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Friday, Aug. 28, 2009
Explicit horror delivers twisted message
What exactly is the definition of a horror film these days? The genre seems to have moved from its traditional goal of scaring the viewer to a more decadent phase in which extreme depictions of brutality and degradation seem to be its raison d'etre. Suspense and fright have been replaced by torture and mutilation and the horrifying aspect is that the viewer must pollute his or her consciousness with the depraved imagination of the filmmaker's. Terror from sympathizing with the victim's hopes of escape has been slyly replaced by a sick, amoral pleasure in the sadism of the torturer, appropriate enough for our times but not necessarily healthy for your psyche. Transgressive horror cinema has gone so far out there since the early experiments of films like "Blood Feast" (1963) and "Blood Sucking Freaks" (1976) that filmmakers are left grasping for ways to shock jaded viewers with evermore extreme and grotesque sadism. "Martyrs," the latest "torture porn" film to push the envelope, represents a new low. This is a film that even a horror fan Web site like brutalashell.com endorses with caution. "I'm pretty desensitized as far as gore goes," said their reviewer, "but even I felt the overwhelming urge to vomit at one point. This is as harsh as harsh gets." (If only that were true; Lars von Trier's "Antichrist" (2009) looks set to hit new lows in the era of provocation.)
"Martyrs" is a film that combines all the worst aspects of "Hostel" (2005) and "The Passion of the Christ" (2004): Anonymous torturers inflicting agonizing pain on shackled victims in hidden dungeons, while a layer of religious mysticism seeks to make the film seem like something other than just a wallow in misery. French director Pascal Laugier, already being scouted by Hollywood, packs the first 15 minutes of his film with a level of carnage that surpasses the climax of most horror films. Then it gets worse.
"Martyrs" begins with a young girl, Lucie (Mylene Jampanoi) fleeing a basement dungeon where she has been imprisoned and abused. Later, growing up in an orphanage, she's haunted by memories of her ordeal, especially the fact that she fled without pausing to free another woman shackled in that basement. Her one friend at the orphanage, Anna (Morjana Alaoui), gives her comfort and sisterly support. Cut to several years later. Lucie, now an adult, invades a suburban home, slaughtering the family that live there with a shotgun. She's convinced that these are the people responsible for her ordeal, but Anna — summoned to the scene by a hysterical Lucie — isn't so sure; She thinks Lucie's lost her marbles, but helps her friend cover up the crime.
Laugier keeps the viewer on edge: it's not clear whether Lucie is a psychopath, or whether the slavering corpselike figure she sees in the shadows is real. Is Anna correct that Lucie is delusional, or is she mistaken, in which case the house's basement may contain some unpleasant surprises?
Laugier delivers a stomach-churning level of gore, with close-ups of wrist slashing, iron bolts being ripped out of a woman's head with pliers, and a housewife's skull being bashed in with a sledgehammer. The intrepid viewer will get to see a girl being skinned alive by the last reel. I always wonder about filmmakers like Laugier: Anyone who's actually suffered the trauma of going through a glass window, or had to help a friend who has slit her wrists, couldn't possibly be manufacturing such images so glibly. I envy him the sheltered, placid life that allows him to produce pain and suffering as entertainment.
While Laugier does ask us to empathize with Lucie and Anna's suffering, the amount of violence and degradation dished out to these two gorgeous actresses again raises that old specter of misogyny. The last third of the film features almost nothing but scenes of Anna being beaten severely by a guy built like a particularly intimidating nightclub bouncer. This is brutal stuff, and it begs the question: Why exactly would anyone want to watch this? As was the case with Mel Gibson's "Passion," the desire to linger on the agony of torture places the filmmaker — and the viewer — far closer to the sick viewpoint of the torturer than the tortured.
"Martyrs" exits on a mystical note, suggesting that extreme agony can bring one to a state of ecstasy, transcending this world to give us a glimpse of the divine. (Just think of crucifixion and all the other torture accompanying the Christian cult of martyrdom.) Ultimately, though, "Martyrs" succeeds only in transcending all boundaries of taste and decency. I realize that might seem a bit rich coming from a critic who's enjoyed stuff like "Pink Flamingos" or "El Topo," but "Martyrs" asks us to cross those boundaries for all the wrong reasons. There's a scene in the film where Lucie confronts one of her tormentors, screaming, "Why'd you do it to me? Why?" No doubt the viewer will want to ask Laugier the same.