Pros: Surprisingly strong leads, New level in nausea
Cons: Philosophy that isn't that smart
The average person has probably never heard of this movie, but Pascal Laugier’s 2008 Martyrs is one which has been drawing great interest and hype among horror geeks. It has been widely lauded as taking the torture porn genre to new heights. It’s a French film that was rejected by all the major studios before being picked up by Canal+ and aired at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, eventually reaching the US DVD market in April 2009.
Torture porn was a phrase popularized by Eli Roth’s Hostel movies, known for its graphic depiction of mutilation, sadism and torture. Other examples include Takashi Miike’s work such as Audition, Ichii the Killer and Imprint (a Masters of Horror episode), Saw and Rob Zombie’s double bill House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects. It’s a newer trend that sees directors wanting to push the limits and the viewer’s nervous system ever further. But whereas most torture movies to date have also been marked by tongue in cheek humor, moments of gimmicky coolness or redemption, Martyrs is bleak from start to finish. It’s hopeless, it’s doomed and it doesn’t want to impress you.
That said, this is certainly not one for the faint of heart.
The movie opens with a young girl, Lucie, bloodied, malnourished and mutilated, fleeing an abandoned building in panic. Finding herself in the confines of an orphanage, we learn of the torture she has been subjected to. She’s in an almost catatonic state which prevents the staff or the police from getting any information from her. She finds a confidant in the caring Anna and the two become lifelong friends. Lucie’s fear is no longer for those that did her harm in the past but a “Grudge” like demon that haunts her. There’s a question mark over the presence of this demon who exists in a Freddy Kruger like state and may be a manifestation of Lucie’s near death experience or simply within her psychologically damaged imagination.
We jump forward 15 years, as a now young adult Lucie enters a farmhouse and brutally murders a seemingly average family. It becomes clear that this is a revenge mission, but with doubts regarding Lucie’s sanity we can’t be sure of the soundness behind her motive. Was it a justified killing, or is Lucie so bent on revenge that she’s just become a mindless killer? Regardless she’s still violently tormented by the demon of her past. This synopsis covers about the first 30 minutes of the movie and you’re left to wonder whether the director has played all his cards too early. I won’t tell you anymore, other than it still manages to kick things up a gear in the second half.
Martyrs is definitely a viscerally nauseating experience. I’ve sat through a few of these in the past but this one really did manage to drag my nerves to new levels. The director does a great job of pulling out some shocking surprise moments, but his graphic punishment is even more severe than anything Miike, Zombie or Roth have served up in the past. What I don’t understand here is the number of reviewers trying to explain that this is not torture porn, or that it’s anti-torture porn. It is torture porn, plain and simple and succeeds because of the immense tension it draws from that premise. I’d liken the movie to a roller coaster ride, where it gets the pulse racing from the beginning, looks to have served up its biggest moment mid-movie, then when you think it’s all over throws you into a final assault that had me doubting whether I would even be able to sit through it. Many will leave the movie before it finishes.
As far as I can gather Martyr’s has been called non-torture porn for two reasons. The first is that it doesn’t try to titillate the viewer with its cleverness. The second is the philosophical reasoning behind the seemingly mindless madness. There’s a reason the movie is called Martyrs. I won’t reveal it here, but it was a weak storyline and a theme that didn’t impress me too much. Unimpressive as the storyline is, I really just look at Martyrs as taking Eli Roth’s Hostel and trying to push it a step further. I have complaints about repetition in the final third that I can’t reveal for fear of spoilers but that I’m sure those who have seen the movie will identify with.
Martyrs is well executed with director Laugier showing himself as a fine talent. I’ve heard that he’s going to be remaking Hellraiser which is an obvious choice based on what’s on view here. There’s also talk of a US Martyrs remake (Blah). The two female leads (Morjana Alaoui and Mylène Jampanoï) are better than expected too, convincingly portraying the torment and panic of the moment. But when all is said and done, Martyrs might push the punishment to new levels but it’s not the benchmark movie that many have claimed. It’s one of the better torture porn movies for sure, but its philosophy isn’t as smart as it wants to be.
Content Advisory: The violence and gore is intense and often unwatchable and while there is nudity, it’s shown in a non-sexual and unglamorous context. Don’t even let your older teens near this one.
Verdict: 3 Stars Recommended