The golden age of horror: Martyrs (2008)

Chris: You’re standing in line to ride an infamously crazy rollercoaster, apprehension building with each little bit you shuffle forward. You ask your friends who’ve already ridden it, “It’s probably not as bad as everyone else makes it sound, right?” You get nothing of the assurance you’re looking for. “No, it’s definitely going to shake you up like crazy. But it’s totally worth it. Trust us.” And thus I hop into my first encounter with the graphic violence and ultra gore of the New French Extremity movement in cinema.

After the jump, buckle up

Chris: Martyrs begins as a revenge story, and I couldn’t help but think that its roots lie in grindhouse classics like I Spit On Your Grave and Last House On The Left. There are some key differences in setup and tone, however, that I think move this graphically violent movie beyond its influences. I have to believe this. I didn’t hate Martyrs at all, and I think Last House on the Left is one of the ugliest, awfulest movies I’ve ever seen.

Bill: I don’t agree with that summation, Chris. Does Martyrs include revenge as a motivation? Yes…but only initially. The story itself veers off about halfway through in a direction that took me completely by surprise and elevated this film in a way that’s poetically horrifying. Last House On The Left and I Spit On Your Grave stay the course of using graphic violence as a way to shock for the simple sake of shock throughout their entire run. They’re about a single, raw human emotion: rage. But Martyrs takes you right up to rage’s door, rings the bell…then has something entirely different answer. I think it’s more arthouse than grindhouse.

Chris: Nice analogy! It certainly isn’t the grimy, greasy, mindless torture of grindhouse, so I suppose you’re right. The torture and terror here is meted out in chillingly surgical fashion. And yes, it does change from a revenge movie to something far more weird and unexplainable and terrifying. Still, I couldn’t help but also think of the terrible sliding metal door in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre when Anna discovers what’s behind the wall in the house.

Bill: I should preface all my comments on Martyrs by admitting that I’m a fan of this movie, but I don’t think I can actually recommend it to most folks because of its graphic nature. But if you can stomach the gory nature of the film and the frequent acts of what seem to be senseless violence, you’re eventually rewarded with a thought provoking story that presents viewers with a reason for its violence and cruelty that’s completely unique in a horror film, and almost operatic in its execution.

Chris: I guess that’s the difference here, and why somehow the horrific things that happen transcend the violence and gore on screen. (If Martyrs is about nothing else, it is about transcendence.) This doesn’t feel like the base, directionless jetsam that gets described as torture porn. There are motivations at work, even if they are the result of delusion and sociopathy. For instance, we don’t know whether the family deserves what happens to them at the beginning, but we suspect that Lucie is so damaged that SHE thinks she needs to do that. She has to do it. Later she provides a final demonstration of just how deep her delusions are. What happens to the Belfonds is not a thrill kill.

Bill: My first exposure to the New French Extremity movement was the film High Tension. While I thought it was a decent enough attempt at playing with the conventions of the standard slasher film, I thought the violence was gratuitous, and the final product not as witty as the makers seemed to intend. After watching Inside and then Frontiers I had mostly written that movement off as unnecessarily brutal. I’m just not a fan of “torture porn”. I don’t mind violence and gore in a film if it’s treated with either a comedic bent (early Peter Jackson, Sam Raimi, etc.), or used as something other than a tool for titillation. But all too often it’s used as a way of distracting the audience from the sad fact that the film they’re watching really doesn’t have a story or even a point.

Then along came Martyrs…

Chris: What I had in my head that would happen is that this would be a pell-mell gorefest. Imagine my surprise that despite the blood and body count, it’s a simple mystery that hooked me and pulled me through the first section of the film. We struggle to square the idyllic family with what Lucie says was done to her by the mother and father. Like Anna, we wonder if there was some mistake. Then Anna discovers the awful secrets hidden underneath the house, and the arrival of Mademoiselle and her cohorts confirm it all.

Bill: The director has said that Martyrs is the “Anti-Hostel”, and I can certainly agree with that. Hostel is about sadism, pure and simple. Martyrs has acts of profound violence in an institutionalized setting, just like Hostel, but absolutely no one takes any pleasure from these acts. Not a single person. This might go over badly with some, and I apologize if so, but I really think Martyrs is closer to The Passion of the Christ than it is to Hostel and its ilk.

By the way, the personification of Lucie’s guilt over her inability to save another prisoner during her escape from the cult in the early parts of the film scared the bejeesus out of me at first…before eventually eliciting sympathy from me. The twisted and tortured appearance of that sad creature that appears both terrifying and pathetic at the same time is really one of the highlights of the first half of the film for me.

