Studio: Anchor Bay
Director: Kevin Goetz, Michael Goetz
Writer: Mark L. Smith
Producer: Peter Safran, Agnes Mentre
Stars: Troian Bellisario, Bailey Noble, Caitlin Carmichael, Romy Rosemont, Toby Huss, Elyse Cole, Melissa Tracy, Kate Burton
10 years after escaping captivity, a young woman enlists her only friend to help track down the people responsible for her torment.
NOTE: This review assumes familiarity with “Martyrs” 2008, and there are mild SPOILERS regarding what “Martyrs” 2015 alters.
It never makes sense to board an anti-remake bandwagon based solely on imaginary blasphemy. Maybe there are some sacred cinematic cows that should remain untouched, but why not freshen fiction the same way homes are remodeled to renew interest or used cars repainted to attract buyers? Even entertainment can use an update for increased relevance to evolving tastes and perspectives.
Decrying foreign language film remakes with the complaint, “people should deal with subtitles!” is another argument without much sway. How things should be and how things are tend to be two different things in most aspects of life. Many audiences are unavoidably disinterested in reading along with a movie and no amount of wishing is going to change that common behavior.
I preface with these sentiments so I can come at this next comment as someone not prone to dismissing a remake purely out of prejudicial principle. If there was ever any contemporary horror movie whose core content is not conducive to being refashioned for popular consumption, it is “Martyrs.”
The imprint Pascal Laugier’s 2008 film (review here) continues to leave is founded on its haunting ability to scar the mind’s eye with frighteningly grim brutality. Adapting it to be accessible entertainment for the western mainstream, which can only be accomplished by neutering the intended tone, is a goal at odds with what made the original film so striking in the first place.
I’m a fan of the Blumhouse brand. Even when I dislike the movies, I still admire the style. While they have limited appeal to my tastes, there is a place in the genre for “Ouija” (review here) or “Unfriended” (review here) with the way they turn teen audiences onto horror fit for a Friday night with friends. But applying that conceptual ideal of commercial appeal with a multiplex-friendly sheen to “Martyrs” wages a war against its own destiny.
For that reason, as well as the fervent fan following dedicated to the original, “Martyrs” has to be the most unenviable remake project for any filmmaker to tackle since Rob Zombie’s “Halloween.” Maybe that’s why it took two directors, brothers Kevin and Michael Goetz, to drum up the collaborative courage to hold these particular lightning rods.
“Martyrs” opens with little girl Lucie escaping a house of unknown horrors and entering an orphanage. Lucie’s subsequent childhood is brightened in daylight by trusted friend Anna while plagued at nighttime by visions of a monstrous woman. Years come and go, yet hellish visions remain. That’s when adult Lucie decides to put a shotgun under her arm and track down her torturers, much to Anna’s dismay.
For virtually the entire first act, the Goetz Brothers put up an appearance of being committed to the Gus Van Sant method of remaking movies. It isn’t until the pivotal moment where Lucie and Anna survey the first round of carnage and work through initial aftermath that “Martyrs” picks a slightly different path to take than the first film.
Considering that promotional images give it away, it shouldn’t be much of a spoiler to hint that Lucie finds a different fate in this film than she did in the first. The plot is otherwise unchanged, it is just the last woman standing list that sees a number other than one listed in this case. Working from Mark L. Smith’s screenplay, the Goetz Brothers envision their film as a reimagining of the source story rather than a remake. Semantics perhaps, though the focus here aims to be a platonic love story chronicling the relationship between Lucie and Anna as they endure unimaginable hell together.
In theory, that is an interesting creative approach different enough from Laugier’s film to set the Goetzes’ vision apart. In practice, it doesn’t work out as intended when that relationship stops being nurtured by backstory and is left to wither with the pace’s descent into routine action.
The present day portion of this “Martyrs” takes place 10 years after Lucie’s ordeal instead of 15, putting Lucie and Anna in their late teens instead of early twenties. It is unclear what advantage that distinction affords the film, other than perhaps making them more relatable to the target demographic.
What “Martyrs” really gets wrong about this interpretation of the characters is that it inserts new scenes of Lucie and Anna spinning on a playground carousel or stealing cookies as kids without actually advancing their arcs. The audience spends more time with the two of them, yet the end result is not an increased familiarity or attachment. When the story arrives at the point where their relationship once went a different way, the movie switches to a straight-ahead gear of running, chasing, screaming, and fighting. Their willpowers are tested as they separately endure torture, but their development as a surrogate sister pair stops dead in its tracks.
Further complicating that focus is the film’s second somewhat significant change. Sarah, the unfortunate woman with a metal helmet bolted to her head in the original, is now 10-year-old captive Samantha. Peeling the visor from Sarah’s scalp is second only to Anna’s skinning as the most gruesome 2008 moment, so it is understandable for that element to be altered into an opportunity for traditional heroism. Except by putting a third person between Lucie and Anna, there is now an obstacle in the way of them interacting with each other. Samantha’s ultimate plot purpose is to motivate a specific beat at the movie’s conclusion. In the meantime, she is an unneeded inclusion complicating what is supposed to be an examination of the bond between two women.
Another place where the film clutters characters is in the way antagonists are reduced to typical tropes. Kate Burton plays the Mademoiselle role like a bourgeoisie Bond villain, sipping tea in a pantsuit while belching exposition to a character she intends to kill after revealing everything the audience needs to know. Toby Huss complements her as the type of menacing bad guy who dirties his hands indirectly by nodding at a henchman when time comes to turn up the torture.
“Martyrs” 2008 was so confident in the story its realistic visuals told that music was sparse. Images and intent shocked on their own, without the artificial aid of camera tricks or excessive soundtrack supplements. “Martyrs” 2015 is an 86-minute movie with 80 minutes of musical accompaniment. There is no right or wrong in that decision necessarily. It merely indicates the traditional approach being taken towards structure.
When taken into consideration with the characterizations, such style homogenization brings “Martyrs” into the same line as any ordinary slasher or suspense film. That identity loss lessens the impact of “Martyrs” 2015 in a way that the uniqueness of “Martyrs” 2008 never had to fear.
If “Martyrs” 2015 existed in a vacuum or without knowledge of the original, its reimagining of the material could be appreciated more. Casual horror fans whose tastes cannot stomach the first film’s extremeness may find this version easier to digest given its lessened emphasis on torture and increased mainstream marketability. Even hardcore devotees of Laugier’s film will find the Goetz Brothers’ intent laudable, and their changes at least warrant curiosity. The real issue is that dimming the spotlight on the dynamic between the two leads down the film’s back half brings “Martyrs” up short of the refocused line it hoped to cross.
Review Score: 65