French writer-director Pascal Laugier has made two excellent, intriguing, sinister, unusual and effective horror films – Saint Ange and The Tall Man – but neither is as well-known as his signature credit, Martyrs. That was such a hit that it earned a watered-down American remake – and remains a controversial item for its mix of torture and philosophy. It’s too impressive to ignore, too extreme to like – and, for all its brilliance of execution, boils down to a feelbad evening with a lot of screaming and pretty girls being used as a punching bag. This English-language Canadian film covers much the same ground, with (if anything) an even higher level of skill in art direction, editing, cinematography, etc., and a certain touch of tricksiness in the narrative (though most horror-savvy viewers will see through the heavily-signposted mid-film twist) that gives the illusion of complexity to another film in which two girls – sisters Beth (Emilia Jones) and Vera (Taylor Hickson) – suffer so much abuse from a pair of nonentity movie psychos, Candy Truck Woman (Kevin Power) and Fat Man (Rob Archer), that they are recast (with Crystal Reed and Anastasia Phillips) as physically and psychologically bruised adult versions of the characters.
In place of the vaguely religious cult of Martyrs, the mood here is established by an opening shot of a photograph of H.P. Lovecraft – bookish horror fan and aspirant author Beth’s idol – as the girls mother (goth icon Myléne Farmer) drives them to the quaint old isolated home full of creepy Annabelle-typed dolls she’s inherited from a presumably mad aunt. ‘It looks like Rob Zombie’s house,’ snipes the grumpy, self-declared normal Vera – and the film does eventually settle into a world closer to Zombie’s than Lovecraft’s – for all that a pastily made-up Paul Titley eventually appears as HPL – with the exception that the killers, who cruise backroads in a candy truck and are described as ‘a witch and an ogre’, are ciphers rather than guest star turns, all the better to concentrate on the girls being played with like dolls, including one new, nasty twist featuring the baby-doll-that-wets-herself motif that’s probably the walk-out point for the terminally fed-up. The killers’ MO, as established by a handy tabloid article, is to move into a house, murder any parents, and then spend weeks torturing the children to death – the Woman (a bald man in a wig) also dresses and makes them up like china dolls and the Fat Man (a goon with a facial deformity) beats, batters, sniffs crotches and loses his temper till they come to pieces. It’s an unremarked coincidence that murderers who treat people like dolls happen upon a house full of actual dolls, but the film goes for a dreamlike air – in one of several too-on-the-nose lines, Mom tells Beth that the stories she makes up seem so real – and logic is set aside to set up the next brutality.
Yes, it’s a gruelling, upsetting experience – and, in extremis, the sisters have to overcome their own mental blocks to fight for each other and a possible future after all this horror is over. But I get the impression of Laugier tamping down on the more interesting side of his work here in order to claw back some of that Martyrs cred, as if this were already its own watered-down remake (a running joke has Vera complaining when Beth and her mother talk in subtitled French). He’s a genuine auteur, with themes that weave throughout all his films and a knack for getting great work out of long-suffering actresses – but, like his characters, he’s in danger of locking himself in his own private torture basement in an endless cycle of alienating repetition. Maybe next time he’ll consider making a film in which teenage girls don’t get punched in the face for an hour and a half.