The hiding-to-nothing quandary of remaking contemporary foreign-language horror films in American is ramped up to an appropriate extreme in this make-over for Pascal Laugier’s 2008 French movie. Simply put, if you think Laugier’s Martyrs is a confrontational pinnacle of the genre, then the whole notion of remaking as a Blumhouse product is contemptible … but if you think the earlier film was meretricious, pretentious torture porn then you’re not going to like this any better. In effect, the audience most likely to be receptive to this Martyrs is people who’ve not seen the original … who will at least get the bare bones of Laugier’s inventive story and some effective shocks. Savvy genre fans dismiss things like the English-language remakes of The Vanishing, Nightwatch and A Tale of Two Sisters – which fall far short of the original films. However, if you check responses from folk who don’t even register that these stories were done before, you can find mildly positive or even enthusiastic responses. I admit that I quite like several English language remakes of supposedly superior movies I haven’t seen (Head Above Water, The Invisible, The Fall).
Putting all that aside, this Martyrs still has problems. Scripted by Mark E. Smith (Vacancy, The Hole and that remake of Man in the Wilderness no one seems to think is a sacrilege The Revenant) and directed by Kevin and Michael Goetz (Scenic Route), this follows Laugier’s storyline for about an hour then comes up with a different finale. No, it doesn’t cop out with a happy ending (like the remake of The Vanishing did) and, if anything, is even loopier in its religious-philosophical argument than Laugier’s take. However, a rejigging offloads the memorable finish of a major villain onto a minor one so that the film can have a more conventional moment of righteous vengeance. It’s more of a problem that the film broadens every subtle touch from the first movie – the childhood friendship montage of the two orphan heroines is especially banal and there’s something almost comic about the eyes-rolled-up stigmata that identifies its martyrs – and often loses its grip on exactly what’s happening.
After escaping from mystery torturers, young Lucie (Ever Prishkulnik) bonds with Anna (Elyse Cole) in an orphanage run by sinister (but blameless) nuns and grow up to be best friends (Troian Bellisario, Bailey Noble). After the long prologue, we spend a few minutes with a seemingly normal farm family before Lucie shows up with a shotgun and blasts them all to death – claiming to Anna, who turns up after the massacre, that they were her torturers. While Lucie harms herself in battling a frenzied woman (Melissa Tracy) who really is only in her mind, Anna finds it hard to believe in the guilt of the dead family but still goes along with dumping them in a ditch and cleaning up after he friend. Smith doesn’t bother with explanations of how Lucie has found the family and why Anna doesn’t just turn her friend in to get (at the very least) psychiatric help. The Goetzes reframe the household to make the dungeon lair – with an innocent child victim Sam (Caitlin Carmichael), who provides the opportunity for redemptive rescue – more obviously and stereotypically evil culty. One of the most memorable elements of Laugier’s film was its clean, shining, antiseptic new chains and torture instruments – here, we’re back in the murk of Hostel.
Eleanor (Kate Burton), inquisitive matriarch of the odd cult who are seeking philosophical answers in the transcendental suffering of certain types of woman (the martyrs of the title), is – in a modish touch – a Hillary Clinton lookalike, though there might also be a subliminal shoutback to her father’s role as a torturer in 1984. Love it or hate it, Laugier’s Martyrs is tight, focused and hard to look away from – but this straggles. Noble’s character in particular suffers from rewrites that shift attention away from her as she has to go through melodramatic silliness (crawling out of a tunnel from the mass grave she’s buried in) and vigilante vengeance sequences (including a beheading-by-shovel) in order to arrive too late at what used to be the climax.