Man I guess I just shit the bed here because I never did actually review Martyrs back when I first saw it.   Martyrs and Inside both came out around the same time period and seemed to be riding a wave of new and brutal French horror along with the likes of Xavier Gens’ Frontier(s) and originally ushered in by Alexander Aja’s High Tension.  These were movies that really kicked the collective horror communities asses into high gear as each of them pushed the boundaries of onscreen brutality and harrowing emotion farther than horror had gone for some time.

If I had to pick my favorite from the group, it would be a very tough decision between Martyrs and Inside.  Both feature female leads, both feature savage violence and gore, and both feature a grim and nihistic tone.  However, I think after recently revisiting both films as part of my annual October horror-athon I’m going to give the edge to Martyrs strictly because the story of the film features such an unpredictable narrative that I think the movie could appeal even to those outside of the hardcore genre fan circle who would be willing to jump into the mouth of the beast and brave the horrors on display on the strength of writing and emotion alone.
That said, I should give a word of warning for those who haven’t seen this film, Martyrs is one of the most uncompromising horror films ever made.  There is nothing tongue in cheek or fun about this movie.  There is very little in the way of horror cliché’s or slasher formula rehash and certainly no meta wink-wink bullshit to be found here.  While a movie like Inside is certainly brutal and uncompromising as well, it still has a certain element of “fun” in its violence as it is often take quite over the top.  Martyrs is a far colder, meaner film and although when simply comparing gore levels comes up slightly short when compared to Inside, the violence is presented much more realistically and with such a dehumanizing characteristic that it has a far more emotional impact.  If I was to use a rather extreme comparison, it’s kind of like how the violence in a film like Schindler’s List is far more horrible than a film like Punisher War Zone, even though Punisher War Zone features far more bloody and graphic scenes.  As such many who see Martyrs will likely not come out of it feeling like they enjoyed the experience, but I suspect few will be able to say that the film was not an extremely well made piece of dark cinematic art.  This is the type of film for people who can appreciate works such as Salo, Or the 120 Days of Sodom or Irreversible

My advice is that if you have not seen this film that you stop reading this review now and see it cold.  The movie is far more effective if you know as little about what happens in it as possible. 

The film opens with a young girl, Lucie, who is bruised and bloody running through the streets screaming.  We then cut to a scratched and dirty 8mm film showing the girl in a hospital for abused children.  Throughout the 8mm film we find out that the girl escaped a warehouse where she was chained up to a chair with a hole in the middle so she could piss into a bucket underneath and was tortured for reasons unknown.  She was put into a hospital for abused and mentally disable children where she eventually bonds with another younger girl, Anna.  

We find out in these early scenes with the girls as children in the hospital that Lucie is tormented by a vicious feral ghoul of a woman who shows up late at night or when no one is around to slash her with razor blades.  It isn’t made clear if she really is being stalked, if this is a nightmare or a ghost in the hospital.  The unknown aspect only adds to the fear.  If I had to use a comparison, at this point the movie plays like an amped up version of something like The Grudge in which a spectre torments the protagonist without a clear motive other than pure malice.  Martyrs makes the haunting far more visceral as the creature is there to do physical harm to the girl, and these sequences are an extremely effective combination of the “ghost” style of suspense horror and the more visceral fear of physical violence you would get from a “slasher” style horror film.  I can’t understand why more horror films aren’t made like this as ghost and haunted house movies always tend to have better scares and suspense but come up lacking on the gore and violence front, and the opposite seems to be true for slashers or zombie and monster flicks which are rarely scary but usually deliver the grue in spades.

The movie then abruptly jumps 15 years ahead with no indication of where the story is going.  This is part of what makes the movie so effective, you are only given information when it is needed, but otherwise are left in the same position as many of the characters, helpless and not knowing what will happen until it does.  I will not be spoiling the plot here as it would be a great injustice to the movie.   What I will say is that I found the structure of the movie to be quite ingenious in how it plays with your expectations in order to completely surprise you.  Twists are set up that seem obvious, but are used more as a tool to make your brain kick back and relax with that smug grin of satisfaction thinking it’s got this show figured out, and then wham, it gets hit over the head with a baseball bat with nails hammered through it, and gets dragged into a deep dark hole.  This is not a movie that you will feel comfortable in at any point in the running time.  It constantly teases your expectations of what you want to happen next, but then says “fuck you” and kicks you in the teeth instead.

The movie is extremely well made.  Every aspect of the movie from writing, the performances, the sound design, the visual effects work and the direction and cinematography are used to maximum effect.  What makes the film so effective is how it puts such utterly horrific things on display, but never feels like it’s going for a cheap scare or gross out gag.  A horror movie is truly effective when a twist happens where normally it would be some Scooby Doo type shit where you go “aha, it was the janitor guy with a mask on all along” and it isn’t scary anymore, but this movie actually becomes possibly even worse when you figure out something that was previously presented as a physical threat, which conceivable could be overcome,  is actually an inescapable threat from within a character’s own mind.  Truly hopeless and bleak when you think about how horrifying it would have been to endure.

If you call yourself a fan of horror and have not seen Martyrs, SEE IT NOW!  This film receives my highest recommendation.  You will feel like you have been abused by the time the movie ends, and that’s something I can’t say for 99% of horror films out there.