This Review Does Contain Spoilers!
Mainstream Mundane Movies
Personally, I believe that the majority of American “torture porn” horror films are shallow, in terms of both plot and artistry. The Saw films bombarded us with loads of derivative killings and massive helpings of gore, but they didn’t challenge the audience with any philosophical themes. Yes, Jigsaw wanted ethically compromised individuals to go through sadistic puzzles so that they would understand how privileged their lives were. The first movie (which failed to produce any terror) was sufficient to illustrate that lame conceptual metaphor. Hostel gave us some interesting illustrations of xenophobia, but not much else.
During the past fifteen years, a slew of American torture porn films have been released. Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes production company released a bunch of remakes of horror classics such as A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th. These were all painfully mediocre and served as insults to the originals. Rob Zombie directed a remake of Halloween (far less interesting than his The Devil’s Rejects), which was less insulting to John Carpenter’s masterpiece, but still very much inferior to it. None of these films were scary or engaging. There are many more examples of American torture porn, but most offer copious amounts of blood and gore without any underlying moral theme or societal metaphor. It’s like eating dessert without an entree. You can only do that with so many meals in a row before you start to crave real food.
Horror Across the Pond
While American torture porn was relatively derivative in the first two decades of the new millennium, other countries produced some real gems. Unlike most of their American counterparts, these movies were genuinely unnerving and boosted provocative themes and disturbing symbolism. Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist was as brutal as it was challenging. The French home invasion masterpiece Inside received acclaim for its visceral, claustrophobic brutality. High Tension, another French production, was a blood-soaked thriller that I enjoyed but wouldn’t call it a masterpiece. My favorite torture porn film is Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs. There have been few films that have affected as much as Martyrs did the first time that I saw it.
For those that haven’t seen Martyrs, I’ll give a brief synopsis. The film begins with a young girl, Lucy, escaping from captors that tortured her ruthlessly. She goes to an orphanage and befriends another girl, Anna. Lucy has horrible nightmares and is haunted by a demon, who takes the form of an emaciated, flagellated women. Anna comforts Lucy during her night terrors.
The plot skips ahead to when Lucy is an adult. She goes to the home of the family that tortured her as a child and murders all of them with a shotgun. The audience discovers that Lucy did this in an effort to appease the demon woman, so that she won’t torment Lucy any longer. This proves not to be the case as the woman viciously attacks Lucy with a razor. A flashback of Lucy’s escape as a child shows that she left behind another tortured female prisoner without trying to rescue her. That prisoner that she left behind is the demon that haunts Lucy. Anna catches Lucy cutting herself and realizes that Lucy’s demon exists only in her mind and that she has been self-mutilating the whole time. Believing that she’ll never stop suffering, Lucy kills herself.
Anna discovers an underground chamber where the family imprisons and tortures young women. She finds a mute woman chained to a wall. The woman has a steel plate drilled into her head, which covers her eyes. Anna frees the woman and helps remove the steel plate. The woman goes mad and tries to amputate her arm. A group of people storm into the home and kill the crazed woman. The newcomers are a cult, led by a mysterious older woman.
The group’s leader explains to Anna that the purpose of the organization is to torture young women so that they can become martyrs. By that, she means that they are able to witness what’s on the other side of death and then relay that information back to the torturers. The rest of the film involves watching Anna’s torture and journey to a transcendental state of consciousness. She is eventually skinned alive and witnesses the other side. The leader is summoned and Anna tells her what she saw. The leader then locks herself in her bathroom before a gathering of the organization’s members. Her assistant asks her what she saw, while she is still behind the bathroom’s locked door. She says “keep doubting” and kills herself with a pistol.
The technical elements of this film are spot on. The makeup of the demon and the steel-plated woman are some of the best that I’ve ever seen. The Martyrs cinematography was done by three separate cinematographers. Despite the division of labor, the film looks excellent. The torture chambers are industrial and pristine. The use of minimalist lighting techniques for the house at night turns the charming home into a black and white nightmare. The performances are gut-wrenchingly effective, particularly those of the two lead actors that play Anna and Lucy. The soundtrack adds to the drama without distracting from it. Interestingly, the film uses music extremely sparingly. Long episodes of intense violence play out without any music, which actually increases the realism of the horror.
The first time Lucy’s demon appears and torments her, it is genuinely terrifying. Mylène Jampanoï’s portrayal of Lucy is heartbreaking. Her suffering, mentally, spiritually and physically is so palpable that watching the movie is emotionally taxing. I could tell that she was hanging on by a thread. Killing her abusers was her last shot at sanity. When her suffering ended, I was relieved as an audience member. It was precisely because I cared so deeply about her as a character. I wanted her pain to end and for her to be at peace. As a sufferer of depression and PTSD, I’ve never seen a more authentic or disturbing depiction of a person suffering from trauma.
Morjana Alaoui’s Anna was magnetic as Lucy’s caretaker. She loved Lucy dearly and always showed her compassion despite her violently erratic behavior. Anna knew the evil that Lucy was tormented by. She represented the archetype of empathetic nurturer. When Anna frees the underground prisoner, she takes her into the bathtub and proceeds to wash the woman’s many wounds. The scene is heartbreaking. Anna sees the traumatized woman’s scarified body and knows caring for her is a futile effort, just like Lucy. She’s too damaged, too abused to recover. Even if they didn’t physically kill her, the woman’s mind will always be molested by the darkness of her captivity. But Anna’s nature is to love. Her gifts of empathy and compassion make her torture all the more jarring.
Pain, Not Torture
Unlike the mediocre films examined earlier, the experience of the torture in Martyrs isn’t “comfortable.” In films like Saw and Hostel, the audience often shares the point of view of the torturer. They cringe at the explicitness of the violence or gasp and marvel at the creativity of how a victim is tortured. They don’t relate to the victim, because most of the time, the film has not provided the audience with any reason to care about the victim. No one adopts that point of view in Martyrs. Here, the audience is invested in the victim’s fate. Every slash of the knife and every blow to the head affects the viewers’ hearts. The film’s director, Pascal Laugier, illustrated this particular quality of the film when he compared Martyrs to other torture porn films. He said that Martyrs was about pain and human suffering, not torture. I couldn’t agree more.
Martyrs is a film that has stayed with me. It has conjured meditations of morality and trauma. The film ignited a fire in my head that led to more questions of philosophical wonderment. The ending of Martyrs is ambiguous, but certainly feels nihilistic. Did the leader believe that living is futile? Is there something better on the other side and she wanted to get there? I don’t know what “keep doubting” means exactly, but I love trying to figure it out. I could write a thesis on that topic alone.
If you have a strong stomach and love of horror movies, I highly recommend that you see Martyrs. It’s a completely unique experience. It is terrifying, horrifying, sad, endearing, perplexing but above all, challenging. This is a movie where the protagonists are not disposable idiots. They are multi-faceted individuals and their humanity is on full display (so is their suffering). Martyrs is a cathartic, spiritual experience. This isn’t desert. This is the whole enchilada. P.S. The American remake is BAD.
RATING: ΩΩΩΩ (TANTRIC ORGASM)
Ω – PAINFUL – Suffering through this was cruel and unusual punishment.
ΩΩ – I’VE HAD BETTER – This didn’t rock my world but it was better than a nut tap.
ΩΩΩ – GOOD – My life was enriched because of this.
ΩΩΩΩ – TANTRIC ORGASM – I will trade my soul for more of this.