May 17, 2010

Martyrs (2008)

Jesus wept! If you've never seen "Hellbound: Hellraiser II" (or even if you have!) then "Martyrs" is likely to be the most brutal and horrific movie you've ever seen.

Following in the tradition of other French horrors such as "Haute Tension", "Ils", and "A L'interieur", 'Martyrs" is tense, disturbing, violent, and somewhat ludicrous (if you think about it too much) yet absolutely sickening (and very entertaining) in ways that only true horror fans can fully appreciate. Yes, "Martyrs" does provide that horror "buzz" that we've all been chasing for years and is unlikely to disappoint anybody.

It's half revenge story and half "Hostel" but with much better acting than any of Eli Roth's films contain and with considerably more realistic effects. In fact it's this realism that gives it the edge over most American movies in the same almost "torture porn" sub-genre. There's real drama here too and, for the most part, believable characters who you can actually empathise with without overlong introductions so to even start to think of it in the same vein as something like the "Saw" franchise would be a big mistake. In many ways, it's more like a logical progression from the more arty European films like "Salo" or "Calvaire" but follows the Aristotlean rule that "art is best when hidden". "Martyrs" will, by turns, shock you and give you something to think about which is both its strength and its weakness but more on that later.

The practical effects and make-up are outstanding and there are no over-the-top CGI blood spurts like a lot of these gorefests have contained lately. There's nothing much here to break the "willing suspension of disbelief" although a certain scene involving a hastily dropped sandwich almost ruined it for me because I thought it was wasteful. It's funny how the little things like that can throw you right out of the story when you notice them and you will now too because I've just mentioned it. You'll find others along the way but hang in there as they are all "blink and you'll miss them" moments.

For those who are less eagle-eyed, pedantic and geeky, there are lots of boobs and blood. Oh God, there's so much blood! There are slicings galore, scenes of extreme torture, body-shredding gunshots, and a denouement which will absolutely amaze you. The ending itself will fly over most people's heads though and cause a lot of internet searching for others who want to know and can't work it out. I admit that I went vainly in search of answers too as the one I'd made up in my own mind was the least likely to be correct. There's some kind of nihilistic philosphical message at the end of this which I just can't get my brain around.

If you think you've seen everything with the "Saw" movies or "August Underground" then think again. Imagine any of those films with much better camerawork and without the grainy look and you'd only be a fraction of the way there. This is real cinematic stuff which, because it's never likely to be shown anywhere theatrically, really needs to be watched alone on the biggest widescreen TV that you have available even if it's just to see every facial expression of the lead actresses. Almost every shot is perfect and the actresses are beautiful even if they don't stay that way for very long. It's not a sexy film by any means though. This is all bleak, mean-spirited stuff but done so well that you just can't turn it off even though you know that you'll end up thinking about it for a long time after.

There are very few films that I've enjoyed yet wished that I'd never watched and this is one of them. Yes, it's a paradox. Films like "Martyrs" leave a nasty taste in your mouth afterwards and make you wonder what the hell is wrong with the people who make them to begin with. That said, it does exactly what a horror film should do - it "horrifies". I can't criticise the makers for creating exactly the effect that I want from a film but I wish there had been a happier ending.

Yes, I'm back to that ending again. In spite of all the shocks and gore, the ending is left to the viewer to interpret. I've encountered this before with such films as "The Univited Guest" and it really is annoying if you're used to having stories handed to you on a plate in Hollywood style. Some arty-farty people will see it as one of "Martyrs" strengths but from a purely entertainment point of view, I found it to be a major weakness. The catharsis that should have occurred is left to work itself out by gnawing away at the viewer long after the film has ended and that simply isn't a good way to do things. It leads to a great deal of dissatisfaction which, translated into normal viewing terms, would probably elicit a "That sucked!" response in 75% of cases. Maybe I'm wrong here though and people will get it or maybe I'm right and "Martyrs" will end up in the same pile as "Haute Tension" with comments like "Good film apart from the ending" attached to them for all eternity. It's not a polarising film by any means though so even if you don't "get" the ending, I don't suppose it'll matter. I didn't get it either but I still think "Martyrs" is one of the greatest horror movies ever made.

For that reason, I recommend "Martyrs" to everyone. This is one of the best movies so far this century and more than makes up for the overhyped "Inside" and "Frontière(s)" which have caused so many message board arguments. Couple it with "The Girl Next Door" as a double feature and I guarantee you'll have nightmares for a while no matter how hardcore you think you are.

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