Review: MARTYRS (2015){0}

Warmed over: the toast of French horror

Horror fans are notoriously prickly when it comes to remakes – and they probably have good reason to be. For every one remake that manages to manages to deliver something fresh, novel, or perhaps even impressive (we’re talking remakes like The Thing, The Fly, and Dawn of the Dead), the loyal horror junkies will devour maybe a half-dozen remakes that are tame, lame, or downright terrible. (I’ve yet to meet a horror aficionado who enjoyed last year’s Poltergeist remake, and some of them are still pretty steamed about that one.)

So remakes are always a dicey affair, and doubly so when the original is A) less than nine years old, B) French, and C) really, really good. Such is the case with the new “Americanized” version of Martyrs, which of course is inspired by the borderline brilliant 2008 French film of the same name. Producers have to know they’re playing with fire when they opt to remake such a well-regarded horror film, and so quickly — but hey, it’s called show “business,” right? And while the remake machine seems to run on cynical fuel, the plain truth is that every flick deserves a fair shake, regardless of its lofty lineage.

Having said all that – and having additionally asserted that I have a special place in my heart for Pascal Laugier’s wild, confrontational, and audacious Martyrs, it only seems fair to say that the American remake, well, it’s not all that painful. Highly derivative, obviously, and frequently simplistic where the original film was deceptively intelligent, but still passably (disturbingly) engaging enough to those who, you know, haven’t actually seen the French film. It’s as if screenwriter Mark L. Smith (of the pretty bad-ass Vacancy) and co-directors Kevin and Michael Goetz (of the underrated Scenic Route) decided to squeeze most of the subtext out of the equation, and in its place they placed several conventional yet still effective horror tropes.

For its first half or so, the Martyrs remake plants its steps firmly in the footprints of its predecessor: it’s about an unhinged young woman who slaughters a suburban family because she’s certain that the parents were among the evil bastards who held her captive as a child. But while it’s safe to say that poor Lucy is plainly psychotic… that doesn’t mean she’s wrong. She calls on her childhood friend Anna once the massacre is over, and together the troubled young women set to disposing of the bodies. And then a bunch of strangers burst into the house.

And that’s when things get even weirder.

To explain how this version differs from the original would probably qualify as “spoilers,” but let’s just say that where the French film was gritty, brutal, and almost unbearably audacious, the Americanized take is content to be austere, disturbing, and considerably more straightforward. Fans of the original film may see the remake’s third act deviations as pointless, whereas others (like myself) see the alterations as an admirable attempt to forge some new ground. Nothing in the third act of Martyrs (2016) comes close to “improving” upon the original film, but it does come up with a few new wrinkles of its own before all is said and done.

So while this remake may (and certainly will) be dismissed as “pointless” by a large majority of the horror fan collective, it does boast a handful of legitimately interesting alterations, an impressive visual style, and two strong leads in Troian Bellisario and Bailey Noble. The new Martyrs may be a bit softer, simpler, and sillier than the old Martyrs, but the premise is still freaky enough to pack a punch. Plus if the remake happens to compel people to go watch the original, that’s always a good thing.

MARTYRS comes to select UK cinemas on April 1 and DVD on April 4