Pascal Laugier's INCIDENT IN A GHOSTLAND works as a brutal horror, and also an examination of storytelling as a means of escape or survival.
Martyrs. 2016. Directed by Kevin & Michael Goetz. Screenplay by Mark L. Smith; based on the original characters from Pascal Laugier’s film.
Starring Troian Bellisario, Caitlin Carmichael, Kate Burton, Bailey Noble, Toby Huss, Diana Hopper, Lexi DiBenedetto, Taylor John Smith, Peter Michael Goetz, and DaJuan Johnson. Blumhouse Productions/The Safran Company/Temple Hill Entertainment.
Unrated. 81 minutes.
I always try to give remakes a fair shake. Slightly different story when you have to push through a favourite film being remade, especially if it comes out poorly. Though I love Spike Lee, as a filmmaker, his remake of Oldboy is one of the worst in recent memory. And that’s been a favourite of mine for years. When I heard Pascal Laugier’s frantic, bloody, wild movie Martyrs was being remade, it didn’t exactly excite me. Sure, I love when a fresh take or update can be done on a film, such as Alexandre Aja and his efforts on The Hills Have Eyes. But more often than not, an excellent foreign language film gets turned into nonsense by way of North American directors and writers.
Sadly, this new version of Martyrs is not up to the task of making things fresh, exciting, or even much different. It is definitely not a shot-for-shot remake, but it also doesn’t have a lot of what made the original French film so impressively visceral and continually interesting. This re-imagining, remake, or whatever word you choose to employ, didn’t have to go for big gore and get as graphic as Laugier. What it did need, though, is the emotional resonance, the quality techniques of Laugier and the original team, and generally a better screenplay if it were meant for glory. Not near being one of my favourite remakes. Another great film gets an unjust treatment for North American audiences, many of whom are probably too lazy to read subtitles and watch the original, evident by how many foreign films get remade here in the West. If that weren’t the case, if the demand weren’t so high, I’d assume people were seeking out the original pieces of work. In this case, I certainly suggest you watch Laugier’s movie. It’s leaps and bounds better than this mediocre, run of the mill dishwater.
Two young girls come together as orphans at a young age, Lucie (Troian Bellisario) and Anna (Bailey Noble). Lucie escaped from a terrifying, abusive situation of captivity, which Anna helped her get past.
Cut to years later. They’re grown young women. Lucie finds the family who supposedly held her captive, then shotguns them all, including the kids, to death. She calls Anna frantically, telling her what happened. Her friend arrives to try and help things go smoother, as far as is possible. But Lucie spirals out of control. Soon, Anna is in the house, bodies everywhere, and a group of armed people take over.
Brought to room and tortured, Anna discovers what Lucie went through. The two girls are pitted against their captors. Although, the past comes back to bear on their present situation. As things are revealed the capture of Lucie as a young girl becomes more clear, the movie behind it all unearthed. Can they survive this? Will Lucie be able to make it out of the horror a second time?
*SPOILER ALERT: TURN BACK OR THOU SHALT FOREVER BE SPOILED!*
One thing I quickly disliked about this version is that the screenplay from Mark L. Smith (The Revenant, Vacancy) decides to keep both of the main women alive. Whereas in the Laugier original, the Lucie character dies. What I love about that original screenplay is that the Anna character is then forced to deal with the aftermath of the situation, as well as the group who come to find her, forcing her to also suffer the torture her friend once did years ago. In this film there’s this sense of a bunch of subjects captured at once, while Anna and Lucie then also find themselves captives. Part of why I enjoyed the original French film is that Laugier went for a definitively tragic and truly epic plot. Smith, though he did amazing stuff with The Revenant, makes the mistake of going for something more hopeful. Realistically you have to look at the group doing these experiments; they are obviously massive, a solid organization, so to just do another escape thriller with this setup is wasting a lot of potential. The original capitalized on all its brutality, as well as emotions, and went for a dark ending. Without spoiling anything, this remake cops out. Some say the original was all nihilistic. Except for the fact the people torturing the hopeful martyrs, for all their faults and bloody terror, are seeking a way to discover what makes someone into such a portal to view what’s in their eyes, seeing beyond life and into the chasm of death. So, it’s not really nihilistic, not in true terms. But any of the impact of the film is taken away in this screenplay. Not at all impressed with Smith’s choices.
