Apr 23, 2009

The Plot: Lucie as a young woman was captured, beaten and tortured by a group of mysterious strangers. When questioned by the authorities on who they were, Lucie simply says she couldn’t remember and that it was dark. Lucie, suffering from severe trauma and showing up with cuts and slashes on her at all times, goes to live in a home where she meets Anna, another young woman. We flash forward many years later, with a family sitting around the kitchen table discussing their son’s future plans. He wants to quit college, his mother is upset with him because of it. Their prize daughter just makes fun of the whole ordeal. In a few moments their entire lives will change as Lucie shows up at the door with a shotgun in hand. It seems she has found her tormentors and is about to put an end to them and their spawn. However, is she right or is this all another series of confused hallucinations inside of her mind? Only time will tell.

The Review: It is no secret at this point that so far I haven’t been finding myself a massive fan of the new European wave of horror. Although Spain has produced a couple of films that I have enjoyed ([Rec] and The Orphanage) the rest of the continent has seemed pretty hit or miss in their outings. None so far have left me astounded or spoke to me as a viewer though, not to the point of changing my mind. I myself am willing to watch anything in the horror genre that others find noteworthy, as any real genre fan will attest to: sometimes the journey is worth more than the actual payoff. So, making my way through all of these ‘new-wave’ horrors has certainly be an experience I wouldn’t trade – but I simply can’t find the excitement in myself for this particular movement. I was there between 1999-2001 for the Asian cinema boom and sat through a boatload of terrible “ghost” flicks. I was there for Kakashi, St. John’s Wort, Phone, etc. yet there were always those two or three films that made it all worth while. Miike’s introduction to western audiences, there was Battle Royale taking over and of course the Ringu series dominating. However, so far the two films that have seemed worthwhile from my new forays into European genre cinema (excluding the two previously mentioned Spanish offerings) have been Inside and Haute Tension – two very good, but not necessarily life altering, films. I had hoped that Martyrs, another film picking up a lot of momentum here in the states, would be the third to join my list. Unfortunately, that turns out not to be the case. With a high rating on the IMDB though, it seems I’m in the minority.

Martyrs is a good film. I won’t even bother denying that. It’s a harrowing experience at times, looks impeccable and is a finely cut piece of slick horror cinema. My disdain for the film comes not from any of these technical aspects. I think my general malaise with this film, and this entire subgenre, is the lack of imagination. The fixation that a lot of my fellow horror compatriots seem to have with these films alludes me. When nearly all of the straight-to-DVD horror film market is comprised of films that follow the same style and general guarantees, it’s hard for me to watch a film and appreciate it just because it is foreign to me. If I can amount any praise, it would be that these films are generally slicker than their Hollywood counterparts. It just isn’t enough for me though. With Martyrs it’s a bit difficult to discuss the film and where it takes from others without going into spoiler territory, but I’ll just say after a big twist during the middle of the film – it enters into some very familiar “torture” based territory. Is this a bad thing in and of itself? No. I’m never offended by violence in film, as one who has seen enough gory horror tends to be. For a geek like me, violence for the sake of simple violence is just another genre. However, when your film is set up as if it’s delivering more than that and tries its best to convince the audience that its delivering something important or visionary – it sets the standard a little higher than one would have for Island of Death.

Even though films such as Martyrs seem set-up from the start to be throwbacks to more original horrors, they almost always try to replicate the things that made those films “cool” but never carry the same sense of originality or heart that older slashers seemed to have. Martyrs is simply so slick and visually clean (even at it’s grittiest) it creates a vision that takes away from some of the abrasive violence. For me at least. It’s like watching something so polished attempt to be dirty. It doesn’t feel natural and certainly not groundbreaking, especially when in terms of violence and gore just about everything has been done. The heart I mentioned the film just doesn’t seem to have, I think a lot of that (especially in 80’s slashers) was born out of a blissful naivete. There was a pattern to making a horror picture back then and the main focus was to make something “scary”, and the violence helped accentuate that. It doesn’t matter that ultimately the flicks turned out far from being anything frightening, and were usually just simple splatter, but they built their characters from the ground up usually following those simple patterns and tried to deliver their version of “scary”. It was the attempt and the old fashioned feel that gave those simple and sometimes awful films a sense of meaning. Although we have about thirty minutes of introduction in Martyrs so that we can get to know the characters of Anna and Lucie, the only knowledge we gain is that they both met in a mental ward of some sort. All compassion built for our characters in the last fourty minutes is built out of this but really the only reason we care is due to our own humanity. The characters never evoke such sympathy, as we’re only given hints at who they even are. We don’t care about these characters because of anything unique in them, but because we care about other human beings and don’t want to see them harmed in such a way. That’s a gamble for the filmmakers that ultimately pays off because of how violent the torture becomes, but in what manner is this anything that different than the Hostel series?

The film is of course paced very well and never slows down, which goes along with all of its other great technical merits. What this means of course is you can expect the pacing of a MTV program, which may be quick but never slows down to absorb any of the magic of cinema. I know, at this point I sound like I’m just dogging the film out for no good reason, but while watching I just couldn’t help but start timing it out some. The longest cuts in the film seem to generally last about 4-5 seconds before switching angles or moving on to something else. There are longer shots throughout, I counted a shot that lasted about 11 seconds at one point even, but by and large I’d say the average series of frames seem to last between 1-3 seconds. This, much like the violence issue, isn’t all that bad by itself but in a film where we’re sorely lacking character development; the action-paced editing seems to take more from the film than it gives. Despite all of this railing, I am giving the film a three out of five. Like previously said, it’s a very well made film without a doubt and truth be told it’s probably worth watching on a rainy afternoon but really so are Saw and Hostel. If you hold no resentment towards those films, then ultimately you should be entertained by this offering but please don’t pretend it’s anything more than what it really is.

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