Torture Porn (aka Sadistic Horror) (tôr´cher pôrn) adjective A type of horror film in which terror is induced not by mere suggestion, but by the graphic torture and torment of various victims as they scream for mercy, which will inevitably not come. (Official AMG definition)
On first glance, many people will be quick to dismiss Martyrs as just another torture porn flick. And while Pascal Laugier's confrontational study in agony does indeed revel in disturbing and explicit imagery, Martyrs ultimately becomes more than the sum of its parts by taking a philosophical approach to human suffering, and by offering some genuinely unexpected (and unsettling) nuances. It's no surprise that Martyrs writer/director Laugier was once selected as the writer/director of at an abandoned Hellraiser remake, because much like Clive Barker's infernal 1987 frightener, this film takes a somewhat metaphysical route in delivering the gory goods.
The story begins as the young, badly battered Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï) -- obviously the victim of inhuman abuse -- is hospitalized after somehow managing to escape her sadistic captors. Nearly catatonic after her life-altering ordeal, Lucie only manages to become functional again as a result of her friendship with Anna (Morjana Alaoui), a fellow abuse victim who selflessly reaches out to the badly damaged girl. Fifteen years later, Lucie guns down an entire suburban family in cold blood. Is Lucie seeking belated vengeance against the people who tortured her as a young girl, or has her fragile psyche finally snapped, resulting in the bloody demise of an innocent family? Later, when Lucie calls on her old friend Anna, the truth about Lucie's traumatic early life experience slowly comes into focus.
To reveal anymore about the plot of Martyrs would be an enormous disservice to the filmmakers. In fact, it's probably best that viewers go into Martyrs as "blind" as possible because in addition to raising some profound questions about the power of film imagery, it also has its fair share of twisted surprises. And while it's tricky to avoid specifics while reviewing a film that hinges on such a disturbing central mystery, it is possible to say that Martyrs' goals are much more lofty than the films it will undoubtedly be compared to (Hostel, in particular, and perhaps rightfully so). Once a horror subgenre like torture porn has been firmly established, it takes a particularly bold vision to simultaneously exploit and transcend the standards that have come to define it. Though Wes Craven successfully deconstructed the slasher genre in Scream and Guillermo del Toro skillfully subverted the common ghost story in The Devil's Backbone, most attempts to accomplish such a formidable task result in an end product that simply becomes a poor version of the product it aims to upset.
Most films that fall into the "torture porn" subgenre aren't as interested in getting us to think as to simply react, but Laugier wants us to consider the real impact of the images he confronts us with. Although Martyrs could indeed by viewed as just another in a long-running series of cinematic endurance tests, Laugier wants us to question whether such images might possess some kind of mystical power -- a task that requires some seriously heavy setup in order to get us in the right frame of mind. Martyrs is not a film for everyone (a simple glance at the MPAA ratings reason should provide proof positive of that), but for those who prefer their art to be a bit more challenging, and who possess the ability to look beyond trendy tropes, this transgressive shocker will likely earn a cherished spot as one of the most effective and ambitious horror films of the past decade.