The execution isn’t a whole lot helpful either. Tons of exposition that the original never needed, as well as so much sanitized horror. It all combines into a real mess. There are, yes, several moments of decent blood, and also several intense sequences. Yet none of this adds up to even half the impact Laugier came off with, which does nothing to make me enjoy this needless remake. There was a grim, moody atmosphere and a gritty tone to the original. Here, most of the movie feels glossy, bright even in the darkness, and overall there is nothing technique-wise that ever grabs me. Kevin and Michael Goetz did 2013’s Scenic Route and I actually enjoyed that a good deal. It was entertaining, gritty at times, funny even. Lots of good stuff. Their follow-up film is nowhere near as good. Hopefully next they’ll go with an original film with a better story because they’ve proved themselves on the previous movie. Martyrs is a step backward.
I’ll give the film a 1&1/2 star rating, solely because I did enjoy aspects of Bailey Noble’s performance, even if I wasn’t a fan of the plot. Likewise, Troian Bellisario is decent enough to keep your attention particularly later when the torture commences once more. But this is an unnecessary remake. Honestly, I try to give these remade films a chance, however, they more often than not let me down big time. This one is no different. Over the past few years this is one of the worst. Again, I hope the Goetz brothers go forward and make something better. As I hope Mark Smith pushes on and finds better success with another movie. These are better artists than the movie suggests. Martyrs, the original, is worth your time. Despite what others say about a totally boring, gory film, Laugier made an impact with that one, which I will never forget. Skip this, see his original. You’ll thank me.
Martyrs. 2008. Directed & Written by Pascal Laugier.
Starring Morjana Alaoui, Mylène Jampanoï, Catherine Bégin, Robert Toupin, Patricia Tulasne, Juliette Gosselin, Xavier Dolan, Louise Boisvert, and Jean-Marie Moncelet. Canal+.
Rated R. 99 minutes.
Martyrs is most definitely a bloody, gory, savage film from beginning to end. Of course those bits alternate, as well as the fact Pascal Laugier builds up tension very nicely at so many points. But there’s no doubt about the savagery contained within this horror movie.
There have been many gory movies in the history of horror film. From Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Blood Feast and Wizard of Gore, among others, to stuff like Saw, then classic horror such as many of Fulci’s films and Dead Alive from Peter Jackson. So there are many ways in which gore can play a part in a horror movie. It can either be so-called “torture porn” (those who’ve read my reviews before know my stance on this dumb label; I only use it for ease), or it can serve a purpose of some sort. What I’m saying is that gore need not be useless, just some element thrown in to make a horror more scary, more effective. It can be used as a means to an end, rather than an end in and of itself.
To me, Martyrs is one of those films with all the blood and gore to satisfy even the most desensitized horror hounds, but even further it has heart, character, and a ton of interesting, complex story to boot. Laugier has a masterpiece of horror here and I think that the writing helps to elevate this from simply another gore picture, to a profound horror which leaves its visceral, bloody mark on the viewer long after the credits stop rolling.
The movie starts with a quick scene of a young Lucie running in a tanktop and underwear down the street, screaming for help. She’s brought to an orphanage where she comes to bond with a girl named Anna.
Years later, grown up Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï) goes back to the little house from which she’d escaped years earlier, running away bloodied and in a frenzy, then kills the mother, father, and the kids inside. Calling Anna (Morjana Alaoui), the two women then begin to try and pick up the pieces. Only Lucie seems to be having trouble with something inside the house. After the unthinkable happens, Anna is left to try and figure out how to proceed from then on. Only, the house hides more secrets, things Anna couldn’t possibly anticipate. As she goes down into the basement, discovering what amounts to a whole complex underneath its foundation, things are revealed which will shake her world and her beliefs forever.
Watching this again for the dozenth time or so now, I forgot how awesome the music was during the moments with the ‘thing’, as it first encounters Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï). It has this almost heavy metal, ominous, pounding rhythm. Very intense. Then the rest of the film there’s also more nicely composed score. Alex & Willie Cortés do the music in this film. They also did music for an interesting independent film called Eden Log, also worth checking out. This was the first time I’d noticed any of their work, and other than the aforementioned film I haven’t seen anything else with which they’ve been involved. Doesn’t matter; their work here speaks for itself. I thought it worked well with so many of the tense scenes. A good bit of music helps to increase the mood, which Laugier helps set through dreary atmosphere and even a bit of the unexpected in there, too.
For the first half an hour when I saw Martyrs initially, I had no real clue what was going on. While I knew roughly that something obviously happened between Lucie and the family she slaughters, when the ‘thing’, the terrifying and hideous woman first showed up I couldn’t figure out what the hell was beginning to come out.
We get bits and pieces, slowly, then finally the plot starts to filter out. This is ultimately the greatest part about the film. Laugier puts the gore together with an innovative, refreshing story, and this makes the entire gorefest so much more worth it for the thoughtfulness on Laugier’s part.
