“Martyrs” is only eighty minutes long, sans credits, yet still it manages to cram four bad horror films into its meager runtime. A remake of 2008’s French torture porn/cult horror flick with the same title, the original “Martyrs” was by no means a masterpiece, but managed to be extremely effective during its third act, thanks mainly to writer/director Pascal Laugier’s staunch dedication to medieval-level gruesomeness mixed with an intensely grim existential hopelessness.
By easing up on the inherent and sometimes even necessary violence of the original while attempting a third act with more mainstream appeal, the gruesomeness of the American remake actually ends up making the whole grim endeavor feel absolutely pointless, and therefore more needlessly disgusting. The fact that the remake sports a cleaner and spiffier look, similar to most other modern mainstream American horror fare, further undercuts the supposed griminess of its subject matter.
As tones and genres wildly shifted during the course of the original “Martyrs,” it felt like Laugier was easing us further down into a rabbit hole of hellish depravity. The remake has many of the same plot points and revelations of the original, but the neutered and overtly clean execution results in a slapdash attempt to appease gorehounds while alienating pretty much every other horror fan.
The first half of the remake follows the story beats of the original with almost religious loyalty, which also means that it inevitably ends up adopting the most glaring problems that plagued the French version. The first genre that “Martyrs” tries to pull of is psychological horror. The film begins with a young girl named Lucie escaping from what appears to be a medical torture chamber hidden inside a warehouse. After the police fail to locate the perpetrators, Lucie is sent to an orphanage, and even though another orphan named Anna befriends her, Lucie can’t escape her horrible past.
The simplistic depiction of Lucie’s suicidal PTSD, a ghostly figure that attacks her, is evident in both versions of the story. At least the original went for a genuinely creepy naked and bloodied woman, instead of the lazy “Insidious”-style zombie/demon we get here. Ten years pass, and the now grown Lucie (Troian Bellisario) tracks down her tormentors, a family that looks fairly normal on the surface, and executes them in cold blood. Even though Lucie thinks she exacted her revenge, the ghostly figure keeps haunting her, so she calls on her orphanage BFF Anna (Bailey Noble) to sort her out while they keep chilling in the murdered family’s home for some reason.
This is where the second genre kicks in, a run of the mill slasher flick, the existence of which is entirely predicated on the characters making decisions that are too stupid even for generic dumb horror protagonists. As Lucie and Anna run away from other murderers who are connected with a mysterious death cult, through a cornfield no less, their inane choices obviously exist only to move the plot forward. It’s as if the characters know they’re in a horror movie, that there’s still forty minutes to go, and that’s the only reason they don’t immediately escape to safety.
The third genre is cult horror, where we find out more about the murderers and their bizarre motivations. This is the point where the remake significantly deviates from the original, and adopts a more watered down approach and tone. The reason behind the cult’s despicable actions feels more rushed in the remake and ends up looking like an afterthought, an excuse to string together a bunch of derivative torture porn clichés that feel dated by at least a decade. The campy tone of the cult’s approach to their beliefs, magnified by a “Mommy Dearest” performance by Kate Burton, who plays the cult’s ringleader, ends up infusing the film with unintentional ludicrousness.
The fourth and final genre attempts to exploit a ’70s style revenge fantasy, facilitated by decisions made by the cult members that are so idiotic that they manage to out-moron the protagonists. The clunky finale futilely attempts to squeeze the original film’s captivatingly bizarre ending into generic Hollywood closure, resulting in an unseemly narrative blend.
Considering that “Martyrs” was a fairly low budget production that was shot in twenty days, the lush cinematography by Sean O’Dea is impressive, especially during a gorgeous tracking shot of a candle-lit church. But it’s the wrong look for a movie with such grim and bleak subject matter. The grimy and grainy look of the original was far more fitting. If you’ve never seen the 2008 version, a proud member of the New French Extremity movement, I guess the many twists and turns of the new “Martyrs” might engross you in a fairly superficial way. But why bother with a muted copy, when you can experience the balls-to-the-wall original? [D]