BR: Martyrs (2015)

February 23, 2016 | By

Martyrs2015Film: Weak

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Standard

Label:  Anchor Bay

Region: A

Released:  February 2, 2016

Genre:  Horror

Synopsis: Two women are held by a death cult and forced to undergo horrific torture, becoming martyrs in their goal to know what lies at death’s threshold.

Special Features:  Making-of Featurette: “Martyrs – A First Look” (8:21).




Warning: this review contains blatant SPLOIERS!


One could argue any attempt remake a film hailed by fans as the apex of New French Extremity film is an exercise in futility and / or commercial folly, but then there’s the other question: If you’ve never seen the grisly original, will the refocused American remake still work as a potent shocker?

Taking a notorious or cult foreign film and building on its capital by rendering a English language version for domestic audiences isn’t new – David Fincher did a shorter redo of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009) 2 years after the Norwegian film’s release; George Sluizer handled the American version of The Vanishing (1988) 5 years after directing the original; and Ole Bornedal remade his Nightwatchman (1994) in English 3 years later – but there’s a fair argument to be made that by knocking down on the nastiness of an original, what’s left may be either something too neat, or too diluted for anyone to enjoy.

Plans to remake Pascal Laugier’s same-titled 2008 film reportedly go back to that same year – no surprise, as producers want to build on a film’s valuable pre-existing reputation among connoisseurs and the curious – but Mark L. Smith’s script didn’t come to fruition with its original director, Daniel Stamm (The Exorcism of Emily Rose). Jump forward to 2015 when the realized film debuted, as directed by brothers Kevin and Michael Goetz.

The American remake follows most of Laugier’s original story, but as the Goetz brothers detail in the short and very generic making-of featurette on Anchor Bay’s Blu-ray, they chose to emphasize the unwavering friendship between the two female leads rather than gory torture, and cap the film with some hope. Martyrs may be as divisive among horror fans as A Serbian Film (2010) – both contain nihilistic storylines and visual details and sequences that go far beyond the realms of R-rated Hollywood product – but in spite of the obvious care in trying to make a film that offers a bit of everything, the American Martyrs ultimately feels diluted, needing Laugier’s extreme touch.

The core story has Lucie (Troian Bellisario) being freed from a warehouse where she’d been tortured by someone, and a month later developing a tight friendship with fellow orphanage ‘inmate’ Anna (Bailey Noble). Jump 10 years ahead, and Lucy arrives at the door of a beautiful country yuppie house seated beside a wide field and looming orchard, and blows away a father, mother, son, and daughter with a shotgun before calling Anna to inform her she’s found her tormentors.

The pair’s agreement was to call the police, but Lucie wanted immediate payback, and the pair attempt a quick cleanup of the murder scene not out of fearing an arrest, but to quell the demonic apparition that’s been haunting Lucie for a decade – a fellow inmate who may or may not be a ghost or a figment of Lucie’s serious PTSD.

It’s around this juncture where things get wobbly: a character (Sarah) that died in the original lives, whereas in the Goetz version Anna’s discovery of the basement torture chamber and its cells are populated with a woman and a young girl similar in age to Lucie when she was freed by police.

Smith’s script focuses on the shared torment between Anna and Lucie as the former is taxed with the guilt in making a phone call that alerts the villains of their presence at the house, and starts the whole martyr-torture denouement, whereas Laugier gets rid of unnecessary characters, and makes Anna the heroine, experiencing everything which drove Lucie to see a murderous ghost.

Laugier’s villainous cult abduct young women instead of girls (the leaders found young women ‘more progressive’ than any other age or gender group), but as in Smith’s adaptation, they use extreme torture to find what lies just at the moment of death as victims ‘witness’ the unseen, just as they crossover to the world of the dead.

It’s a ridiculous premise that makes Martyrs part of a peculiar sub-genre in which a woman who undergoes horrific torment achieves an almost holy level of dignity through suffering, thereby bettering her monstrous aggressors. Torment unfurls in blasts of increased severity before the heroine redeems herself by surviving with a significant measure of dignity or rebelliousness intact, or in Laugier’s film, the woman witnesses the rare, the spiritual, and the indescribable, making her suffering almost valid to connoisseurs of this sub-genre, and be rewarded for their devotion with a closing that combines profane imagery that’s intricately or horrifically beautiful, and music which beatifies the heroine.

Brand it as Jeanne d’Arc Syndrome, where the suffering is necessary for the heroine to achieve a meaningful life by exceeding the expectations of the worst cruelties meted out by humanity, and for Medieval spectators, admire her willpower and refusal to buckle and disintegrate. The crowd (Medieval, and perhaps contemporary) that observes the heroine’s suffering is rewarded with both spectacle and a personal sacrifice that transcends insurmountable hardships, giving average citizens strength and devotion in their own banal lives. While some spectators may enjoy the gore, feel joy in observing the punishing of a guilty figure, or are titillated by the erotic imagery of a female figure bending, bleeding, or burning in plain sight, another contingent may admire the heroine’s courage as she experiences stages of her own slow demise.

