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Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 2 out of 5

HORROR wouldn’t be horror – or any good – if it wasn’t provocative. Yet Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs sets new challenges in terms of what’s morally permissable and/or acceptable.

On the one hand, it’s a more intelligent examination of martyrdom and human suffering that genuinely unsettles. On the other, it’s an extended slice of torture porn that’s virtually guaranteed to leave you feeling decidedly queasy afterwards (at a recent FrightFest screening, viewers reportedly fled the cinema to be sick).

Hence, the question stands: How far is too far in terms of on-screen violence and depravity? And is a film that lays claim to putting forward intelligent debate really any better than the likes of Hostel if it still revels in sadism and atrocity?

The plot for Martyrs is undoubtedly intriguing. It opens with a semi-clad, blood-soaked young girl named Lucie (Morjana Alaoui) running from a warehouse, having just escaped months of abuse. Fifteen years later, the same woman turns up at the family home of those she deems responsible and blows them all away with a shotgun.

With the help of best friend Anna (Mylène Jampanoï), she attempts to clear up the mess. But a new threats begin to emerge from within the house that plunge both women into an even more horrifying nightmare…

Laugier’s film begins brightly, mixing genres to include aspects of violent revenge thriller, creature feature and cerebral chiller. But it’s third act diversion into even darker, more extreme territory will be too much for a lot of viewers to tolerate.

Without wanting to compromise the film’s surprises, Martyrs includes sustained scenes of torture against women, including one particularly gasp-inducing moment when some metal staples are pulled from a woman’s head in close-up.

Laugier claims he came to the Martyrs screenplay out of a growing sense of despair with the state of the world and his film offers little or nothing in the way of hope or optimism. His attempts to explore a higher state of consciousness and meaning, though, feel like a thinly veiled excuse to make the violence seem more acceptable. By offering a reason for the suffering, he seems to be suggesting that his film is better than Hostel.

Yet Martyrs sickens and ultimately there is really no excusing the depravity that eventually unfolds. It’s only cleverness lies in the way it does keep you guessing and morbidly enthralled in the hope of finding a satisfactory conclusion. But even then, you may feel cheated by what Laugier does or doesn’t offer.

Martyrs is due for a US remake that will almost certainly have to soften its impact. If you must see it, stick to the original in its purest, undiluted form. But that’s not a recommendation. This type of movie shouldn’t really be encouraged.

In French, with subtitles

Certificate: 18
Running time: 99mins
UK DVD & Blu-ray Release: May 25, 2009