We horror fans are a fickle lot. For some, blood, gore, and a pinch of gratuitous sex are that are needed for a good time. But some days, it’s far too easy to just cake the screen in grue and call it a day. Enter stage left Martyrs, a grisly little opus that’s recently been making the rounds in the horror community and earning quite a reputation in the process. If the red stuff is all you’re interested in, then consider Martyrs your Second Coming. But for those who desire something deeper than the old ultraviolence, expect to recall the phrase “close, but no cigar” on many an occasion during your tour through this French-fried slaughterhouse.
Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï) had what some might call a difficult childhood. Held captive by a pair of demented psychos who put her through no end of abuse, Lucie managed to escape her torment and flee to safety. But rather than forget the past and move on with her life, Lucie decides that a little justice is in order. With her friend Anna (Morjana Alaoui) in tow, Lucie finally tracks down the sickos responsible for taking her to hell and back, exacting some swift and blood vengeance. But just when it seems as if retribution has been achieved, the girls learn that the terror has just begun. Now comes Anna’s turn to witness for herself the horrors her pal experienced, to undergo an onslaught of suffering as a means to a shocking end.
Martyrs is the latest Franco-bred heavy hitter to step up to the plate in hopes of knocking out a horror home run. Previous participants met with mixed results, from the unrelenting Inside to the nauseating but wholly unoriginal Frontier(s). But one look at Martyrs, and you’ll know that its creators came to play ball. The rumors of this picture being one nasty beast are true; this is no Friday the 13th, where each new over-the-top kill is a cause for celebration. Director Pascal Laugier (House of Voices) adopts a grim disposition from the word go and never lets up, stopping just short of sending viewers to the nearest vomitorium. But for once, the violence doesn’t seem to exist for its own sake. In the film’s merciless opening scenes, you get the feeling that Laugier is building up towards something, an objective that he lets loose in subtle and effective doses. Martyrs questions where revenge ends and one’s own descent into destructive madness begins. Any way you slice it, it’s considerably more ambitious than its brethren, furnished with a can-do attitude that ranks it a cut above its bloodstained brothers.
But there comes a point at which Martyrs, coasting along on the fruits of its impeccably-paced labor, attempts to shift into overdrive, only to sputter out on Route 666. Martyrs suffers from a terminal case of what I like to call Eagle Eye Syndrome, in which a flick’s initial hook is so good, the rest of the movie couldn’t possibly live up to it. Indeed, as if Laugier came up with enough material for the best horror short ever made, the extra half-hour or so he tacks on to explain the rest results in a “So what?” type of reaction. I understand what Laugier’s intentions, which are lofty even by standards of high art. But such themes aren’t developed well enough to merit their inclusion, the act that follows their revelation amounting to a half-hour’s worth of pretentious torture. The film becomes less interesting the more it tries to be provocative, and while the lead actresses deserve a medal for enduring what they do, watching them essentially get beaten up for 90 minutes and change is far from compelling.
Don’t take my disappointment with Martyrs to be the half-hearted dismissal of a hopeless gorehound grumbling that his appetite wasn’t sated. As mentioned before, the film has a mean streak that it’s not afraid to show and even works hand-in-hand with the story from time to time. Martyrs is smarter than the average fright fest, but its thematic shortcomings hold it back from graduating into horror’s big leagues.