46. Martyrs (2008)

Director: Pascal Laugier

Starring: Morjana Alaoui, Mylène Jampanoï, Catherine Bégin

Horror, by definition, is supposed to shake you to your very core. For some time now, the American horror genre has grown stale. It has become safe, like an expertly run amusement park ride. There’s too much “fun” and not enough “scare.” As a result, many horror fans have looked elsewhere for something with a little more edge but also much deeper, more thoughtful messages to get across than simply “Look at all the fake blood and naked women!” One of these foreign sources is France, which in the last decade has produced such gems as 2003’s “Haute tension,” 2007’s “À L’Intérieur,” and 2008’s “Frontière(s).” Each of these films reaches back to the days of 1970’s horror, a time when the genre as a whole was without compromise, relentlessly cruel and darker than the blackest abyss. The very best of them would often drag the audience with them down that deep, seemingly never-ending hole. “Martyrs” (which stands independent from the other recent French horror films mentioned above) may be the best example of this in many years.

The movie starts, appropriately enough, in 1971. A young girl named Lucie has managed to escape from a slaughterhouse where she has been bound and beaten for an unspecified amount of time, though there are no signs that she had at any point been sexually abused. This experience, understandably, leaves Lucie shaken enough that she is placed in a mental hospital, where she speaks to no one except a friend she acquires named Anna, herself a victim of abuse. Fifteen years later, Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï) tracks down the family she thinks is responsible and kills them with a shotgun. She calls Anna (Morjana Alaoui) over to the house for help, and there is some question as to whether or not Lucie found the right house. Anna is horrified, but loves her friend so much that she is willing to help clean up the murder scene. At the same time, there seems to be a demonic girl appearing at random and slashing away at Lucie’s skin, which had happened to her before when she was in the mental hospital.

To delve any further into the plot than I already have would be a disservice to anyone who hasn’t already seen this movie. I will say this, though: Just when you think you’ve got things figured out, “Martyrs” cleverly changes gears twice. The last of the three acts is the most brutal, but also the most brilliant. It is also the reason why “Martyrs” is the only movie that has ever made me lose sleep the night after I first watched it. This is the section of the movie that packs the biggest emotional wallop.

There is disturbing imagery aplenty to be found here. But this does not qualify it for the nonsensical title of “torture porn.” This is not like “Saw” or “Hostel,” both of which feature graphic violence which seems to have been filmed in such a way as to highlight the violence, to make the audience call for more. In “Martyrs,” the violence is never championed, is in many ways de-sexualized rather than sexualized, and exists to make you feel everything the main characters are feeling.

I look forward to future projects from the mind of Pascal Laugier. 2012’s “The Tall Man” (starring Jessica Biel) is another one that, like “Martyrs,” critiques the current state of the horror genre by messing with the audience’s expectations based on their knowledge of “the formula.” Moroccan-born actress Morjana Alaoui is to be commended also. Her performance as Anna presents a character possessing both tremendous will and incredible selflessness. Then there is the soundtrack. It is my belief that, the more beautiful score a horror movie has, the more horrific the story will be. The score IS quite lovely. The track “Revelations” is eerily reminiscent of the main theme to “28 Days Later.” You know you’re in trouble when the band that records the soundtrack goes by the name of Seppuku Paradigm!

From the time of its release in 2008, “Martyrs” has been a very polarizing film. If you do make the decision to watch “Martyrs,” you will either marvel at the filmmakers’ imagination, or you will loathe your experience and think the creative team is quite mad. But you cannot “love” this movie. There is nothing remotely fun about it. You experience a movie like “Martyrs.” You survive it.

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