Perhaps as a reaction to the uproar over movies like Antichrist and Srpski Film, I've been thinking a lot lately about the relationship of morality to horror film. I'm eventually going to spend a whole post rooting around in these ideas, and as I've been shaping it in my head, I've also started thinking about the relationship between horror films and fables and how in the U.S., our fables and fairytales have been shaped (and changed) by a largely Christian morality that eschews ambiguity for certainty, for the happy (or at least instructive) ending.
Our horror films do much the same thing. This gets me to thinking about the instructiveness of tragedy or a more existential (if less comforting) take on the genre. Maybe it's this Western sensibility that inures us to shitloads of gore but gets us all up in arms if violence or suffering is presented without ironic distance. We need our happy endings, the wicked punished and the good triumphant.
But that's at least another post if not two. I also think about how horror movies spend a lot of time on the figures of the Christian pantheon - Satan, demons, rogue angels, etc. (still waiting for a big-budget adaptation of the Book of Revelation) - but not so much the church itself. Sure, there's the occasional renegade priest or church built atop a site of evil or whatever, but not so much the church as it actually has operated. The Passion of the Christ was way, way gorier than Hostel (and predated it by a year, making it the first torture porn film), and the Bible itself is filled with all kinds of awful stuff, presumably meant to be a cautionary tale. The Passion Play began as a folk reenactment of the trial, suffering, sacrifice, and transcendence of Jesus of Nazareth, and few details were spared, lest we underestimate the magnitude of what he did for others.
This has more to do with Martyrs than you might think.
The movie opens with a young girl running through what appears to be an abandoned warehouse. She is bloody, bruised, running out into the street barefoot and screaming. This cuts to grainy documentary footage of people exploring the abandoned building she escaped, pointing out where she was kept. She wasn't raped, but she was abused, chained to a toilet chair, beaten and starved. Nobody knows why, the girl (Lucie) won't say anything.
Lucie grows up in an orphanage, and through the documentary footage we see her grow. She starts almost feral, but over time the care and attention of another girl named Anna, she starts to come out of her shell. The heads of the orphanage want to find the people who tortured Lucie, but her memory isn't good. Anna may be the only friend she has - Lucie tells her what she can remember (which is very little), but makes Anna promise to keep some things secret. She tells Anna not to say anything about the deep cuts that keep appearing on her arms…
…or the shadowy, emaciated figure who comes to her in the night and makes them.
We flash forward 15 years later, and a suburban family of four are sitting down to breakfast, squabbling about school and potential boyfriends and the torments siblings afflict on each other. The squealing daughter is being chased by the brother in a domestic parody of the movie's opening. Mother repairs a pipe in the backyard, father answers the door.
Lucie is standing there with a shotgun.
What follows is essentially the story of what we are willing to do for (and to) other people, and what happens when we stop running. Lucie runs from her captors, runs from the withered phantom who haunts and hurts her, runs until she can no longer run. Anna runs from what Lucie is, whether she intends to or not, until Lucie calls her for help and she answers, tending to Lucie's wounds, stitching up repeatedly scarred flesh. She's all Lucie has. Lucie has done something terrible, and terrible things keep happening to Lucie. Something follows her around, and at a certain point we begin to wonder how stable Lucie is and what loyalty is going to cost Anna.
Martyrs has a very specific story to tell, but does an excellent job of keeping us guessing. Who kept Lucie captive? Was it for her own good? By what is Lucie haunted? What connection does it have to her? How far will Anna go to protect her friend? How far will she go to protect everyone else? The answers aren't always obvious, and the less you know about the movie going in, the better. At the end of the day, all of the blood and scars and wounds and suffering are, surprisingly, with great, ancient purpose. Transcendence through ordeal. It is a painful story told in splashes of red, sharp metal, harsh, unforgiving light, and the fist's hard report against flesh. Like the story of Jesus, it ends in salvation even if we can argue about whose salvation it is.
It is a rare movie that shows us something horrible and asks us to find something noble in it. Martyrs is one of the best attempts in my recent memory. It is a passion play for the modern age.
Purchase from Amazon.com
Available on Netflix