Review: Martyrs (2015)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #681

Number of Views: One
Release Date: October 9, 2015 (Sitges Film Festival), January 22, 2016 (United States)
Sub-Genre: Exploitation
Country of Origin: United States
Running Time: 86 minutes
Directors: Kevin Goetz, Michael Goetz
Producers: Peter Safran, Jason Blum
Screenplay: Mark L. Smith
Special Effects: Myke Michaels, Ren Rohling
Cinematography: Sean O’Dea
Score: Evan Goldman
Editing: Jake York
Studios: The Safran Company, Blumhouse Productions
Distributor: Anchor Bay Films
Stars: Troian Bellisario, Bailey Noble, Caitlin Carmichael, Kate Burton, Toby Huss, Elyse Cole, Melissa Tracy, Ever Prishkulnik, Romy Rosemont, Blake Robbins, Taylor John Smith, Lexi DiBenedetto, Ivar Brogger, Laurence Todd Rosenthal

Suggested Audio Jukebox

[1] Seppuku Paradigm “Your Witness”

[2] Goldmund “My Neighborhood”

I’ve watched some gruesomely effective horror movies over the past decade and notably two of the very finest have originated from France. Julien Maury & Alexandre Bustillo’s Inside was one of the most nerve-shattering experiences I have ever had in well over thirty years as a student of film, while the other wonderfully guilty party was Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs and it effortlessly struck a balance between raw terror and deeper meaning. Between the pair of them, they led the charge for New Wave French Extreme Cinema and have gone on to be regarded as indisputable classics the world over. That said, foreign language films don’t necessarily travel well, and many still haven’t had the ominous pleasure of drinking these two pieces of radical art in.

Thus when it was announced that Laugier was in negotiations for his modern masterpiece to be reimagined for an American audience, I could understand the logic. Daniel Stamm (The Last Exorcism) was originally intended to direct the remake but distanced himself from the project when the budget was severely cut. Brothers Kevin & Michael Goetz were then drafted in as replacements and were quick to point out that their version would significantly tone down the brutal violence that made Martyrs stand out in the first place as neither had any intention of shocking audiences for the sake of it and were far more interested in telling a tale of revenge and redemption in a manner that stateside viewers would find palatable.

For as much as American movies are at the cinematic forefront when it comes to horror, translations of their eastern counterparts tend to be somewhat toned down for the most part. You only need look at the leagues of oriental numbers that have surrendered their edge in transit to know that certain imagery is considered too extreme for western sensibilities and this leads to great movies being neutered in order to attract the masses. When Martyrs arrived in 2015, it was torn asunder by critics, and considered one of the most listless translations ever to clamber onto American soil. Whether or not that is the case depends largely on your willingness to explore the original, and should you feel equipped to undertake such a relentlessly grim journey, then it’s swiftly rendered null and void. However, if you have no inclination whatsoever to do so, then the Goetz brothers’ film is far from the dud it was unanimously billed as.

Let’s not contort the crucifix here, the Americanized Martyrs takes some fairly significant liberties with the source fiction and is some way from entirely successful. On surface level, it appears a shot-for-shot remake and tows the line for the most part. But the changes made compromise the uncompromising feel of the original and it’s no great stretch to discern why it had purists up in arms. Laugier’s film was essentially all about endurance, and in light of any new revelations, this journey is compromised and its ultimate gut-punch considerably lessened. That said, I’m all about taking art on its own merits, and refuse to fall into the trap that so many critics do when activating their blinkers. Say what you will about this movie, but when all is said and done, it’s a well made and attractively shot film with no shortage of pot-boiler tension.

As before, we open with a young Lucie (Ever Prishkulnik) fleeing her captors and the abandoned warehouse where she has been held against her will and tortured. Deeply traumatized and with police failing to locate the perpetrators, she is shipped off to the orphanage for sanctuary where she meets Anna (Elyse Cole), a girl her own age who pledges never to let the night terrors take her new BFF. The pair remain tight through adolescence and we are promptly transported to ten years later and an idyllic orchard-surrounded farm, where a seemingly innocuous All-American family are enjoying a nice sit-down breakfast and the customary lighthearted accompanying banter such a dynamic provides. Time for a little harmless exposition and some group bonding right? Not on your Nelly.