Switching the genders of ‘martyrs’ to male in a filmic equivalent (and perhaps even in Medieval times) would lessen the audience’s reward because this sub-genre mandates the layered  removal of a heroine’s outer and inner beauty.

In Laugier’s film, bodies are cut, scarred, beaten, shaved, sliced, and ultimately flayed alive, with the latter torment creating a surreal work of living art. As certain spectators may appreciate the beauty of a performance artist suspended from hooks as skin is transformed into living fabric, and the artist’s suffering is verbally muted, and thereby dignified, Laugier achieves the same impact by having the skinned heroine transformed into a living rendition of a Gray’s Anatomy etching that highlights the beauty of sub-epidermal muscles, veins, and glistening fat.

While Laugier fixated on physical beatings before the horrific skin-peeling finale, bludgeoning audiences with sounds and images as unmerciful as the tormentors, the Goetz brothers steer away from most of the nastiness: the beatings are described by Lucy instead of experienced in detail by herself or Anna; and while the skin-peeling remains an integral part of the show, it’s no longer full-body.

Being an American production with a desire to remain within the R-rated realm, Lucie (and all characters) remains clothed, which kind of renders Lucie’s flaying sequence as (oddly) gratuitous because there’s no visual payoff, as in Laugier’s version, which builds towards that money shot evoking performance art.

Sarah, the helmeted woman found by Anna in the original (who dies) lives for a while in the remake (and lacks scars and helmet); she’s ultimately forced to be immolated Joan of Arc-style in a poorly rendered digital sequence that narratively allows the cult’s leader (Kate Burton) to explain their goals to Anna as the woman’s about to be incinerated… but the woman’s torment makes no sense: if the goal is to commit heinous pain up until the point of death and allow a cult official to hear the victim’s perception of what they’re approaching before they crossover and finally die, burning someone ensures she won’t be able to speak to anyone and offer proof, let alone a raison d’etre for the entire cult modus operandi.

Furthermore, if in the Goetz version Anna is ‘unworthy’ of being escalated to a higher phase of pain like Lucie, and is sentenced to an ignominious death by being buried alive in a large open pit with the dead family, why isn’t she restrained to ensure she doesn’t hide in the large drainpipe we see early in the film which looks suspicious, and to more savvy audiences, signals ‘This will play some role near the end of the film!’ Escape she does, and return Anna does, with the shotgun we see her sliding under the sofa early in the film, which also signals to audiences ‘This will ALSO become important an hour from now!’

Similar to the original film, a large chunk of screen time is devoted to the pair at the house, cleaning up, arguing, chasing a ghost, and getting rid of the family cadavers, which slows down the drama’s otherwise gradual momentum. Lucie does attempt suicide by tumbling over a banister, but she survives; in the original, she cuts her throat and dies, leaving Anna to take her place as the cult’s novitiate martyr once the cult arrives. While Smith’s scripted finale does ensure the two friends are martyrs together, the happy ending feels too neat.

The Goetz brothers do retain one aspect of Laugier’s finale that always felt like a cop-out: the spastic coup de grace. Instead of the cult’s female leader killing herself because the words whispered by Anna are too horrific to bear, in the remake it’s the priest who blows out his brains, leaving the cult’s leader more than a little ‘bereft.’ However, because it’s the priest who kills himself, the leader and chief orchestrator of the cult’s insane mayhem is denied knowledge, and closure – perhaps the cruelest fate and punishment for such a monster.

Anchor Bay’s Blu-ray sports a gorgeous transfer of the film, and there’s no doubt its makers wanted to deliver a version that emphasized different, more humane character traits to counterbalance the story’s otherwise nihilistic elements, but there isn’t much material to really fill out a feature film. The opening orphanage material is fine – it’s the flipside of Irreversible (2002), in which images of peace and beauty that surround the girls’ burgeoning friendship are gradually followed by horror and brutality – and one can argue the frequent interpolation of placid exterior shots of the gleaming, rustic yuppie house ‘opens up’ the story, but the frequency of the exterior shots (not to mention the young girl’s escape and flight to a neighbour at the end) ultimately feels like narrative padding.

The directors and writer Smith tried to interpret Laugier’s film from a slightly different vantage, but like Sluizer and Bornedal’s own efforts to dilute the potency of their own original works for American audiences, the end results suit no one because the elements which made the aforementioned originals so potent, in terms of scenes, character conflicts, specific plot points, and more often than not, superb casting performances, were significantly altered and sacrificed for weaker substitutes.

Martyrs 2015 joins its flawed brethren not as another failed remake, but as a case study on why in special circumstances, sometimes the best way to tackle the remake of an original is not to tackle it at all.



© 2016 Mark R. Hasan



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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