If you're a horror filmmaker about to launch into biz, I have a single bit of advice for you: Shoot your film in a foreign language. Preferably French, if possible.
As the self-appointed torture porn guy of the League of Tana Tea Drinkers (what, was I gonna be another nostalgia besotted fan of exploitation cult stuff? - might as well announce that you enjoy metabolism and access to oxygen – besides, this gets me out of watching The Room) I've finally gotten around to checking out Martyrs, the Aught Eight Pascal Laugier helmed latecomer to the much reviled subgenre. Yet, while horror elites have gone out of their way to denigrate the homegrown torture porn flicks, they'll sprain their wrist trying to be the first to gookie cookie this particular flick.
Because it's French. So very very French.
Let's get the plot summary out of the way.
The film starts with a young girl escaping a grimy meat packing plant torture chamber. On her way to freedom, she sees another prisoner, but out of fear of getting caught, she abandons her to her fate. (Think Hostel, except the hero doesn't go back for the prisoner he could free.)
The girl, Lucie, ends up in a orphanage where, after and extend therapy/coming-of-age montage we find out that she's befriended by the pleasantly dykey Anna. Lucie's now a cutter, though in her mind the slashes come from a Samara-esque projection of the woman she failed to save. (Think Ring, but more slashy.)
Cut to "now-ish" – Anna and Lucie are an armed duo on the road looking to get revenge against her former captors. (Think Boise Moi except mercifully shorter.) Lucie finds the couple she thinks is responsible for her imprisonment and goes Columbine on them with what appears to be a very expensive quail-hunting rifle. (Think Funny Games.) Lucie's rage includes the execution of the couple's children: a young boy headed off to college and a girl in the early teens.
(I'm going to quit with the "think" motif, but you get the idea. Martyrs is a basically a mash-up flick of the New French Extreme and American mainstream horror, notably the torture porn genre. If you're watching Martyrs and comparing it favorably to American torture porn, then you just haven't watched very much of the subgenre. Martyrs - by being French and by extension "good" – is torture porn for people who would never stoop to watch torture porn.)
Just because it struck me as curious, I'll mention here that Lucie's gun is a very French weapon in that it is absolutely savage to the human body, but apparently can do no harm to inanimate objects. The boy, for example, is shot while seated in a chair. The buckshot clearly goes straight through him, but leaves but the chair he's seated in, the glassware in front of him, and the glass double doors behind him completely unscathed. By the same token, blood in this film acts the way blood would if Jackson Pollock designed the human body. Nobody jets blood or bleeds out; rather they get injured and smear about great expressionist Crayola red swatches of it about the place. Notably, being around blood gets you covered in it, even before you touch anybody or anything.
Anna, to her credit, is horrified by the violence she sees – if you're curious about what Oskar's life will be like in a few short years after the credits roll in Let the Right One In, the scenes post-family-massacre show vividly what it's like to be the non-bloodthirsty one in such a relationship – and ends up intervening on behalf of mother, who is wounded and left for dead by Lucie, but is still clinging to life. This act of kindness is ill-rewarded as Lucie finds out, offs the mother anyway, and then – feeling unloved, I guess, or perhaps fulfilled – dispatches herself.
Anna, now alone in the world, discovers that Lucie was right all along – there's a CDC-grade sterile torture dungeon underneath the house, complete with simpering victim! (Think, of all things, Captivity - sorry, I know I said I'd quit, but c'mon, how often to get to point out that a film bit off of Captivity - seriously, it steals from Captivity for fuck's sake!) Anna tries to care for the prisoner, but it goes pear shaped when functionaries group who made all this possible show up. Dressed like people who thought "Basically, what I'm sayin' is that I want to dress like I'm a rebel in the The Matrix all the time," these folks bust in, kill the tortured girl. Then the take Anna captive and hand her into the custody of a lady who looks like what would happen if you appointed Mrs. Garrett the high priest of the Thuggie in the Temple of Doom. Mola Garrett explains that Lucie, the now dead new torture victim, and now Anna are part of some George Bataille cult (don't worry – the French didn't get the reference either – surveys show that, despite their rep for culture, the French tend to read even less than Americans do) who feel that death, administered properly, leads to states of self-negating ecstasy that can reveal truths beyond the capacities the self-bound – specifically, what lies on the other side of death.
