I like to think I’m fairly hard – if you’ll forgive the British vernacular – when it comes to horror movies. This isn’t some pathetic attempt at male machismo believe me, it’s simply a family trait I’m proud to have inherited – my grandmother was a big horror fan and used to borrow the latest Stephen King and James Herbert yarn from me and I have fond memories of watching An American Werewolf in London with her one New Years Eve when she was the extended families designated babysitter, I must have been about eight or nine at the time. My mother has the same tastes, she devours the same horror books and has a taste for the gruesome police procedural Patricia Cornwell novels, we went to see The Silence of The Lambs together which we both found hilariously entertaining. As such I’m someone who can watch the unrated version of Day Of the Dead whilst chomping on breakfast before work so news of any new terribly evil and horrific splatter film always pricks my curiosity. I believe I have mentioned the notorious Martyrs before on here, its already achieved a legendary reputation amongst the horror intelligentsia as a film that does match its stomach churning prestige. I was therefore overjoyed to notice a special premiere screening at the ICA last night ahead of its very limited UK release next month, given the fact it’s been banned across a number of countries and denied anything other than very limited DVD release in other territories I immediately snapped up a ticket and headed over to the Mall to be disgusted. Bring it on….
First of all here is film which quite simply doesn’t fuck around. During the opening credits we are advised through roughly-hewn news footage that a ten year old girl named Lucie made a miraculous escape from a brutal kidnap and prolonged torture ordeal at the hands of unspecified assailants. Cut to fifteen years later and with companion (and possible lover) Anna in tow a seemingly pleasant family bears the brunt of Lucie’s terrible revenge. That’s roughly the first ten minutes. Ensconced at the scene of the crime, a remote bourgeois home that we are essentially isolated at for the remainder of the film, things take some quite unexpected and horrific turns. I honestly cannot reveal any more for fear of even the most minor spoiler that would destabilise the films expertly balanced construction. Given this week’s news focus on the unconscionable Austrian ‘Fritzl’ case coming to trial I can’t imagine a more apt or uncomfortable time to take in such a movie, timing I’m sure that wasn’t lost on my fellow cinema patrons. This film is tough. Oh, and French.
Well, the first thing to say that this is a very, very good film with a definite purpose to its violence and cruelty. Too often these days I find contemporary horror films to be either empty remakes of classic films stripped of the originals efficacious subtexts or Twilight Zone episode / EC Comic tale rehashes which can be be fun in a cinematic exercise sort of way but lack any real potency, any real aura of dread, of threat y’know, any idea that this experience might actually be detrimental to your mental health. I’m therefore happy to report than in the era of 15 certificate horror film here is a genuinely unsettling and disturbing piece of work, a film which lingers in the memory not merely for its gruesome, sustained violence and torture but also for the mortal themes it eviscerates. It’s a film about pain, it’s a film about suffering no doubt, but the final images and turns in Martyrs elevate the experience to something quite unexpected. Director Pascal Laugier is evidently an expert in the genre (Argento is his all time hero I think) and cleverly signposts an obvious twist early on, only to make a subtle reveal roughly half way through the film to render the gore-hounds like yours truly flustered and flailing in wild mental speculation at where on earth the film can go next. Many of the so-called wave of new brutal French horror films and (we’ll come back to them later) have been quite accurately read as camouflaged comments on Iraq, globalisation and immigration fears rendered as some were against civic unrest and violence which echo horrors age old purpose as a mirror of society and it’s ills. Martyrs deviates from these contemporary tropes and lurches into the unique and unusual, the viewer has been dragged into a very dark Gehenna with all hopes of escape brutally crushed. You have been warned.
More to the point can someone please advise what the fuck is wrong with the French these days? Our Gallic cousins seem almost hell-bent on besting each other almost every year with a new, hugely controversial horror film which ups the ante on the last. I was thinking of spending a weekend in Paris this year, now I’m not so sure. Truth be told I didn’t find the film quite as viscerally shocking as expected, IЯЯƎVƎЯSIBLƎ for example still holds the medal on that one as a film which I will never watch again yet can admire its guts, construction and purpose. But I won’t ever see it again. As with my previous visit to the ICA to see The Terminal Man with the unexpected arrival of director Mike Hodges, director Pascal Laugier was on hand to calm nerves as the lights went up after the screening as were the two lead actresses, Morjana Alaoui and Mylène Jampanoï. As I suspected Laugier confirmed that he intended this as a feminist film and this slots nicely into my detection of an unusual shift of the genre with female characters being as much the catalysts of violence and torture as its victims, quite what that says for equality of the sexes I don’t know. On the way out of the theatre I took the opportunity to have a quick chat with Pascal, shake his hand and thank him for a great piece of work - now gentle reader that is something which I haven’t ever done before so I hope that is some illustration of just what an exceptional piece of work this is, just don’t take Grandma.