Pascal Laugier's controversial horror film Martyrs is a lot of things: shocking, vicious, fascinating, ugly, merciless, and brutal. Fortunately for horror fans with very strong fortitudes, it's also very darkly entertaining and strangely fascinating. The film is so hellaciously unforgiving that it makes Saw look like Sesame Street
-- indeed it may be one of the most ferocious horror films ever made -- but Martyrs is also quite effectively chilling and consistently disturbing ... frankly I think it's one of the most fascinating pieces of "hardcore" horror cinema you'd ever want to see. Put aside the film's creepily compelling ideas about child abuse, bloody revenge, and what we "see" just before the grim reaper arrives, and Martyrs is still distressingly engaging enough to warrant a look. I'll repeat my warning one more time, though. This is one of the most aggressively and explicitly difficult horror films ever made.
The bulk of the plot is simple enough stuff: Two young women invade the home of a middle-class French family, murder mostly everyone, and then continue to go just a little bit crazier. One of the murderers is a woman deathly afraid of the sliced-up specter who follows her around, and the other is simply there to take care of the shotgun-toting psycho ... and also to clean up after her messes. (And there are a lot of those.) By the time we discover why these young ladies are so mentally deranged -- and why their horrible childhood is now coming back to haunt them -- is the stuff of classic horror cinema.
Laugier has the brazen audacity to offer a reason as to why a person might kidnap and ruthlessly torture a man / woman / child, and it's a reason that has nothing to do with mental illness on the part of the abductor. Provided you can stomach such a consistently off-putting premise, I'd contend that there's a lot here for the horror fans to enjoy -- and I'm not just talking about the wall-to-wall bloodshed and the virtually non-stop nastiness. I won't spoil the surprises, but Martyrs closes with a third act that's as darkly compelling as it is jaw-droppingly violent. You'll find a clue if you're familiar with the word "martyr" (and its various definitions), but again -- I don't want to ruin any of the flick's twisted surprises, be they the gore-soaked nasty ones or the more esoteric ones peppered throughout the screenplay. And while I certainly admire and "enjoyed" Martyrs as a full-bore, take-no-prisoners horror tale, the film is so consistently unpleasant that I may never want to experience it again. (Maybe.)
Following on the heels of other recent imports like High Tension, Frontiere(s), and Inside, Martyrs represents an extension of French horror cinema that doesn't shy away from the rough stuff and aims to bring a few extra layers to the typically anemic slash-and-smash concept. To say that Martyrs is not for everyone would be a massive understatement -- indeed I know a few gore-lovin' horror directors who absolutely hated the film -- but if a flick like this is (in every way) the flip-side to your "typical" American horror film, then that alone is cause for some celebration. Most Hollywood horror movie are watered-down and practically worthless, but it seems pretty clear to me that Martyrs would much rather shock you than bore you with familiar concepts and overused ingredients.
Martyrs has caused dissension, debate, and controversy at every festival it's been to, and you'll definitely know why once they final credits show up. Some may opt to dismiss the film as unnecessarily brutal, shamelessly disgusting, and morally bankrupt -- but I'd politely contend that those folks are simply distracted by the bloodshed and/or simply unable to look past the nasty stuff. I certainly couldn't blame those folks for feeling that way, but I'd call Martyrs one of the most exceptionally "extreme" horror films I've ever seen. It's a difficult movie to "like," really, but I've no problem recommending it ... if only to the bravest horror fans in the world.