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“MARTYRS” (2016; Movie Review)

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The idea of remaking Pascal Laugier’s confrontational masterpiece MARTYRS turns out to be worse than the resulting film itself, though it ultimately doesn’t offer many compelling reasons not to watch the original instead.

Laugier’s 2008 French production is a full-bore descent into human suffering and one of the bleakest visions the genre has ever seen, redeemed from simple torture porn-dom by a genuine philosophical bent that adds resonant dramatic levels to its presentations of extreme abuse. The American remake, directed by Kevin and Michael Goetz and scripted by VACANCY’s Mark L. Smith, follows the original’s playbook pretty closely, at least for the first half. It opens with a preteen girl named Lucie (Ever Prishkulnik) fleeing, bloodied and barefoot, from a secret chamber where she’s been held captive; haunted by the experience, she winds up in an orphanage where same-aged Anna (Elyse Cole) becomes her only friend and confidant.

Ten years later, Lucie (now played by Troian Bellisario) commits an act of brutal but apparently well-motivated violence, and calls on Anna (Bailey Noble) to help her deal with the aftermath. The bond between the two that would keep Anna on Lucie’s side even after such a heinous act is nicely established by both sets of actresses and the filmmakers, who emphasize it further via a significant alteration to Laugier’s story at around the halfway mark. Thus, the dynamic changes even as the basic scenario, in which Anna discovers the horrible truth about what’s going on beneath a remote, well-appointed house, remains the same.

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Another alteration, inevitably, involves the explicitness of the violence. Laugier was threatened with the first-ever 18+ rating for a genre film in France until an appeal lowered the restriction, and his MARTYRS is enough to make even hardcore fans cringe and look away, even as its fascinating underpinnings keep you watching. While early speculation that the remake would be sanitized to PG-13-dom has been proven unfounded, and there are graphically nasty moments scattered throughout, their impact pales in comparison to Laugier’s go-for-broke gruesomeness. The gore we do see is well-wrought enough, though oddly, there’s no credit for the makeup FX. (Also odd: Smith co-wrote THE REVENANT, and of the two movies he has out right now, the one that’s more uncompromising and explicit in its depiction of pain and bodily damage is the $135-million Leonardo DiCaprio-starrer, not the independent horror film.)

The Goetzes compensate somewhat for the toned-down visceral punch by building palpable tension and (for those who haven’t seen the first one) mystery regarding the source of Lucie’s considerable inner demons, and they and cinematographer Sean O’Dea demonstrate a solid visual sense, including a few evocative overhead shots. Committed performances by Bellisario and Noble, as their heroines give and receive the cruelty, maintain our involvement as the story takes us and them into deeper, darker territory. Yet paradoxically, the filmmakers have effected changes in the second half that add notes of hope to the story, and while that might make this MARTYRS more palatable to a wider audience, it considerably blunts the impact for admirers of Laugier’s achievement and horror hounds in general. A secondary character has been reconceived and Anna’s actions have too in the movie’s final act, both in ways that are unfortunately conventional.

That goes for the depiction of the villains as well. Laugier incorporated creepily suggestive religious overtones that are made more on-the-nose and banal here, and overexplicated in a big information dump of a monologue by the lead baddie. Moreover, the powerful climactic moment involving this malefactor in the ’08 film, which tied up all the themes with both shocking finality and teasing ambiguity, is handed off to a secondary character in the new version.

MARTYRS 2016 certainly feels respectful of its predecessor, not like a cheap cash-in on a cult-favorite title, and the Goetzes and Smith keep their own approach consistent to the end. Yet their movie ultimately represents an uneasy compromise between fidelity to the source and the desire to take the material to areas of wider appeal that it was never intended to go. The rating below reflects the film when judged on its own individual merits, but the fact remains that with the original out there and available for viewing, there’s no question which one is the preferred choice.

2.5_skull

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About the author
Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold has been a member of the FANGORIA team for the past three decades. After starting as a writer for the magazine in 1988, he came aboard as associate editor in 1990 and two years later moved up to managing editor. He now serves as editor-in-chief of the magazine while continuing to contribute numerous articles and reviews, as well as a contributing editor/writer for this website.
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