You see, it appears that this particular four-piece are not quite as innocent as they make out and a home invading Lucie (now played by Troian Bellisario) evidently has some unfinished business to take care of. And take care of it she bloody well does. Suddenly we’re presented with a real hot mess of a crime scene and this is wretched news for Anna (Bailey Noble) as she’s the poor sap on speed dial, roped in for clean-up duties. Naturally she’s a tad flummoxed as she wipes her shoes on the doormat, only to realize that common courtesy really needn’t be a concern. What should bother her is the look of swollen pride on Lucie’s face as she revels in her hateful handiwork or her complete lack of remorse over slaughtering an entire household on one uncontrollable impulse.

Needless to say, Anna isn’t best pleased about being implicated in such an atrocity and considers this particular cross a little too hefty for her dainty shoulders to bear. However, things are about to get a whole lot more fucked up before the night is out as a number of key parties are on high alert. First is the vengeful spirit that seems intent on causing Lucie grievous bodily harm every time she’s alone for a second; although Anna is soundly satisfied that this demon exists only in her friend’s head. The second is a little harder to rationalize and far more persistent a threat as it involves an inhospitable cult encroaching on their personal space. Mommie dearest Eleanor (Kate Burton) is the stern-faced ringleader of this particularly callous circus and simply thrilled that Lucie has unwittingly returned to the flock.

This is where Martyrs deviates significantly from its template and those aware of the story’s origins will have every right to feel aggrieved as the Goetz brothers shy away from certain plot revelations in favor of a more audience-friendly approach. By doing so, they tamper with a formula that worked for damn good reason and the impact of the closing act is nowhere near as hard-hitting. In order to maximize effect, they needed to stick to Laugier’s guns and reload them with the same armor-piercing bullets. However, the banks fired at critical points distract us from the hopelessness our two leads should be feeling and the film suffers markedly as a result.

While that may be the case, I find it astonishing that more hasn’t been said about the performances of both Bellisario and Noble in their physically and mentally demanding leading roles. The former gives a gloriously tormented turn as a young lady whose unique gift has been cursed ever since childhood, while the latter provides histrionics that never once feel forced or unnatural. Two trickier roles to nail would be hard to find but nail them they do, flat denying our interest the opportunity to trail off as we sail towards murkier waters. Sean O’Dea’s lush cinematography is also instrumental here as it takes a decidedly picturesque locale, bleeds away the primary color, and makes it a far less inviting holiday home to hang out in.

Martyrs was far too readily dismissed in my opinion, and while it could never hope to hold a candle up to its predecessor, strip away the context and you’re left with a taut psychological thriller bookended by some genuinely effectual exploitation. My recommendation is therefore this – if you’ve previously viewed or have access to Laugier’s original, then leave this well alone as it’s both unnecessary and ultimately disposable. However, for anyone averse to subtitles or the distinctly European style of filmmaking (particularly French as pulling punches isn’t in their make-up), then don’t be dissuaded by the naysayers as ignorance can still be bliss. Ironically, the Goetz brothers appear to have been martyrs for the cause, and I’d guess they knew what they were getting themselves into with this one.

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10

Grue Factor: 3/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers: It was made abundantly clear at the offset that the strong violence of the 2008 original was to be considerably watered down and the brothers had their reasons for making such a critical decision. Alas, they mistook necessity for luxury here as Martyrs may have been many things, but gory for gory’s sake wasn’t one of them. Make no mistake, there’s still a fair share of brutality on exhibit; from close-range shotgun blasts, to incisions both knee-jerk and surgical, burning at the stake, channeled electrocution, and a spot of makeshift crucifixion to rattle the God-fearing. But the edges have been softened, the Goetz brothers aren’t as comfortable with leering, and as much is implied as spelled out. I’m of the staunch belief that less is often more, but in this particular case, a few splashes more would’ve served me just fine.

Read Martyrs (2008) Appraisal
Read Inside Appraisal
Read High Tension Appraisal
Read Mother’s Day (2010) Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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