What is it about the French that gives them the ability to turn out some of the most gut-wrenching, disturbing horror films these days? Their ability to deliver extreme, cringe-inducing horror is closing in on '70s-era Italian cannibal and zombie films, '80s American slashers, and late '90s-early '00s Japanese ghost stories. With these specialties from around the world, it should be quite easy to program a special "Horror 'Round the World" movie network. In any case, Martyrs is the latest example of twisted horror that I have seen, hot on the heels of Haute Tension, Inside, and Frontier(s) (and that doesn't even touch on dramas like Irreversible). What sets this apart from those other examples is the metaphysical aspect of the tale, but I am getting ahead of myself.
Four years ago I was introduced to the work of Pascal Laugier with his big screen screenwriting and directorial debut, House of Voices (released in France as Saint Ange). That supernatural ghost tale was a mediocre entry into the genre, and I cannot say I expected to see more from him. Now, along comes his followup film, Martyrs, and I have to admit that the jump in quality between his debut and sophomore efforts is similar to that of Rob Zombie from House of 1000 Corpses to The Devil's Rejects. In other words, it is considerable and very much welcome.
Martyrs opens with a young girl emerging from a building on the industrial side of town, bruised, bloody, barefoot, and screaming. The girl's name is Lucie and it she was held captive for an unknown period of time. She does not remember much of what happened, is not sure who did it, and does not trust anyone. That begins to change when she befriends Anna, another girl with a troubled past living in the same group home. Their friendship is sealed the day Anna sees Lucie cutting herself, only to have Anna say that it was someone else who did it. From this moment on, the two become inseparable friends.
Jump ahead fifteen years and meet a seemingly normal suburban family. They are getting ready to start their day when the doorbell rings. They answer the door and the woman on the outside proceeds to lay them down with a succession of shotgun blasts. It is Lucie.
That's right, the story begins as a tale of revenge. Lucie was able to uncover who it was who held her captive for so very long. The question remains, at least for Anna, are these people the right ones? How can Lucie be so sure? We do not know, we are not given the necessary information and must rely on Lucie, who seems to be rather unbalanced. Can you blame her?
The two women stay at the house to clean up their mess, but Lucie is bad shape. She is haunted by a mysterious figure and her sanity is taking a leave of absence. Meanwhile, Anna is having her doubts while trying to keep the pieces together.
At this stage of the story everything changes. What we thought we knew, what we think will happen, everything stops in its tracks to be picked up completely off the rails and set down on another track and sent along its way in an entirely new direction running perpendicular to the original thread, and most definitely not parallel.
What comes next, I dare not say. Let me just say that it is dark, violent, and uncompromising. It is a disturbing passage of film that has seared itself into my mind. There are moments that made me cringe, images that urged me to turn it off, passages that made me question the filmmaker's humanity. Then, when we learn of why they are doing it, let's just say it is jaw-dropping and will leave you questioning just what happened. It is clear that they use a different, but valid, definition for the word "martyr," for what they are are doing borders on the spiritual as a witness is sought. You see, the villain is not doing this for the sake of torturing someone or inflicting pain — they have a goal of attaining a different level of being, or at least bearing witness to that level. Yes, the metaphysical elements.
The performances are utterly convincing and only add to the disturbing nature of the tale. Particularly notable is Morjana Alaoui as Anna. What she puts herself through for the sake of the movie is unbelievable. You will feel for her, you will forget you are watching a performance. She is that good. Not for nothing, Mylène Jampanoï as Lucie is also quite strong in her portrayal of a woman in torment. Absolutely chilling.
As for Pascal Laugier? With this outing, he has acquitted himself quite well in the face of a tale so extreme. He has given this film a pace, a twist, and a visceral punch that will be felt well into the future. And now, rumor has it, he is in line to helm the proposed remake of Hellraiser (a position abandoned by the creative team of Inside). Something tells me he could create something very interesting.
Audio/Video. The video presentation is solid. The 1.85:1 aspect ratio is preserved for the release. The color palette is washed out and a touch on the soft side, but detail is retained and nothing is lost in the shadows. The grim content matches the bleak look of the transfer. I have not seen this projected, but I believe this is similar to what was on the big screen.
The audio is also solid and available in either the original French (which I chose, also turning on the subtitles) or an English dub, both tracks are Dolby Digital 5.1. There are plenty of atmospheric sounds, ticking clocks, faint cries in the dark. The movie also has it share of in your face noises, shotgun blasts, rattling of heavy chains, and the sound of fist hitting flesh. The sound design ad reproduction will definitely hold your attention.
Extras. The bonus material is limited to an introduction by director Pascal Laugier, where he says he is proud of the film and also hates himself for doing it, and is okay if you (the viewer) hate him too. The other extra is a making of featurette that runs nearly 51 minutes. It is not your standard documentary and does a good job of taking you onto the set with plenty of on set footage.
Bottom line. Martyrs is not what I was expecting, but it did deliver the goods and I am glad for the experience. Well, as glad as one can be for seeing what I saw. If you are a horror fan, this should be on your list. It is visceral, gut-wrenching, and thought-provoking. What else do you need?