United States. Directed by Kevin Goetz & Michael Goetz, 2016. Starring Troian Bellisario, Bailey Noble, Kate Burton, Caitlin Carmichael. 81 minutes.
In 2008, French filmmaker Pascal Laugier released Martyrs, a heavily violent horror film that garnered zealous devotion and vehement condemnation in roughly equal measure. (The present author is, of course, a member of the former camp; members of the latter are just wrong.) Its steadily growing cult following all but guaranteed an attempt at an English-language remake. After spending years in development hell, the finished product—directed by brothers Kevin and Michael Goetz (Scenic Route), adapted by Mark L. Smith and produced by low-budget genre impresario Jason Blum (pretty much every horror film that’s been released in a movie theater since 2011)—finally sees the light of day.
Smith preserves Laugier’s basic spine: a young girl named Lucie escaped captivity at the hands of unknown men and women who tortured and abused her for unknown reasons. The authorities placed her in an orphanage and wrote off her waking visions of monsters as the result of psychological trauma. Despite befriending a fellow orphan named Anna, Lucie never entirely recovers from her ordeal. Ten years later, the adult Lucie (Troian Bellisario, Pretty Little Liars) walks into the rural home of the Patterson family and blows them all away with a shotgun. Then she calls Anna (Bailey Noble, True Blood) with the claim that she’s just killed those responsible for her captivity. Anna arrives to help her bestie clean up the mess, and together they uncover the horrifying truth behind the Pattersons’ activities.
The bad news for fans of the original is that the filmmakers thoroughly “Americanized” the source material, de-emphasizing the brutality and diluting some of the themes (particularly the one I found most fascinating: the idea that violent revenge doesn’t necessarily bring closure or catharsis). Notably, Smith and the Goetzes keep most of the horrific violence off-screen. (Pause while we remember that Smith adapted The Revenant.) Laugier’s film works because the physical violence works in tandem with the emotional violence; by stripping out what (justly or unjustly) became the original’s defining quality, Smith forces himself to rely on the psychological element, the relationship between the two women.
Unfortunately…the remake doesn’t entirely turn Lucie and Anna into the stereotypical ass-kicking tough-chick Final Girls familiar from American horror cinema. But they’re closer to that ideal on the scale than their French counterparts, and don’t feel as real or relatable. (Inasmuch as you can relate to a 19-year-old girl who massacres a family of four with a firearm.) A third-act speech by a supporting character about the Will to Survive at Any Cost sums it all up.
Similarly, the Goetzes fail to distinguish themselves visually. While they turn in a competent directorial performance, they rely a little too much on jump-scares and that hazy blue-green filter that gets slapped on everything these days. That being said, they at least do have the good sense to appropriate some of their most effective visuals from Laugier.
The good news–such as it is–is that while the remake inevitably disappoints, at least it’s not unwatchably bad. I actually found myself genuinely liking it at points.The filmmakers don’t pull punches I expected them to. Bellisario turns in a devestating performance; Noble, while not quite matching her castmate’s power, acquits herself admirably. Other fine performances come from Kate Burton, as the ringleader of Lucie’s tormentors, and 12-year-old Caitlin Carmichael. Composer Evan Goldman delivers an ambient-inflected score that keeps the unease going even when the visuals fail to do so.
So, yes, the remake of Martyrs doesn’t suck bloated goat dick and is actually almost good in a couple of spots. Which doesn’t it mean it justifies its existence apart from its predecessor or deserves an audience beyond those who are going to watch it no matter what.