To box in 2008’s Martyrs as a slice of “torture porn” or an endurance test would be too reductive, as it is a brave, disturbing, unrelentingly gripping French-Canadian horror film about human trauma, suffering and … existentialism. It’s the benchmark in the annals of extreme, transgressive horror cinema, but it wouldn’t be long before it went through the American remake grinder (with producer Jason Blum’s stamp of approval). Now, when any film that was already effective the first time around must be regurgitated, one should have a scintilla of open-mindedness in case the new version offers something on its own merits or a fresh, individual voice. Eight years later, this Martyrs stakes less of an impact and, alas, cannot justify a reason to exist. What the filmmakers come up with here is no less punishing but feels less earned, being stripped of devastating emotional power.
A decade after escaping from the warehouse where she was imprisoned and abused, a still-scarred Lucie (Troian Bellisario) tracks down the man and woman responsible for torturing her, killing them and their children with a shotgun. Lucie calls and informs her one and only friend Anna (Bailey Noble), who formed an inseparable friendship with Lucie in an orphanage, that she has found her captors. Arriving to the suburban bloodbath, Anna is horrified to see what her seemingly unhinged childhood friend has done and helps her dispose of the bodies. She’s not too convinced that Lucie killed the right people, until Anna comes across a hidden underground facility and a cult obsessed with martyrdom.
Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs was unpleasant and unflinchingly brutal, sure, but it was a captivating, unforgettably horrific, even thought-provoking experience. For this subtitle-free U.S. iteration, directors Kevin Goetz & Michael Goetz (Scenic Route) and screenwriter Mark L. Smith—who gets a pass because he also wrote spectacular revenge-cum-survival epic The Revenant—do at least make a few alterations in the film’s second half, like the addition of a character and the fate of someone. However, said alterations aren’t respectable improvements, just examples of cutting corners and missing the point. The transplanted setting to a modest farmhouse in Northern California instead of an industrial-chic home is one of the savvier choices, considering it’s an idyllic cover for something far more sinister.
As the mentally tortured, so-close-to-death Lucie, Troian Bellisario (TV’s Pretty Little Liars) commits, going through the emotional and reddest of physical wringers. Bailey Noble (TV’s True Blood) is also fine as Anna, although the character’s third-act heroics is a silly miscalculation. Sunshiney flashback memories of Lucie and Anna playing patty cake in fields of golden wheat are supposed to inform the viewer of their lasting friendship, but they’re just jarringly sappy. Acting veteran Kate Burton has menace in her as Eleanor, a mysterious woman looking to put a special someone through her spiritual design, but her unsubtle portrayal cannot erase Catherine Bégin’s Mademoiselle, an indelible human monster.
In terms of what its predecessor did, 2016’s Martyrs is noticeably tame. That doesn’t mean it’s an easy sit or not for the squeamish, but somehow it’s afraid to take the plunge toward its hopelessly bleak existential conclusion when the bluntly violent original form had no problem. This version ultimately can’t shake its inferiority, each of the changes and deviations from the original film only aiding in one’s memory of how much more powerful it was the first time. This is how to gutlessly remake a gutting foreign horror film.
Martyrs is available on iTunes and on DVD/Blu-ray