Praise for Twisted Tales Events

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‘Twisted Tales consistently produce well-organised events for writers and readers of horror. What really distinguishes Twisted Tales for me is the intelligent themes and investigations they pursue, and the high quality of the discussions they always stimulate. As an author I've been invited to three of their events and have been pleasantly startled, to near shocked, by the attendance levels - two out of three were even sold out. I salute anyone who contributes so much to the literary and cultural life of horror fiction.’- Adam Nevill

'Twisted Tales events are wonderful... a great way of promoting 21st century horror fiction. Supported by Waterstone's Liverpool One and really well organised, Twisted Tales brings together established names in the genre as well as new voices and of course readers. Looking forward to much more to come...' - Alison J. Littlewood

Monday, 4 April 2011

Martyrs reviewed by Stephen Curtis

Directed by Pascal Laugier
Released in 2008
Certificate: 18

Generally taken to be part of the French New Wave of Horror, alongside Haute Tension (Switchblade Romance, 2003), Frontier(s) (Frontiers, 2007), and À l’intérieur (Inside, 2007), Martyrs is a darkly meditative and religiously tinged slice of Gallic nihilism. Although initially acclaimed at festival screenings, subsequent reviews have been less favourable, with many notable critics viewing it as exploitative torture porn. Far be it for me to disagree with such luminaries, but I do believe that these eminent figures have completely misunderstood the film, which should instead be considered alongside Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997) as a savage indictment of the audience’s complicity in the abuse depicted on the screen.

The cover photo of the DVD perhaps contributes to the charges of ‘lesbian chic’ directed at the film, suggesting as it does a French take on Bound (the Wachowski’s 1996 debut) with its strikingly feminised – albeit bloodied – lead actors looking up at an elevated camera. Their flowing brunette locks provide a clear contrast with the platinum blonde of many Hollywood horror heroines. There is an undercurrent of lesbian attraction between the two central characters but this is more to do with psychological motivation than mere titillation.

One of the problems with horror reviews is the need to avoid spoiling the shocks; something this review will attempt to do. As such, I will avoid discussion of the plot specifics and focus on the general themes and feel of the film. It is important to highlight, however, that in many ways Martyrs can be split into three distinct segments: revenge, Asian cinema influenced ghost/creature, torture porn. These categories are deliberately gross oversimplifications but go some way to identifying the eclectic and tricksy nature of Laugier’s picture.

The film opens – ironically – with an escape. A child is shown running into the light screaming, clearly after a prolonged period of captivity and abuse. The subsequent archive footage provides a quasi-documentary realism to her mistreatment, whilst also serving to introduce her friendship with Anna. We then cut to 15 years later, as the now adult Lucie and Anna attempt to track down the shadowy figures who originally imprisoned her. It is typical of Laugier’s approach that the revenge plot that audiences may initially expect to be its central consideration is rapidly (and savagely) resolved – a brilliantly premature catharsis that wrongfoots the unsuspecting viewer. The second section of the film takes us into the mind of a victim/killer, as we see the physical manifestation of the guilt and trauma that motivates Lucie’s murderous behaviour. It is following this that Martyrs really becomes interesting – appropriately it is also at this point that many viewers are alienated (at least judging by IMDB comments and reviews).

The final act of Martyrs is characterised by a telling change of pace. Unlike the frenzied action of what precedes it, the narrative is deliberately stalled; Laugier thus delivers a deathblow to the inflamed desires of a conventional revenge-horror audience. The pejorative term ‘torture porn’ does not really accurately describe this part of the film however. Unlike Saw (2004) or Hostel (2005) where the focus appears to always be the mechanics of dismantling the body – most obviously through Jigsaw’s elaborate traps, the most affecting passage in Martyrs offers a denial of sensationalism and its resultant visceral release. The unrelenting brutality of a prolonged passage of attritional beating is intended to break down the spirit of its target and the audience. It is at this point that the film’s kinship with Funny Games (although without its postmodernist playfulness) becomes apparent. The audience is inevitably associated with the perpetrators of the violence who seek some kind of mysterious enlightenment. Whilst I accept that in horror generally the thrill stems from our psychological association with the stalked and not the stalker (although, as with all general theories there are notable exceptions to this), Laugier here uses the fact that the violence is deployed in the hope of discovering something about the human condition as an indictment of the impulse towards torture in all its forms. The result of this sustained brutality – simultaneously transcendental and nihilistic – reveals the emptiness that resides in the heart of torture porn. That you have to sit through such horror to be shown this gaping abyss only makes the message more powerful. But, as abysses are inclined to do, this one looks back into you – and its gaze lingers long in the memory.

