Fright Level: 3/10
Scare Type: Mortification, jumps.
Subgenre: Torture Porn, revenge flick.
Had Martyrs not been a French film I'm not sure it would or could be taken seriously. Not that French films are necessarily given a higher level of prestige anymore, but had this film not been subtitled, I could not have thought "well, something certainly must have been lost in translation here." Though I doubt that. The first third of the film is quite good. The first half concerns Lucie, a girl who was held prisoner, tortured and haunted by one of her co-captives, seeking and getting revenge on the people who did those things to her. Lucie's girlfriend Anna, who seems to recognize that Lucie is crazy is a somewhat unwilling accomplice, and the film then moves on to look at their relationship. Then the film makes an abrupt and baffling turn to a torture porn film with a twist. I'd tell you just how preposterous it is but that would give away the film. Let's just say I thought "wouldn't it be funny if...oh they did...and they're serious?" and laugh.
I have been pretty vocal in my criticism of the new wave of French Horror. Everyone seems to think its cutting edge and dangerous. I see it as laborious and dismally boring. All the films have the same dynamics. There's a girl, a psychological twist, and a underground group which is doing some sort of crazy organized horrors. I liked Ills (Them). But Haute Tension (High Tension) and Frontiers, the other touchstones in the movement, were just awful. What's strange is that with a film heritage so rich in inter-textual undercutting, these films seem almost naive in their self importance. More simply, they take themselves too seriously.
To generalize, the French have never really made good horror films. In Europe, Italy, Germany, and England have their own long and storied horror film traditions. But for some reason, even though its probably the country that takes film the most seriously, France hasn't much of a great horror track record.
The fatal flaw in Martyrs is that it tries to turn torture porn into art. Aside from the obvious question of "why," the film tries its best, and treats the subject matter with relative (and I mean relative) restraint, but its just not a possible task. Its a strange binary, but the more serious a horror film takes itself, the more it becomes unintentionally campy. It is perhaps the distance between the tone and the action. The films which deal with extreme personal violence the best all have something of a sense of humor: Oldboy, Last House, Takashi Miike and Michael Haneke films.
The other large problem is that it secularizes a religious philosophy making the actions of the second half strangely without motive. A better film that is essentially a torture film that has a somewhat similar hope and works better is The Girl Next Door (2007), though it's a movie that's really not that great either.