Martyrs was a post-ticket-draw voucher cash-in. What the hell, I sez, a French horror film, I regret missing Frontière(s) last year, and why not plug that hole in my schedule on the last day of the festival between the Thai kickboxing flick and the German romantic comedy with something fun and wild? What could go wrong?
I’ve been writing and rewriting this blog entry in my mind ever since the lights came up, and I’m still sort of at a loss for words as I sit down in front of the computer for the dispatch. Martyrs is, without a doubt, the most vile, disgusting piece of trash I’ve ever seen. I will concede that there’s skill behind the camera, but if anything that makes it worse, since that skill is being put to no conceivable good use. Look, I’ll defend Hostel and its sequel, the work of Jorg Buttgerheit, Cannibal Ferox and Cannibal Holocaust (one more than the other but I always get them confused) and any number of other extreme horror flicks. And those aren’t even really my type of horrors: give me a creepy J-horror ghost story or some classic Hammer or a werewolf, vampire or Frankenstein variant any day. I was telling someone the other day that if I never saw another serial killer movie again that would be fine with me (and then I wandered into Acolytes).
But this film goes beyond the pale. It’s not just torture porn, that recent genre mutation that actually seemed to find its mainstream footing at TIFF Midnight Madness with Hostel and Saw (which I have never seen a single franchise installment of), it’s torture porn to the hundredth degree, unleavened by irony, subtext, politics or any sense of morality. The pseudo-religious garbage spewed by the ultimately-revealed villains doesn’t justify the senseless abuse the audience has been subject to for the previous hour. This is a new low: never before has physical abuse, damage and pain inflicted on frightened innocents been portrayed as stoically, methodically graphic.
For a while, I was lulled into thinking that this would be like the Reservoir Dogs of TP: Dogs was a heist movie all about the aftermath, and this would be all about the recovery and vengeance from a freed victim. But oh no, at about the hour mark any forward plot momentum simply stops and the audience’s nose is rubbed into the BTK depravity for a wordless twenty minute stretch as one of our two heroines (?) is chained up in a basement and beaten mercilessly. Rumour has it that someone actually vomited at the midnight screening. Gee, when was that? Was it when the girl was flayed alive, or when the ten year old took a shotgun blast to the chest, or was it when the other girl chained up in the basement had her facemask removed, the inch-long pins holding it to her skull slowly pulled out and the skin of her face and scalp sloughing off with the mask? Take your pick.
I should have listened to one quiet nagging doubt. The controversy of Martyrs’ French rating—the ratings board dusted off a rating that’s actually no different than Ontario’s “R” or the American “NC-17” but which is virtually never applied in France, basically serving as a ban over there—was mentioned in the TIFF program book and I sort of thought that was leading the witness, as it were. I mean, shouldn’t we decide if a movie is “controversial” or not, isn’t it the audience reaction over here that will give the movie its reputation? Look, I’m no great lover of the French, but they do have North American culture beat in so many ways. France is an open-minded society that knows how to balance work and play, doesn’t get hung up over sexual matters, takes care of the health of its citizens, and isn’t run by religious moralizers. I have a visceral reaction to any form of censorship, but Martyrs has brought me to the point where I’m willing to say: “you know, if even the French want to ban this movie…maybe we oughta listen.” (zero stars)