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Martyrs (2008)

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.

Grade: C+

Martyrs is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Insidious (2011)

by Steve Habrat

In these indolent times that are plaguing Hollywood, it’s such a refreshing experience seeing a film that is not a direct remake of an older, often times superior original. It’s usually an iconic film that studios use to simply milk money from our wallets. They repackage the film, tie it up with a big CGI bow, throw in half-baked 3D, and we flock to see it because we are familiar with it. If they aren’t desecrating an old gem, they are lifting the material from a book, comic book, or graphic novel. It makes me wonder if any of these writers or suits out there in the City of Angels remotely consider picking their own brains for a good story. The genre that especially can’t seem to help itself is the horror genre. It seems that absolutely no one can come up with an original and relentlessly scary little horror flick these days. Instead, studios just look to rebooting tired franchises whose knives and machetes are showing signs of rust (Yes, I am talking about you Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th remakes!).  It seems like every year we get one scary movie that is actually effective. Last year’s stylish American remake Let Me In was a standout. The year before saw the, in my humble opinion, good but not great haunted house thrill-ride Paranormal Activity. We’ve also seen an amped up remake of The Hills Have Eyes, the colorfully blood drenched Dawn of the Dead remake, the tribute to 50’s B-movie creature features The Mist, the claustrophobic monster movie The Descent, and the outstanding British zombie flick 28 Days Later, and the based-on-true-events chiller The Mothman Prophecies. That’s basically what we have had to work with since 2002. And three of those are remakes!!

While creativity is one portion of the problem, another reason why horror ultimately ran itself into the ground was the work of two men—James Wan and Leigh Whannell. They are the culprits who graced our movie screens with the torture porn clunker Saw. They ignited a frenzy of films that shamelessly bathed in body fluids and they also sparked a line of horrendous sequels that followed. While the only notable film in the series was Saw III, they influenced Hostel, Wolf Creek, and a slew of others that were less concerned about being scary and more concerned with making you squirm. And many of them were successful at making you cover your eyes but the genuine scares were non-existent. Yet in the past few years, torture porn has made itself scarce and horror has been attempting to embrace real fear again. It’s funny that the men who reduced horror to ashes, have played Dr. Frankenstein and risen it like a phoenix. Insidious is that phoenix.

Insidious is one of the scariest movies I have seen in quite sometime and is simply one of the best horror movies in years. Yeah, I said it. And it’s also original! Sure, it’s an unholy fusion of Poltergeist, The Exorcist, The Shining, and The Amityville Horror, but these days, we have to be carful when we criticize something that attempts to break new ground. Alas, Insidious does not but it sure makes a valiant attempt. Instead, Insidious conjures up some truly hellish images that are guaranteed to linger in your head for days after witnessing them. The film follows Josh (Played by Watchmen’s Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Played by 28 Weeks Later’s Rose Byrne) Lambert and their three children as they move into their new home. All seems well until strange noises are heard throughout the home, objects are moved, and one of their children, Dalton, falls into a coma (Ya know, the usual!). But after a seriously spooky night in their home, they begin to wonder if the reason their son has fallen into this enigmatic coma is supernatural rather than medical. The Lambert’s call in a group of paranormal investigators who quickly determine that Dalton is trapped in a ghostly parallel universe called The Further.

If it sounds like you’ve heard all of this before, you have, as Wan has crafted a loving tribute to the horror films of old. He throws reference after reference at the audience and one could almost make the film into a game of spot that horror reference. It’s all quite fun but it’s the 180-degree shift in the quality of the work here that is really quite impressive. Wan’s chiaroscuro industrial aesthetic still lingers but the film itself is much more patient than Saw. It feels like there is discipline here and I think much of that may stem from the producers who were also responsible for Paranormal Activity. There is no over-reliance on blood and guts (The film is rated PG-13) and instead relies on loud bangs, growls, shadowy figures, and sudden music blasts to make you soil your shorts. But Wan also fries your nerves through some seriously haunting images; most striking of all is a shadowy apparition standing behind a baby’s crib and a demon lurking in the corner of poor Dalton’s room. Even Whannell’s script provides a few blasts of heebie-jeebies. One scene includes a character describing a dream that she had and all I will say is that it turned my insides to ice cubes. It gives me chills just think back to it! This scene demonstrates the beauty of your imagination getting the best of you.

What’s even more impressive about the film is the performances that Wan manages to capture. He has positioned two very talented actors at the core of the film and it doesn’t hurt either that Barbara Hershey (Black Swan) shows up as a concerned grandmother. Lin Shaye pops up and provides a fine performance as the psychic Elise Rainier. While sometimes the acting does dip and head into cheesy territory mostly from his child actors, it’s forgivable. What does end up hurting the film and causes it to loose some of its momentum is the final act, which falls victim to the you-never-show-the-monster syndrome. It causes the film to descend into the fun house realm. Someone should have explained to Wan that it’s what you don’t see that ends up being the most horrifying.

While the ending suffers a bit, the film is still astonishing in how uncompromising it is in its attempts to send you screaming from the theater. It will get you at least once. The film sadly chooses the same path that the final minutes of Paranormal Activity did and embrace the CGI trickery. In Insidious, however, you overlook it because the final minutes of this demon are unpredictable. Just get ready for an I-did-not-see-that-coming twist. But the first three fourths of the film is so good, that Insidious haunts its way onto the must see list. The film also redeems any potential talent that James Wan and Leigh Whannell have and it leaves me intrigued for what they do next. I will leave you with is this: Any film that makes me walk into a darkened room and quickly flip on the light is one you have to see (Seriously, it really did that to me.). Insidious is an inspired creep-out that will haunt your dreams. Grade: A

Insidious is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.