fire on the family with a double barrel shotgun. After butchering the whole family, Lucie (Played by Mylene Jampanoi) makes a call to Anna (Played by Morjana Alaoui) and proceeds to tell her that she thinks she found the people who tortured her. Anna shows up to help Lucie clean up the gory messy, but the terrifying hallucinations become worse for Lucie and there may be more secrets that the family was hiding, including more victims and ties to a sinister organization who sets their sights on young women.
Without giving too much away, Martyrs becomes enamored with the idea of what lies beyond death, an existential proposal that will spark conversation but the film is only half concerned with it. Instead, director Pascal Laugier was more interested in his monster that plagues Lucie and how convincing the make-up work would be on his battered actors. Martyrs is a vile experience and is incredibly sadistic, and I’ll admit, I was impressed by how authentic the violence looked, but that is only half the battle. While I am admittedly a fan of hardcore cinema, I am a little tougher on torture porn because I feel that very little thought has actually gone into it. It’s very easy to gross people out and it seems like a cheap shot. Martyrs definitely feels like a cheap shot, a film that lacks barely a suspenseful moment but is just constantly disgusting and cringe inducing. The monster that follows Lucie is effective here and there, but that largely disappears by the middle of the film.
The film begins with a bang, opening with Lucie’s rampage that is upsetting only because we simply do not know why she is doing this to this seemingly normal family. When the actions on screen are suspended in air without showing the strings, Martyrs is a lot more interesting than the metallic second half of the film that resembles a stainless steel Hostel. I found Jampanoi’s Lucie to be an alluring character despite her vengeful nature. She outshines Alaoui, who finds herself saddled with portraying a character that never fully grabs us. For her run on the screen, Lucie is a car wreck we just can’t stop watching. She runs around shrieking in terror of the monster that likes to stalk her, yet it never becomes the cliché girl in a bad horror movie. Jampanoi’s eyes all do a lot of acting themselves, as they often times seem almost black, possessed by rage and anger for what has been done to her. She is also gripped by guilt, which adds another interesting layer of complexity to her. The scene where she kneels over the dead body of one of her victims and breaks down is a standout scene.
The finale of Martyrs will leave viewers with quite a bit to discuss. On one hand, the macabre climax seems superfluous and senseless but when all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place, it is a bit unsettling, especially when the motivations of the antagonists are revealed. When the focus shifts from Lucie to Anna, the film becomes a bit of a bore even though it desperately tries to hold us with its consistently horrifying violence. Maybe if I wasn’t so desensitized by previous torture porn offerings, Martyrs may have had more of an impact on me as clearly we are supposed to be sickened by it. When Martyrs stays on course, with its sights set on it’s main focus, the film makes for a brainy horror film but when it takes a detour into the waters of corn syrup and red food coloring, Martyrs becomes a tedious exercise in filmmaking.
Martyrs is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.