This is not, despite its oddness, an invention of the filmmaker. Not only is the central concept lifted from the writings of Bataille, but the cult apparently decorates their lair in images from Bataille's death/sex opus The Tears of Eros. The flick gains a considerable amount of mileage out of one particular image – one of a series in the original work – of a man literally dying the death of a thousand cuts. Though, oddly, the film sells the gender wrong: The torturers, in their almost Alan Moore-ish zeal for putting the screws to women, never fully explains why women make better torture subjects than men. As an aside, in Tears, Bataille is at least honest about the fact that person being chopped up is doped to gills with opium, hence the weirdly beatific expression. As weird as this motive sounds, it ends up being not too dissimilar from the secular religion of Jigsaw in the Saw franchise, though Martyrs wisely doesn't let Mola Garrett ramble on and on about it.
Anna, by accident of place, is selected to be the next mortinaut in the cult's program of postmortuary exploration. They starve, humiliate, smack about, and then ultimately flay Anna. If you were of the mind that Hostel was okay, but what it really needed was close-ups of a chained-up woman pissing in a can followed shortly there after by several shots of said woman being skinned alive, then you are in luck, my friend. Curiously, these militant spiritualists don't seem to have any method to their madness. They're shown as having all these elaborate security and prisoner-abuse processes in place, but none of the abuse we saw on young Lucie, the first abandoned prisoner, and the second nameless prisoner match what happens to Anna. This despite the fact that, as we learn later in the film, they've been doing this for nearly two decades and have had some small measure of success.
Anna, sans skin, sees what's on the other side of the great divide and whispers her vision to Mola Garrett. The cult's faithful gather at the house for confirmation of what lies beyond, but Mola Garrett kills herself instead of telling. The viewers, mercifully, aren't left in suspense. After you die, you seem to drift about in cheaper, less trippy effects show that will remind you of the end of 2001. We get a few more lingering shots of hypernaked Anna then we roll the credits.
As far as torture porn flicks go, Martyrs belong in the first rank. It's innovative in its story structure, which weds the captivity narrative to several horror and exploitation threads: the women's revenge flick, the lesbo love tale, the J-horror style ghost story. This keeps the film from feeling like a retread of previous torture porn flicks (when, ironically, it is hugely indebted to other flicks in the subgenre).
It is also, I think, the first notable torture porn flick to bring an overtly supernatural element into the mix in the form of the whole "Death: the Final Frontier" angle. Unfortunately, I don't believe the film is all the better for this particular intrusion. The cult's bizarre motivations, seemingly haphazard methodologies, and blithe inhumanity don't set them apart from the villains of other films in the TP constellation – the look like the guys from Hostel and talk like the baddies from Saw. Worse yet, the supernatural context robs the film of any satiric bite it might have had. Like Jigsaw, the idio-religion of this cult seems determined to not think of itself as a religion – rather, they fancy themselves extremely neuroscientists. Consequently, the flick only faintly evokes that old Francophone cinema go-to crowd pleaser: anti-clericalism. Though the cult is wealthy, Martyrs doesn't touch on the inhumanities spawned of an ethical system ruled by market logic, the way Hostel does. In fact, the whole cult-thing is little more than elaborate dues ex machina to justify the extended suffering we're treated too – it places the motivations and methods of the villains out of the realm of scrutiny, basically making them not really make sense in the first place, and preempting questions about the illogic of what they're doing.
(Notably, when I first wrote extensively about the subject of torture porn, I cited two elements I thought were central to the subgenre: a overwhelming tendency towards naturalism and the curious lack of importance sex played in the films, especially compared to the slashers that preceded them. If I was rewriting that series of essays, both elements would have to be taken off the table: Martyrs touches on the first element and Captivity is all about the latter.)
The visuals are also extreme, even for this subgenre. Taking its register not from the horror genre, but rather from the current strain of French shock cinema, the film likes its gruesomeness sustained for as long as it can manage it. This is less a feature of torture porn than it is the influence of flicks like Irreversible. The film's ably shot, though the style favors crisp storytelling clarity over the hyperrealistic squalor of the Hostel series or the frenetic editing and color washes of Saw (or, for that matter, the look of other recent French fright flicks). In this, again, the film most resembles Captivity, though Martyrs is considerably more visceral for most of its running time than that film's worst scenes.
The real question about Martyrs - indeed about the whole wave of extreme French horror that's taking the horror blog-twit pro-am by storm – is why such a perfectly middle-tier film gets such lavish praise. Martyrs is a fine film. It is reasonably well made (though rife with continuity errors and other early-filmmaking career tells), looks professional, and is scary and brutal by turns. On the other hand, it's more clever than creative, it lacks any subtext that justifies its wallowing in extreme imagery, and it doesn't seem to take even it's own premise very seriously (which is not the same thing as having a sense of humor – this flick most definitely lacks a sense of humor).
I think it's just the French language. It makes your film seem better. Seriously.