Owing primarily to the contemporary Hollywood paradigm, any film which demonstrates a particularly large quantity of bloodshed is automatically branded with that most unsavoury of appellations: “torture porn”. Martyrs, Pascal Laugier’s 2008 French horror film, is no stranger to this label, its brutality immediately motivating its critics to set it among the ranks of these films largely dismissed as tasteless, tactless, and tawdry satiations of modern audiences’ violent voyeurism.
Martyrs opens on a young girl frantically fleeing a large, apparently disused, industrial complex. Her body is bruised and scarred, her face swollen and beaten, her clothes—what little she is wearing—streaked with blood. She looks around her, seemingly as ignorant of what is going on as we are. It is precisely this ignorance that much of Martyrs’ effect relies so heavily upon, the disarming feeling of insecurity and unease engendered by its unprecedented narrative progression the result of our utter confusion at the events unfolding before us.
Many have condemned the substantially graphic violence which populates Martyrs as an indulgence in the aforementioned subgenre, suggesting the violence and bloodshed therein to be employed simply in an effort to shock, horrify, and encourage a visceral reaction. Whilst it is inarguably valid that these scenes present gore and body horror in an astoundingly frank, upfront, and forthwith manner, it is important to note that these are not the sources of the film’s horror. Are they scary? Certainly, but as is a sudden noise in your ear. To scare someone is a remarkably easy task, but to truly terrify, haunt, harrow, and horrify: that is an achievement, and one which Martyrs manages with a disquieting regularity. The images may be frightening, especially to those of particularly weak stomachs, but what remains in the mind is not the violence, rather the ideas behind it; the film’s themes are what commit it to memory and regularly return it to the forefront of one’s attentions. Our extraordinary capability for cruelty as a race; the desperate and despicable lengths to which we go in our search for answers, for purpose, and for meaning; the effects of suffering upon the human psyche: these are the concepts behind the carnage, the meaning behind the mayhem. What sets Martyrs apart from, and indeed above, the so-called “torture porn” is that it is, inherently, about something. Rather than pandering to the bloodthirsty voyeurs who have made the Saw and Hostel franchises so commercially successful, it inspires intelligent thought on the subjects of pain, fear, and horror itself. It is said that true horror cinema transcends, and by Martyrs’ conclusion it is difficult not to be moved in a perplexing manner. That such hideous violence can create something emotional and beautiful is almost contradictory, and yet there is a thematic effulgence to the film, a lingering sensation of elation and enlightenment achieved through this astonishing depravity.
Martyrs may employ body horror and bloody gore to elicit minor scares, but the lasting harrowing effect the film purveys is down to the themes and ideas which back it up. While “torture porn” is exactly what that phrase implies—cheap and crass exploitation intended to create a reaction; surface scares masking the vacuous nothing beneath—Martyrs is so much more—intelligent and interesting filmmaking intended to create thought, emotion, and achieve the feeling of transcendence which seems so rare in modern horror cinema.
[notification type=”star”]78/100 – Martyrs may employ body horror and bloody gore to elicit minor scares, but the lasting harrowing effect the film purveys is down to the themes and ideas which back it up.[/notification]