Martyrs – Redefining Horror in the Modern Era

Directed by Pascal Laugier (2008)

a person who suffers greatly or dies for a cause, belief, etc.
From the Greek meaning witness.

Contains spoilers.

The beginning of the 21stcentury saw something of a resurgence of the Splatter sub-genre of horror films. While the more mainstream side of the horror industry was busy watering down its features to make them more accessible to a wider audience, re-making old classics and foreign successes and re-booting old franchises, a group of film makers were working to create some of the most shocking, nasty and gory films we’ve ever feasted our eyes upon.


This resurgence however was met mostly with criticism from film critics, as well as other film makers, with most productions being written off almost immediately as “Torture Porn” or “Gorno” (Gore-porno). And while like any other genre or sub-genre there are the odd few that do deserve to be locked in a cupboard and never watched again, or tossed on the bonfire come November, there are so many that are worth watching, so many with something to say, something more than just how much fake blood can we use during production?

And in the mist of all this fake blood, sexual violence and a lack of morality and order, there are some fantastic examples of Splatter films, some have even impressed a majority of critics. One such film is Pascal Laugier’s 2008 French horror masterpiece Martyrs. When a film review describes it as a “torture-porn movie for Guardian readers” it is fair to assume the film is slightly more highbrow than your average Torture Porn flick, that it actually has something pretty important to say in amongst all the blood, guts and gore, and Martyrs does not disappoint.


Martyrs opens with a young girl, Lucie, running down the street having escaped her torture chamber in an old abattoir, she is placed in an orphanage, and is reluctant to reveal any information about her time imprisoned in the abattoir, but eventually forms a friendship with fellow orphan Anna.

Fast-forward 15 years and Lucie has tracked down the people who imprisoned her as a child, she breaks into their home gunning down her former captors and their teenage son and daughter. She calls Anna for help and whilst waiting for her to arrive she is attacked by the deformed figure of a woman covered in cuts and scars, Lucie tells the figure she has killed them and they are free but to no avail. When Anna arrives to help clean up the house and bury the bodies Lucie is attacked again, but all Anna sees is Lucie mutilating her body, revealing the figure to be a manifestation of Lucie’s guilt for not taking the other girl with her when she escaped. Realising she has no chance of ever escaping her guilt Lucie takes her own life and dies in Anna’s arms.

After burying the bodies of the family and Lucie, Anna discovers a secret chamber under the house and in it some nasty secrets about the house and its owners. A group of people enter the house, shooting the young woman and taking Anna prisoner. Anna is introduced to a woman known only as Mademoiselle, who reveals that she is head of a secret organisation who seek to create martyrs through the systematic torture of young women in order to discover the secrets of the afterlife, so far all of their tests have failed and they have only created victims, and Anna is to be their latest subject.

Anna is then subject to repeated torture and degradation until she is visited by Lucie in a dream who tells her to let go and she will stop feeling the pain inflicted upon her. Soon after Anna is told she has progressed further than any other test subject, and after some final, horrific acts of torture finally enters a euphoric state.

Eager to learn the secrets of the afterlife, members of the society gather to hear what Anna has told Mademoiselle. With Anna still in the basement and members gathering in the house Mademoiselle prepares herself, when asked by her assistant if what Anna said was clear and she tells him that what was said left no room for interpretation and asks if he has imagined the afterlife, when he replies no she tells him “Keep doubting” before placing a gun in her mouth and shooting herself. The film closes with an inter-title explaining Martyr is derived from the Greek word meaning Witness before zooming in on Anna’s eyes as Mademoiselle explains earlier in the film that the eyes reveal a state of Martyrdom.


Martyrs certainly packs a punch on the torture and gore front, beginning as an abduction story with graphic depictions of violence and torture, although unlike a lot of modern Splatter films there are no images or even suggestions of rape or sexual violence, in fact in Lucie’s case it is ruled out almost immediately. Whilst a lot of Splatter films use sexual violence merely to provide more graphic and violent content where there is no real reason from the perpetrator other than inflicting pain and suffering for the sake of it rather than to add anything worthwhile to the story, it is not needed in Martyrs, the creation of a martyr does not require sexual violence.

However the film’s main hook is that it plays on one of the biggest unanswered questions inhuman existence: what comes next? Judgement, heaven, hell, anything or nothing? And is it even something we really want to know or something we think we want to know?

While most Splatter horror films end and you turn the Tv off, turn the lights back on and go back to your normal life, admittedly sometimes slightly disturbed by whatever graphic images have been shown on screen in the past couple of hours, Martyrs really stays with you for quite a while. Not only is the story brilliantly crafted, the first two thirds of the film carefully laying the groundwork, telling the back story that builds up to its final act of graphic (and at times stomach churning) and unrelenting depictions of torture, moving from a simple abduction, torture and revenge story to a story about martyrdom and the world beyond our own. Its images portraying torture are more graphic, not to mention inventive, than a lot of modern Splatter films, a completely flayed woman and metal blindfolds screwed into a person’s skull are not something you see in every Splatter film.

But it is the ending to Martyrs that gets you, most horror films removed from our reality in some way, we don’t identify with them very well, they happen in different countries to our own, they happen to people from different countries to our own, some are so farfetched or fantastical that they couldn’t possibly happen to us. But, it seems to be an almost intrinsic part of human nature to wonder about the afterlife, is it real, is it not real, do God and Lucifer exist, is it heavenly or hellish or both, and do our actions in this life matter in the next?


And the character of Mademoiselle certainly gives the audience a lot to think about. There is no concrete timeline for this film, apart from the 15 years between Lucie escaping and tracking down her captors, Mademoiselle never determines how long her group have been trying to create a Martyr, and it is never shown how long Anna is held prisoner for before she achieves Martyrdom. I think however that is it fair to presume she has spent a great deal of her life working towards creating Martyrs. Killing herself at the end, after finding out what Anna witnessed of the other side, she never reveals to her followers or to the audience what Anna told her, the film therefore offers more questions than it does answers. The main question being why she kills herself rather than share with her new knowledge the other members? Is it because she cannot wait to experience the afterlife now she knows what it is? Or because there is nothing on the other side and her life’s work has been rendered completely pointless? Whatever her reasons, they reinforce and drive home these questions that humans have been asking since the dawn of time and leave you thinking about it for a long time after the credits role.

Keep doubting

By Kat Lawson

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