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These are the movies that are so strange, so deliriously out of whack that they stop even our hard-bitten writers in their tracks. These are the films that are weird beyond belief, the ones that stick with you whether you want them to or not. Spectrum Culture is pleased to present a new Film Feature: WTF?

It’s not really much of a secret that when it comes to extreme horror films, you usually have to venture (cinematically, not literally) outside of North America to find the most shocking pieces of the genre. Films like Audition and Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom have pushed the limits of the horror genre while achieving relative commercial and critical success along the way. Lately it’s been France churning out heavy doses of fucked up with films like Them, Inside and the very well received High Tension. In 2008, director Pascal Laugier may have topped them all with his transcendental torture film Martyrs.

Martyrs, over its 99-minute runtime, plays out almost like three separate films. Laugier throws us right into the action, as we follow Anna and her friend Lucie on a quest for revenge. The two friends invade a seemingly typical, white, middle-class home, complete with a family of four, all of whom, in the span of five minutes or so, are massacred by Lucie. This immediately sets the eerie, fucked up tone of the film. We aren’t quite sure why Lucie is killing this family and, as it turns out, neither is Anna. Lucie claims this family kidnapped and tortured her for years when she was a child, but this is a claim we are meant to doubt. Adding to the doubt is the appearance of a ghastly, Grudge-like figure that crawls and bends around every corner of the house, repeatedly taking stabs at Lucie with a number of sharp and obviously rusty objects. It’s at this point that the film switches from a straightforward revenge flick to a psychological mind-fuck a la Rosemary’s Baby. We begin to question everything we see, from the violence to the dialogue. And remember, all of this happens within the first 15 minutes! The subversion of genre expectations is disorienting and frightening; the impending doom of the film only heightened by the sterility of the suburban home.

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So far, I guess Martyrs doesn’t really qualify as a WTF movie, but more of a creepy, slick thriller that keeps you guessing along the way. About halfway through the film though, it falls right out of its tree and hits every fucked up branch on the way down. Eventually, Anna and Lucie discover that the suburban family home in fact houses a secret torture chamber in its basement. Not only that, but this house is only one in a series of homes that belong to a cult of people who kidnap and torture random people (kind of like a Hostel film with better cinematography and acting). The purpose of the cult, as explained through historic photographs by a genuinely creepy white-haired lady/ringleader, is to torture victims into an enlightened, transcendental state beyond pain, where they may receive a message from a higher power and relay that message to the group. The ideology of this group, as well as the conception of such an idea is fucked up enough as it is, but Laugier isn’t about to settle for the suggestion of fucked up behavior; he plans on serving it up front and center.

It isn’t long before other members of the cult invade the ransacked home and capture the skeptical Anna for their grisly transcendental-torture purposes. This is where Martyrs goes from being a gory, freaky horror film to a totally fucked up, “I can’t believe I sat through that shit” kind of film. The cinematic technique of the torture of Anna is simplistic, exhausting and unbearable. Laugier fades in on the captive Anna as she is brutally beaten by a muscular bodyguard, force-fed, and then beaten some more. Laugier then fades his scene out after 45 seconds or so, only to fade back in on Anna a day or two later, once again being beaten to within an inch of her life. This fade in, fade out technique goes on for nearly 20 minutes! It’s an emotionally draining episode of torture that literally makes you feel sick to your stomach and immediately qualifies Martyrs for this feature. Just like the unflinching rape scene in Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible, Laugier refuses to let the audience look away from the horror placed before us. All of this torture eventually culminates in Anna being strapped to a surgical table and literally skinned alive, one thin slice of skin at a time. Her tendons and muscles are exposed in a scene that would be ridiculously campy if it weren’t for our sheer fatigue from the previous 20 minutes of torture. I won’t spoil the ending for those intrigued by my account of mind-numbing body mutilation, but the torture pays off in the end, culminating in one gloriously fucked up, pseudo-philosophical scene.

To be fair, Martyrs doesn’t come without its merits. It’s immaculately composed with exceptional performances from just about all of its actors. It longs for an existential meaning while exploring the psychological traumas of child abuse. Much like a Michael Haneke film, it explores issues of privilege, class and spiritual belief. It’s as ambitious a horror film as you will ever see; but that doesn’t make it any less fucked up.

  • The Tall Man

    [xrr rating=2.5/5]One thing is for certain: writer/director Pascal Laugier likes punishing…

One Comment

  1. A

    July 23, 2020 at 11:02 pm

    This movie is wasted time!

    Reply

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