Chris: Lucie being terrorized did that for me too. It’s easy to guess what this is and what it represents even before the movie shows us. I think you nailed it, Bill, and it encapsulates the confounding nature of this film. There’s the fear the attacks cause, there’s the shocking violence and blood…and at the root of it, this is all terribly sad and makes us feel empathy.

Shortly after Lucie’s fragile mental state gets the better of her, the movie pivots rather abruptly. We’re introduced to the group who cause all this hurt, and the underground torture/experiments complex they’ve created is utterly chilling. I’d describe it by talking about how there are pictures on the walls of previous victims, but that doesn’t do it justice. They’re actually lightboxes–with posters–of those mutilated unfortunates on the walls. They look like the coming attractions ads at movie megaplexes. The complex itself seems surgically sterile and clean. A great deal of time, effort, money, and planning was clearly involved in this creation. Mademoiselle–the leader of this bizarre cult of apparently very rich afterlife enthusiasts– explains with terrifyingly twisted rationality how the group searches for “martyrs” rather than victims. This is an incredibly affecting deployment of psychological terror. We realize–as does Anna–what awaits her; we’ve seen the posters, after all.

Bill: I may be mistaken, but aren’t some of the portraits taken from shots by photojournalists at various points in history? I could swear I’ve seen some of them before. In any case, the sterile environment is the perfect way to signal that things aren’t what you might think. Your standard, Hollywood psycho wouldn’t have installed computer centers in his or her lair and leave clipboards lying about, for crying out loud.

Chris: There may be a mix of photos then. I’m a wuss; I flinched and didn’t take a butcher’s at them, but I was still able to watch the horrors that come. For all the terrible depredations visited on Anna from here on out, nothing was quite so terrifying to me as the awful precision and forethought with which these things were done. As bad as some of the visuals can be here, it’s that psychological terror, the matter-of-factness of it all that got to me most. What happens to Anna here feels like the worst Alice In Wonderland story ever. Nothing makes sense, yet everything has its own terrible internal logic.

Bill: I think there was a misstep though with the person shown feeding Lucie in the opening scenes of the film. That person alone expresses cruelty in such a way that it seemed to me that she truly did hate her “patients”, calling her a slut at one point even. I think it may have been the wife that’s killed by Lucie early in the film. I can understand why the director might have chosen to include those scenes as it throws off the audience by giving them what seems to be a standard villain to despise, thus obscuring the real motive behind Lucie’s captivity as revealed later. But it did stand out when I watched it again.


Chris: Clearly they needed to be less “disorganized”, to quote Mademoiselle. The final bit with her is going to cause sharp divide among audiences. The larger, more affluent portion of the group (cult?) arrive. They’re older, all of them, as old as Mademoiselle. Death no longer lies at great distance, and their mortality is something they will all confront sooner than later. They seek their answers, and again it is the weird and twisted Mad Hatter’s Tea Party logic to this that worked so effectively for me. Anna’s “martyrdom” is spoken of with reverence, and she with respect. They’ve had a breakthrough. They have the answers they seek.

Bill: Good catch on the ages of the cult members. I hadn’t made that connection. They obviously have younger members as the movie does feature them in militaristic roles within the cult, but the older generation would definitely be more invested in the results of their research and would be the ones that hear them first. They’re probably the ones funding it, after all. I also appreciated the little touch of having the cult members express their appreciation for Anna’s sacrifice…even though it was forced on her.

Chris: So what did Anna whisper to Mademoiselle and why does the group’s leader choose the exit she does? Is she in a hurry to get to some paradise described to her? Or has Anna instead revealed that on the other side lies nothing, and all the group’s work has come to naught? I’ve watched Martyrs three times in the last few days, and I think that “Keep doubting” holds the answer, subtle rather than ambiguous. Bill, what say you?

Bill: I love that they don’t reveal what she says. It’s such a great way to end this film. But I’ve come to a different conclusion. One that’s probably more wishful thinking than anything else, though. I think Anna tells her of all these wonderful things that await us on the other side…but that the methods that the cult has used in order to find all this out has destroyed any chance they have of achieving such rewards upon their deaths. In my theory, they’ve damned themselves to an eternity of nothing instead of paradise through their acts of cruelty Thus when she advises a companion to “keep doubting”, she’s lamenting the fact that she now knows what’s coming. Mademoiselle kills herself in despair over this discovery instead of revealing to her brethren a truth that would utterly destroy them all. The movie is so unrelentingly bleak that I beg you all to let me have this one shred of hope that some form of justice exists in the end!

(Martyrs is available to rent or purchase from the usual VOD outlets.)

(So what’s this “golden age of horror” stuff?)