Sunday, 25 September 2011


Martyr, My Dear

Martyrs France/Canada 2008
Directed by Pascal Laugier
The Weinstein Company Region 1

Warning: Slight spoilers on this one.

You know, when I first heard about Martyrs, when it was doing the festival circuits a few years back, I was gagging to see it. Not because I like the so-called “torture-porn” subgenre of horror movies that seem to have become so popular over the last half a decade or so... I’ve seen both the first Saw and the first Hostel movies and frankly I could have done without either in my life (and especially since they’re not actually horror movies but movies about killing and killers). It’s not a genre I’m that interested in, to be truthful. Films which are tailored to deliver gore and suffering as both the method and the result of their own madness somehow kind of take the edge off things a little. They’re not great movies as a rule... at least that’s the way I see them.

But I was interested in seeing Martyrs because I’d heard that people at Frightfest were throwing up in the aisles. Seriously people... at Frightfest, a film festival which caters to hardened fans of all kinds of horror movies... people were getting seriously freaked out by this movie, for some reason. So as soon it was out on US DVD I picked one up and, you know what, for some strange reason I’ve just never got around to watching it until now... could have waited for the UK edition to arrive the speed I get to watch these things at.

So anyway... I took a look at Martyrs last night and was both impressed and also unimpressed by this movie at the same time. Impressed because it was so much more in terms of the art of film-making than I was expecting from it and also unimpressed because it’s really not anything which lives up to the hype of its initial screening reactions. Shame on the Frightfest audiences if they gave this such an inadvertent but glowing endorsement.

Okay... so Martyrs is a well made piece of cinematic art which is like two films in one. It feels, especially for the first half, like a grungy 70s exploitation film from Sweden and you can imagine an eyepatch wearing Christina Lindberg turning up in this exact same movie if this had been made 40 years ago. It’s got the right kind of vibe.

The movie starts off strong with a pre-credits sequence of a young girl escaping from her unknown captors who have been systematically torturing her for a long period of time. As the credits progress and you get to know her and see her growing up with her friend at an orphanage, you see she is both terrorised by her memories and... terrorised by a fast moving shadowy figure who she wants to escape from at all costs. Now I really didn’t know much, if anything, of the plot of this film before I started it but it was at this point, just before the title card comes up at the end of the opening credits, that I realised there was a twist in this movie... and I immediately figured out wat it was. After another quarter of an hour, where the grown up girl goes on a rampage with a shotgun for payback time, I was pretty darned sure that at least one of the characters in this movie was not real. I’m not saying who that is in this review but... it seemed pretty obvious to me what was going on. The strength of this particular film, though, is that it reveals the twist about a third of the way through, just after one character’s friend comes to the rescue to help clear the bloody carnage and bodies from the house.

And then, after a little while more, something else I won’t reveal happens, which is again fairly obvious... it’s actually quite painfully inevitable actually, and the film goes into this newish, commercial “torture-porn” subgenre but, it has to be said, that although this film does have some gory violence, most of that takes place within the first half of the film... the later sequences are actually quite calm in places as the tortures inflicted on one of the girls are either shown as a "movie magic" montage or take place off screen. Frankly, the whole thing has a sense of reality to it because Pascal Laugier turns out to be a fine director who is a bit of an artist. However, it also has to be said that there’s not much to see here in terms of any shock value or such... the kinds of things which might satisfy a regular “horror” audience. And this really isn’t a horror movie anyway.

What it does have going for it, is a quite nice little ending sequence which stems from the motivation of the girl’s torturers and which, as suggested by the title of the film, lends a kind of quasi-religious tone to the movie and I’m thinking... well, I don’t know but... maybe the religious angle of the picture is what disturbed audiences so much a couple of years ago when this thing was getting seen? I don’t really see why there was all the furore over this movie myself and, truth be told, I’m not even sure at what part of the film audiences began to lose it, but my one straw I can clutch at before assuming everyone has gone absolutely insane for making a big deal about this one... asides from the obvious talent and artistry of the director... is because of the pseudo-religious ingredients of the film. Because, frankly, I find movies which devalue the consequences of violence and turn it into some glib entertainment for the masses, like the Saw and Hostel movies, far more disturbing in tone and also, as it happens, far more gorier than anything seen in Martyrs.

For Martyrs, you see, is impressive as a well put together film with believable performances but it’s not something which is going to visually burn into the collective visual cortex of an audience like the eye slashing scene from Dali and Bunuel’s Un Chien Andaleau, for instance. It does, though, as I said, have a nice ending with an extra tease at the end, the first part of which, after a sequence which is quite reminiscent of the end sections of Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, is very much like the final shots in Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation... if you’ve seen both Lost In Translation and Martyrs you’ll probably know exactly what I mean. The end icing on the cake, where the final solution is denied both the “audience” in the movie and also the audience watching the movie, could be construed as a brilliant tease by the writer/director or, perhaps, a cop out because you can’t really reveal what can’t be known.

Either way, Martyrs is a nicely made if inconsequential thriller... to be fair I don’t think the torture-porn genre of horror has really any right to call itself a sub-genre of horror... they’re just extreme thrillers, no more no less. So the question I keep asking myself, as I come to the end of this review, is would I recommend this film to other people? Well, in all honesty, if you’re looking for an extreme thriller which will shock or at least disturb you... I’d say give this one a miss. If, however, you want to see a well directed movie and don’t mind some gore with some religious, cod-philosophy overtones on it... yeah, give it a watch. It’s a competently made movie by someone who’s bound to go on to better things. It’s just not quite something I’d put on for the extra easily squeamish though... all things considered.


  1. Ah, another satisfyingly thorough review. But you didn't mention the soundtrack!

    I was reminded of a certain early horror director (whose name escapes me) who drummed up interest in his films by engaging nurses to stand by for people who were inevitably going to have heart attacks or faint. He became well-known (who was that guy?? Castle?) although his films never caused a heart attack once.

    have you read Flicker by Theodore Rozcak? What happens to the protag becomes obvious as the book goes on, but there are beautiful and beautifully creepy images of early horror films used as subliminal messages.

  2. Hi there.

    Yeah, that was William Castle. For an excellent parody of him, see John Goodman in Joe Dante's MATINEE for a good time.

    I've not read that but now you've mentioned it I'll maybe give it a go at Christmas and review it in January.

    Another good read along film/horror fictional blending is Tim Lucas' THROAT SPROCKETS.

    THanks for stopping by.