Martyrs’ critique of bloody spectacle aims at a broader target than torture porn, however, and can – indeed, should – be understood as exposing the voyeuristic tendencies of modern society. The vigilante justice at the heart of traditional revenge narratives is reminiscent of the frequent media campaigns against whichever group has been selected for demonization, and the clinical atmosphere of the final act can be interpreted as a metaphor for any attempt at revelation through violence. There are telling echoes of vivisection, invasive medical procedures, and the dehumanising torture practices that occupied the seamy underside of the ‘war against terror’. Through his portrayal of individuals driven to commit horrific acts through their desire to contribute to a greater good for the group of which they are a part, Laugier forces us all to examine our complicity with evil carried out in our name. The fact that so many horror fans seem to be ‘turned off’ by this approach is confirmation of the validity of its purpose.

The film is stark visually, and appropriately claustrophobic. There is a contrast between the brightly lit clinical environments and the dark dungeon-like settings but there is no attempt made to ally one side with any kind of relief. Torture occurs in both dark and light, with the only difference being the methods employed. This cinematographic decision contributes to the enclosed feel of the film. Although there are external scenes, it is always inevitable that the characters will be compelled to go deeper inside the literal and metaphorical abyss of the seemingly innocuous house. This journey into the dark recesses of suburbia is another way in which Laugier implicates society in what transpires. This is not some faraway nightmare place; such atrocities can happen everywhere. The uncanny links to later real life events, such as the infamous case of Josef Fritzl, only serve to confirm the unsettling truth of this notion.

Martyrs is not without fault, though. The ending (with its somewhat clichéd secret society) does not entirely hang together, although the ambiguity of the dénouement is an effective conclusion. A far from scientific analysis of responses to this ending (interested readers should check out the various threads on Imdb devoted to this issue) indicates a clear divide between religious and atheist viewers – not in itself surprising but particularly pertinent given the way in which the film’s final scenes explore the very nature of life at its point of most extreme suffering and the ways in which we attempt to understand such a condition. As an atheist, I found the ending fittingly nihilistic but have read convincing alternative responses.

Upon undertaking this review, I doubted whether Martyrs would be as profoundly unsettling on a second viewing. However, if anything it was more thought-provoking knowing what was going to happen. This does not override the power of the initial experience; one that I hope this review does not erode for readers who have yet to subject themselves to Laugier’s vision. Although not a film for everyone, and certainly not an easy or enjoyable watch, Martyrs is a fascinating meditation on the nature of horror in the 21st century and should definitely be experienced by devotees of the genre. There is an American remake apparently in the works, with Daniel Stamm (The Last Exorcism, 2010) lined up to direct but his claim that his version will sanitise the ending is as depressing as it is predictable:  "Martyrs is very nihilistic," he told 24 Frames. "The American approach [that I'm looking at] would go through all that darkness but then give a glimmer of hope. You don't have to shoot yourself when it's over". That glimmer is more than I hold for its viability as a remake. Indeed, at the time of writing, nothing had been announced since November 2010. We’ll have to wait and see whether this reflects a wise decision to take some time to carry out revisions or the project hitting the rocks.


Stephen Curtis is currently writing up his Phd on Blood and Early Modern Revenge Tragedy at Lancaster University. He has a long standing interest in horror fiction and film although his young daughter regularly insists he puts away his ‘scary DVDs’ so is unable to watch as many as he used to.

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