And in the meantime, the gore and the effects are incredible! The first woman, the ‘thing’, looks out of this world. As if her outer layer of skin had literally been peeled off. I mean, kudos for that. Then comes the woman whom Anna later finds in the basement; when she’s trying to take the metal blinder thing off the woman’s skull, it actually made me cringe once or twice. I’ve seen a ton and that still got to me. Gnarly!
Perfect work in terms of special makeup effects. I have to mention Benoît Lestang – other work includes: The City of Lost Children, Brotherhood of the Wolf, and Amen. Then there’s also Adrien Morot whose credits range from Alejandro González Iñárritu’s upcoming film The Revenant, to Noah, X-Men: Days of Future Past, to smaller work on indies like Rhymes for Young Ghouls and Canadian television series Durham County starring Hugh Dillon. In Martyrs, these two artists come together to make some truly effective, disturbing, and nasty work. Wonderfully macabre business!
I don’t think there’s any possible way two actresses other than Morjana Alaoui and Mylène Jampanoï who could’ve done a better job with these two characters. There’s a true, evident connection between the two women. Even though there’s not a particularly massive amount of character development, nor do we get to know either of the women overly well, the deepened relationship between Anna and Lucie is clear, as they’re both there for one another. Particularly the fact Anna obviously loves Lucie, maybe more than just a friend. Yet either way, she did so much for Lucie, to try and help her get past whatever it was that happened to her as a young girl in that awful house. So with a small amount of time, Laugier is able to setup a perfectly believable and emotional relationship between the two women while not having to focus too directly on any expository dialogue, or even flashbacks of any sort.
This leads to another aspect I loved – the backstory for what is going on in the house. There’s so much more going on than I’d ever imagined from the start of the story. Once things kick in, as Anna is left behind following Lucie’s tragic death, they really take hold of the jugular.
After a while, the story comes out that these people were a part of some larger, obviously heavily funded, operation in which people were essentially being groomed into martyrdom. This is martyr in the sense of being “witness”, or bearing witness; in this film, it is bearing witness to what lies beyond death in the afterlife. Like a sick type of experiment – well, not like, that’s exactly what it is: an experiment. They take humans – especially girls apparently because they’re even more resistant to the pain overall; tougher and built for martyrdom – then they subject the human body to everything, to and beyond the limits of what a person can handle. I think I found all the pictures of the previous martyrs especially chilling! First, we see them almost meaninglessly as Anna walks through the newly discovered, sterile-like environment in the basement. Then later on, it’s all explained, and the gorefest which preceded everything begins to truly mean something.
Now, whether or not you think that something is a load of crap or not, that’s another story. I thought it was twisted and depraved and perfectly suitable. In a way, it subverts our expectations of horror films that get labelled stupidly as “torture porn”. We expect this is all just sick pleasures and people getting off by torturing others. Yet the deeper Anna takes us into the house and its catacombs beneath, the chambers and labs and rooms below, there seems to be more and more to this supposed torture. I thought the script was an excellently refreshing horror on Laugier’s part and it’s nice to see something with all the earmarks of a typical gory horror, which ends up being more than a sum of bleeding and dripping parts.
There are a bunch of ways you can look at the film, if you want to dig deep into as a metaphor or analogy of some sort. Whatever way you cut it, I think there’s a lot to offer in the story of Martyrs. You can look at it as ultimately the story of what lengths some people, under the guise of “faith” will go to figure out if there is anything beyond the pale of death. You can also look at this as how society, many groups in particular, heap all the weight and harshness of the world onto women; as the villainous lady in the film says herself, women are better at taking the pain, they have a higher threshold and tolerance for it, therefore they make the perfect candidates for this imposed and supposed martyrdom. We’re able to digest Laugier’s work in any number of ways, but regardless it’s stellar. I think you can take from it what you will – at face value, or something with a little more value under the skin.
This a masterpiece of horror, as I’ve said before. Absolutely 5 stars. Pascal Laugier has an incredibly twisted eye for horror and I think he brought all this forward in Martyrs. Truly great horror movie. It has everything from an interesting backstory, well-written characters, great performances, and on top of all that there is a near non-stop gore machine pumping out the wonderfully macabre and nasty makeup effects.
If you’re a horror fan, you need to see this honestly. I think if you take the time to let the plot sink in, take the ride for the first 20 minutes to half an hour, this will really get under your skin. Plus, if you watch it on Blu ray the sound and visual quality is extraordinary. Couldn’t get enough.
There’s a good deal of interesting work here that doesn’t often come along in horror anymore. One of the best modern horrors I’ve seen. Period.