World, meet the harshest horror critic known to mankind — me! Horror films are the worst thing in the entertainment industry besides pop icons. Rarely has there been a truly exceptional horror film since The Shining… although there have been some respectable scares that have crept out here and there.
The Ring gave me a ten-second nightmare where I was sleeping on a couch and that scary long-haired chick was standing beside me being her usual absurdly terrifying self. The Exorcism of Emily Rose was a well-done film with a gripping performance by Jennifer Carpenter that disturbed me several times over throughout its run time.
Yes, I’ve seen garbage passing itself off as art in the likes of I Spit on Your Grave. Yes, I’ve seen the most demented and vile that Japan has to offer from director Takashi Miike and many others. Yes, I’ve seen Faces of Death. My grandmother, thinking it was a harmless horror film, let me rent one of them once. I was in the first grade.
Yes, I've seen it all, folks. But not until this day has the limit of my every terrible emotion been tested as it was watching Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs. I kid you not, at the close of the film my gut was still trembling in nervous shudders, and I had a lump in my throat so swollen that it felt like I was swallowing slime.
Hey, um, Lucie? I think you're sitting on the remote.
Martyrs follows a young woman named Lucie who, after escaping brutal depraved torture at only 12 years old, runs away to an orphanage where she befriends only one other girl who tries to help her escape her mental devastation. Their friendship leads them to an act of vengeance that disembowels the plot and lays it out, organ by organ, for you to see every visceral and psychological part of the human mind and body in its deepest, most tormented psychosis.
If you haven’t put it together by now, do not see this film if you are easily disturbed, and I mean this with the sincerest and most dire warning. For my entire life, I had waited for this film. An entire life of wondering when someone is gonna grow the balls to make a horror film that genuinely delivers on truly astounding levels of stomach-flattening dread. It is here. It has finally been done.
It’s easy for filmmakers to splash pools of red syrup on walls after sawing off the plastic limb of an immature oversexed teenager. Eli Roth’s Hostel tried just that, attempting to gross us out and make us squirm with gratuitous unintentionally or intentionally silly violence. I love and respect Eli Roth, but I was never impressed with Hostel. Never. It’s easy to put your actors in elaborate torture devices in Saw and dip them in a plot disguised as philosophically profound. Martyrs does everything right that every horror film before it has attempted – but failed to do – because of a severe and appalling lack of artistic or philosophical merit.
Every cruel, bitterly gruesome element in Martyrs acts as a very particular answer to the psychological equation. Unlike the utter failures before it, each viciously grotesque event, frame, word spoken, or blow dealt relentlessly builds upon story and character. The atmosphere is as soaked in maniacal decadence as the walls are bathed in coats of gore.
Mylene Jampanoi’s performance as Lucie summons such violent desperation it’s hard not to believe they scraped a degenerate nutcase from the padded walls of an insane asylum, set her loose on a murderous death spree, and just let the cameras roll. Thanks not only to her performance, but to the aforementioned elements at play, Lucie’s extreme mental divergence is callously real.
But Lucie isn’t the only subject of the story, she is merely another part of a bigger and much more extravagantly sickening picture. Her friend, Anna, also played with dramatic, heart-stopping poignancy by Morjana Alaoui, serves as the second act’s pivotal role. The answers never stop dropping with every bludgeon and gunshot as the story envelopes you, embracing you limb by limb in its suffocating innards. The deeper you go, the harder it is to remember to breathe, and the harder it is to watch. Unfortunately, mentioning any more of the story would spoil how fiercely the plot evolves into unexpected forms.
My teeth were polished and ground to pebbles from extended periods of subconscious gnashing. I often found myself grasping my other arm so tightly I was pulling at thick chunks of flesh and hair. The best way to watch this film is exactly how I experienced it: alone at 2 am, with no expectations, surrounded by darkness, in a puddle of your own urine. The front of the DVD cover says, “One of the most ferocious horror films ever made.” My exact thoughts were, “Yeah, right. Like I haven’t heard that before.” After seeing it, I realize now that those, or any words, will never do it justice.
I wished I could have allowed myself to not write this review and simply recommend it to people like you would a pizza with habaneros baked under the cheese to an old man with a stomach ulcer. I was literally, albeit slightly, shaken to that swirling need to vomit. I even had that familiar warm pre-vomit saliva coat the back of my tongue for nearly the entire length of the film. Friends of mine know that I’m tough as nails when it comes to both watching and critiquing horror films, but this one officially did me in. It beat me to a swollen pathetic mess.
Writing this review is the only thing that provided me any relief (besides soiling myself), and in this moment – as I write this sentence – my stomach still quakes with tension. Writing this is the only thing that made me feel I could somehow rid myself of the horrid aftershock left after witnessing the closest thing to violent insanity I hope to never encounter outside of my TV screen. Martyrs absolutely destroys, belittles, and transcends every horror film I have ever seen in my life and should be the new rite of passage for anyone trying to put themselves in the most hardcore bracket of horror fans.
Martyrs is available now on DVD and, if you're very lucky, you might find it on Blu-ray somewhere outside of France… maybe.