While its mainstream moment has come and gone, “torture porn” is still around and fully evident in “Martyrs,” an American remake of Pascal Laugier’s grisly 2008 French-language cult horror film about an abused woman’s revenge. Though directors Kevin and Michael Goetz, working from a screenplay by Mark L. Smith (“The Revenant”), show atmospheric, chilling flair in the early going, that gets wiped away by the pretentious, gruesome excesses of the second half, which place it firmly in the extreme cruelty sub-genre that puts a premium on depictions of agony (specifically, women’s agony) over everything else.
After a breathless escape from a long childhood captivity, 10-year-old Lucie — whose screams fill the orphanage every night — finds comfort in the friendship of a girl named Anna. Years later, Lucie (Troian Bellisario, “Pretty Little Liars”) shows up at the farmhouse of a cheery family and kills them all, telling Anna (Bailey Noble, “True Blood”) over the phone that she’d found her tormentors. When Anna arrives, she finds a bloody scene and realizes her friend may be more psychologically damaged than she ever thought.
As horrifying scenarios go, it’s a humdinger, especially after Lucie continues to have violent, self-harming episodes while Anna frantically tries to assess whether her traumatized friend chose the right targets for revenge, what she should do about it, and whether Lucie is suddenly a new danger. The Goetzes ratchet up the tension here in a way that truly feels both sad and suspenseful.
But then Anna discovers a secret torture chamber under the house, and a slew of captors show up, and what was tantalizingly mysterious becomes woefully literal and sickeningly pandering, like a nagging itch solved with the whack of a machete. There’s a cabal of sadists who kidnap and abuse girls in the hope that a true martyr will reveal herself, her eyes at the moment of death giving off a clue about the world beyond life. That a fine actress like Kate Burton (“Scandal”), as the group’s beady-eyed ringleader, was asked to essentially justify scenes of repellent torture by reading off this vomit-burp of a motivation twist, is a source of moviegoing pain all by itself.
Though blood and shrieks coat the rest of the movie, and obliterate the good performances of the two leads, this “Martyrs” is supposed to be the slightly less black-hearted one. Reading the Goetzes’ statement in the press notes about the appeal in remaking such a notorious film, they cite the “glimmer of hope” offered by the “enduring bond of friendship and love” that Lucie and Anna have. That’s nice to hear, I guess, but what about the parts of the story in which two young women are repeatedly tortured, and one has her back stripped off like wallpaper after numerous close-ups of a knife slicing into the skin?
There’s something “enduring” there, too, that uncomfortably feels like making up for a first-act stab at sensitivity by ensuring gore fetishists don’t feel robbed. Depending on what you need from horror like this – shock followed by relief, or a brutalization fix – “Martyrs” is bait-and-switch, or it’s a drawn-out tease that makes good. Either way, it’s a sop to vile tastes.
The directors are also defensive about the changes, declaring their film is no “toned down [American] version that decides to pander to the masses either.” And they’re right. There’s nothing half-hearted about the grim places “Martyrs” goes in its second half, or about the ludicrous philosophizing designed to make genre fans feel as if their seamier entertainment proclivities have a weightier purpose. (Could one imagine that the story of a murder cult built on searching for meaning in a girl’s death, might be in some way a comment on movies that thrive on those very images? Possibly, but not in the moral swamp that is this movie.)
“Martyrs” already had a reasonable shot at dramatic power when it was initially about a traumatized girl, her loyal and worried friend, and the possibility for vengeance haunts that friendship. Throwing that away to subject the two to further viciousness, under the guise of testing a sisterhood bond, isn’t doubling down on the horror – it’s just turning it into waste.