Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Horror Corner - Martyrs

I went into French Horror film Martyrs scared. I foolishly looked at an early preview, and was disturbed by what I had read. Ultra violent. Nightmarish. Sickening. And apparently not with the intention of merely grossing you out, but supported by a wholly more intellectual and meaningful raison d’etre. Turns out I needn’t have been too worried. While it is unarguably bold, disturbing, shocking and at times pretty hard to watch, once past it's obvious horrific charms it turns out the central conceit it pins its eventual resolution on is in fact the hardest part to stomach. Getting there though means embarking on an exceptionally well crafted and grisly journey, and if the film is anything, it is above all surprising, so should you wish to maximise the impact of such surprises and avoid some small, early spoilers, I suggest you certainly don't continue reading..

In a run down part of town, a young girl staggers screaming into the street and runs for her life, she has it seems been cruelly tortured. A grainy newsreel picks up the story; the discovery of the slaughterhouse where she was imprisoned, the clues as to her ordeal, and the inability of the police to locate her tormentors. The girl, Lucie, is put into care, and again we are shown grainy footage of her distrustful life there, and the emerging careful friendship between her and another girl, Anna. Lucie is clearly disturbed by her traumatic experience, and we quickly see that she is prone to self harm, although she claims that she's not responsible for the wounds. Weight is given to the claim, when she is attacked in the night by a screeching, wild haired figure, that does a grand job of putting the willies up you. So far so normal, everything’s in the traditional horror mould.

Skip forward 15 years. Oh yes, don’t read this bit if you don’t want a nasty surprise ruined. 15 years later, a lovely French family sit at breakfast chatting away when the doorbell rings, and without so much as a bonjour, in bursts Lucie with a shotgun and blows them all away. I make light of it, because I am still shaking with the shock of this sequence. Truly masterful, this I did not see coming. She systematically, and with great difficulty and remorse, takes out the four of them, kids and all, in an apparent bid for revenge for her childhood imprisonment and torture. But how can this suburban family possibly be responsible for the horrors that has left Lucie so scarred? Well, they're dead now, so we better watch where this goes..

The thing about revenge movies, is that the act of vengeance is usually the climax of the film. Here it happens in the first 20 minutes, and I was guilty of fretting about where it was going to go next, when I should have just rolled with it and trusted that a satisfying story was going to come my way, which it did. A wholly unpredictable and far reaching story, that intertwines several horror traditions and dumps the bloody mess in the viewer’s lap.

Mylène Jampanoï’s Lucie is continually tormented by the nightmarish, hideous figure of a dead girl, who Grudge-like, twists and contorts around the place, brutally attacking her at every opportunity in eye wateringly graphic scenes of razor blade abuse. Morjana Alaoui is the doting childhood friend Anna who goes out of her way to protect Lucie from herself and others, and sets about helping her with the fallout of her gun spree, which via some twists you almost certainly didn't see coming takes her on a personal journey that is as horrific as it is thought provoking. The film certainly stays with you, and not just because of the grisly depicitons of violence.

The cast are fairly exceptional; both of our “heroines” turn in consistently amazing performance throughout what must have been an extremely demanding gig. The supporting cast are all excellent, providing menace, pity, and stark realism in just the right measures. Special kudos goes to Isabelle Chasse, billed as "the creature" for giving me nightmares all week. The effects, this is a horror film after all, are superbly executed. The violence is hyper real and very difficult to watch. The makeup effects are disturbing and at times upsetting, even when bordering on the fantastical.

The film is boldly brilliant, and very much unlike obvious candidates for comparison like Saw or Hostel. This is not such a movie, because here the violence truly isn't designed to simply tickle your voyeuristic fancy. The true motive for the cruelty and torment on display is revealed in the final act, and while the premise itself is a little far-fetched and a touch Gallic in its conviction, the realisation that a higher purpose has been at work causes some much bigger horizons for what it’s all been about to open up. Alas, so do a few inconsistencies and questions where the ethos doesn’t quite mesh with some of the extraordinary horrors we’ve seen along the way, and it’s here and in the very final revelatory scenes that it stumbles.

It's bound to be a Marmite movie - loved and reviled in equal measure, for many will see nothing more than the torture porn of its contemporaries, and it contains scenes of such intensity, that even horror lovers may find it a bit beyond the pale - it's certainly not for the faint-hearted. But ultimately this is, while at times shocking, a thoroughly fearless and above all, modern horror movie that speaks volumes about director Pascal Laugier, who despite no longer being attached to the upcoming Hellraiser remake, is certainly a figure to watch in horror.

Treehouse rating


Disturbingly good

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