In recent years France has been unrivaled in producing some of the most visceral and provocative horror cinema of our time. Mention titles such as Haute Tension, À l’intérieur, Irreversible and Frontière(s) to the seasoned horror connoisseur and you will most likely be met with an intense reaction, be it negative or positive. Martyrs is yet another fine addition to the new wave of French horror canon.
Circa 1970; a little girl is found wandering by the side of the road covered in blood. The police discover her name is Lucie and she has been listed as missing for over a year. She is soon situated in an orphanage where her only confidant is a girl named Anna. From what little details Lucie relates to Anna it appears that she was held captive and tortured by a sadistic couple.
Cut to 15 years later – now grown, Lucie manages to track down her captors and massacre them, resulting in carnage of grand guignol proportions. She is soon joined by Anna who attempts to clean up her mess in order to protect her from the authorities. Although things soon take a turn for the worse when more misfortune befalls Lucie and Anna encounters the truth about who and what happened to Lucie.
I’ve tried not to give much away in my synopsis as in my opinion it is better to go into this film not knowing too much. Suffice to say that Pascal Laugier has crafted a truly horrendous and genre-bending piece of horror cinema in Martyrs. There is violence a-plenty but it isn’t another hackneyed “torture porn” flick (though admittedly it does share a few commonalities with Hostel).
Martyrs is a film of two halves – during the first half I was reminded of Haute Tension and, to a lesser degree, À l’intérieur, particularly during the home invasion scene. But it is in the second half where Monsieur Laugier comes into his own by subtly manipulating genre conventions and expectations. Though I found it slightly harder to suspend my disbelief during it, this half contains certain themes and concepts of martyrdom that set it apart from your run-of-the-mill splatter film. Though I think it highly possible that the biting social commentary will not translate to all and indeed may completely miss its intended target due to the gratuitous violence accompanying it.
The only aspect that slightly diminished the film in my opinion was the J-horroresque appearance of the figure in the violent hallucinations that haunt Lucie, it adds a supernatural horror element to the film that only reduces the impact. On the whole though, Martyrs is a bleak and unrelenting trip through hell that will appeal to fans of the new wave of French horror and extreme cinema aficionados.