While mainstream American horror seems determined to keep its scares not only safe but well within the limits of the PG-13 rating, the French are producing horror of such savagery and ferocity you have to wonder what’s they’re putting in the water across the Channel. But this latest Gallic New Wave reaches it’s splatterific peak with Martyrs, a film so extreme and so utterly uncompromising in vision and execution you won’t be able to rid your mind of it for weeks. Whether you find it repugnant or brilliant (or, even, brilliantly repugnant) will depend on many factors, not least your ability to endure prolonged scenes of torture.
The film begins with ten-year-old Lucie escaping from an abandoned factory where she’s been tortured by person or persons unknown. Flash forward 15 years and Lucie (Mylene Jampanoi), whose allegorical demons are manifested by a naked, blooded, dead twin with bad teeth, turns up unannounced at the home of a seemingly respectable family believing the adults responsible for her debasement and taking revenge — with a shotgun. But just when you’ve got a handle on where this is all going, Laugier pulls the rug out, as gal pal Anna (Morjana Alaoui) uncovers a hidden basement with a chained young girl, her eyes covered by a metal visor that’s been riveted into her skull.
To reveal much more about the plot would undermine writer-director Pascal Laugier’s unique — some might say pretentious — justification for the shocking scenes of depravity and Clive Barker-like flaying present in the second half as a mysterious group of people show up determined to uncover the ecstasy behind the agony, and the film reveals itself as more than a Hostel or Saw clone. Certainly Laugier can direct and, as evidenced by the comprehensive, feature-length Making Of which is more informative, honest, and reflective than most, his two actresses went beyond the call of duty to make it. “I was interested in making a film people could take a stand on,” he says in the filmed interview and there are some who will insist Martyrs is simply torture porn taken to the nth degree, while others will argue it’s a profound work of art and one of the finest horror films of the past decade. It’s a tough call. But it’s no surprise Laugier’s been hired to direct the Hellraiser remake.
* This review appears in the current issue of DVD & Blu-ray Review.