[2008. 99 minutes. Unrated. Director: Pascal Laugier]
[2016. 86 minutes. Unrated. Directors: Kevin & Michael Goetz]
*** This review contains SPOILERS for both films ***
Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs was a lot of things, albeit in a deceptive manner: blunt, brutal murders that seem nihilistic and unprovoked take on greater resonance late in the game; characters in the throes of psychosis are later revealed to be sane (or, at the very least, not uninformed in their actions); and scenes of systematic physical destruction are not executed without an underlying purpose. It was a film icy in its aesthetics, finding unexpected warmth in highly dubious characters that the viewer does not necessarily associate with until it is well on its downslope. As a cultural marker, it fit well within the surge of French horrors that defined a couple impressive years in the late 2000s, to say nothing of its inversion of the roles and responsibilities of women in regard to a genre that – to put it kindly – often seems confused as to what comprises a strong female character.
All that being said, we rotate back around to the eternal question: to remake or not to remake?
We’ve reached not only a saturation point with what producers will consider for the remake treatment, but an impasse where the meta implications of retreading old material is a rabbit-trail into an unanswerable void. I no longer question the rationales that drives the remake machine – I just react to the news accordingly, and watch at my own risk. I think the argument of a remake “ruining” the original is the hyperbolic flavor of many apocalypse-predicting critics, while the reality is actually much simpler: there is nothing in any remake (not even Psycho or Funny Games) that could render the individual films completely indistinguishable from one another.
And Martyrs is no exception. The rumors rumbled around for a while (initially – and unsurprisingly – at the Dimension Films meat grinder), but – like that long-mooted Hellraiser remake that got tossed around like a hot potato – never seemed to gain traction. Horror fans posited the notion that an English-language version of one of the most punishing, authentically brutal, and straight-faced horror films of the millennium could result in nothing more than a compromised, watered-down product.
If we’re being truthful, though, remakes like The Last House On the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, and Maniac have not only retained faithfulness to their forebears, but maintained – if not exceeded – their levels of violence (and, survey says, are mostly well-regarded among genre fans these days).
For its part, Martyrs 2016 maintains a grim tone that doesn’t flinch from the extremes of its characters’ actions, which is admirable. While the emotional consistency of the performances can be dodgy from scene to scene, I can’t deny that certain moments of suffering got under my skin in a manner not unlike Laugier’s original. Where the film is lacking is in its pacing, production design, and plot execution. Scenes that flowed with a hypnotizing, effortless power in Laugier’s film have been rendered clunky and overly explanatory here.
As before, the film begins with Lucie (played as an adult by the superhero-named Troian Bellisario) escaping from a white tent in a seedy warehouse where she’s been physically abused. Taken in by an orphanage, she slowly warms to the friendly advances of Anna (Bailey Noble as an adult), despite suffering PTSD and an unshakable sense of wanting vengeance on her tormentors. Flash forward a decade, and an idyllic breakfast (in what appears to be California wine country) becomes a blood bath as Lucie murders an entire family. When she informs Anna – understandably horrified by her friend’s actions – the duo becomes implicated in something far greater than covering up a crime scene and dealing with the resulting moral and legal fallout.
On THE LAST KNOCK podcast, Crash Palace site-runner Bill Prystauk summarized Laugier’s Martyrs thusly: “it’s torture porn with a philosophy.” And therein lies what separates it from the empty HOSTEL films, or the increasingly ridiculous (and hypocritical) treatises on “the value of life” doled out by Jigsaw throughout the SAW series. The film served a smorgasbord of abuse and very literal bodily destruction that found transcendence – and an odd redemption – in its quest to uncover the answer to that unknowable question of what happens after we die.
Unfortunately, the Goetz Brothers’ Martyrs is wonky on a variety of fronts. Running a scarce 86 minutes, the storytelling feels impatient, and there simply isn’t enough time to feel tremendously for the characters and their situation. While the performances of Bellisario and Noble are, well, noble, the former lacks the overtly unlikable coldness of Mylene Jampanoi, and the latter falls into hysteria before undergoing a less-than-believable transformation into a badass in the third act. The filmmakers also miscalculate in the decision to incorporate an imprisoned little girl (Caitlin Carmichael) as a bit of connective tissue to Lucie’s tormented past. Clearly intended to raise the stakes, this thread follows a standard arc that guarantees her safety in the end.
And in a story as thematically heavy as this, the remake loses the existential enormity of Laugier’s thesis, ultimately going through the motions and holding the viewer’s hand through rickety dialog and bad-guy performances that mistake inexpression for menace. The underlining and bolding of intent doesn’t get more transparent than, “It isn’t torture when it’s for a higher purpose.”
The most interesting divergence between the two films is the Goetz’s insistence on incorporating a religious subtext into the proceedings. Their use of crucifixion imagery is persistent and heavy-handed, resulting in more eye-rolling than insight. Whereas the creepy Madame (Catherine Begin) offers a tidy dismissal of religious intent during her compelling “modus operandi” speech to Anna (Morjana Alaoui) in Laugier’s film, there is a certain amount of logic to switching from the secular to the spiritual for the American take on the material. The use of religion as a narrative and thematic device could have deepened the remake’s interpretation of the material in a unique, fresh way – not to mention its potential to explore the hot-button fundamentalism that runs rampant worldwide. Instead, it becomes a surface-level bit of difference for difference’s sake. (Though in all fairness, it doesn’t fall into the same parodic silliness that damned Neil LaBute’s remake of The Wicker Man.)
Insofar as the films’ aesthetic qualities are concerned, this new version is crippled by a low-budget feel. The family massacre at the beginning has considerably less impact, stifled by corner-cutting CGI; and while the torture scenes have their share of jaw-loosening passages, there is a truncated quality to the carnage on display – which, in the case of the film’s ultimate point, robs it of an essential, visceral suffering. Furthermore, the mysterious, scarred-and-chained tormentor that pursues Lucie from childhood to her ultimate fate has been transformed from a frightening J-Horror specter to an oversimplified version of a bug-eyed witch.
While Mark L. Smith’s (The Revenant) script reshuffles the order of events and incorporates a few more speaking roles (including a priest complicit with the cult’s actions), the most curious alteration to the original Martyrs is its handling of the Lucie/Anna relationship. Laugier’s film was a ride of sharp, unexpected turns; none more surprising than the exit of Lucie at the beginning of the third act, and the escalation of Anna as the film’s true protagonist. Here, the Goetz’s maintain a buddy-movie dynamic up until the climax, which would be poignant if it weren’t so unpersuasive in its execution. (The suggestion that, by virtue of their own shared experience growing up in an orphanage – not the same shared trauma – qualifies Anna to join Lucie as a white-eyed member of The Beyond rings false, and comes across as a concession on the filmmakers’ behalf to make the final blow less despairing, which is its own despairing cop-out.)
Appraising remakes can be frustrating, and the task of comparison is often thankless. Something like Martyrs is especially difficult, since there are passages of assured filmmaking, serviceable performances, and a clinical – albeit shallow – devotion to the facets that gave Laugier’s film such a signature, sledgehammer impact. Where it falls short is the crucial connection required between tone and aesthetic to make an essential imprint…proving that some things just can’t be replicated.
Martyrs (2008): 4 out of 5 stars
Martyrs (2016): 2.5 out of 5 stars
Jonny Numb (aka Jonathan Weidler) measures his life in coffee spoons, and writes reviews once every couple years at numbviews.livejournal.com. He co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast, and can be found on Twitter and Letterboxd @JonnyNumb.
(Martyrs 2008 photo via YouTube.)