Terrifying Tuesday: Martyrs (2008)

Martyr - from the Latin martyr < Ancient Greek μάρτυρ (martyr), later form of μάρτυς (martys) "witness".

1. Someone who chooses to suffer death rather than renounce religious principles.
2. A person who makes great sacrifices or suffers much in order to further a belief, cause, or principle.
3. One who endures great suffering
4. To make a martyr of, especially to put to death for devotion to religious beliefs.
5. To inflict great pain on; to torment.
6. A witness, but is applied to one who witnesses a good confession with his blood.

Martyrs (2008) starring Morjana Alaoui, Mylene Jampanoi, and Catherine Begin. Directed by Pascal Laugier. 

After escaping the clutches of her tormenters, Lucie (Jampanoi) grows up in an orphanage where her only friend is a kind girl named Anna (Alaoui). Fifteen years later, she recognizes one of her captors from a picture in the paper and becomes determined to confront them. Accompanied by Anna, Lucie tries to get closure but finds no solace, and Anna is delivered into the clutches of the very people her friend was seeking to stop. 

The Bugg Picture

This is not going to be my standard review. I am writing this mere minutes after watching Martyrs, and I feel compelled to get my thoughts to paper (or screen as it were.) I started this review off with a series of definitions and the entomology of the word Martyr because I feel this is an integral part of beginning to understand this film. I think most people equate the term with a religious principal, but the word is older than that. The sixth definition may be the most important to keep in mind with this film. 

Martyrs is a film which really must be seen to grasp what it’s like. It is unlike anything I have previously seen. There have been some movies; Cannibal Holocaust and Hellraiser come to mind, which deeply disturbed me on first viewing. Cannibal Holocaust made me feel dirty, and mostly because of the grittiness of the film making and the degree of animal violence. Hellraiser was one of the first horror films to really shock me when I was younger, and if this film is any indication Laugier is poised to repeat that feeling with his forthcoming remake of the Barker classic. Unlike either of these films, Martyrs left me feeling emotionally drained and battered as if the violence and pain had come through the screen and affected me personally.  

While there is plenty of gore on display, and some may choose to only revel in it, the film really lives up to it’s horror moniker with emotional impact it carries. I think many viewers, now that it is being released on DVD and will get a wider audience, will be drawn to the film expecting the levels of “torture porn” style depravity of a Saw or a Hostel film. Those viewers may get some of what they were looking for, but this is a film that works on a much deeper level. I only hope that those folks drawn to the gore will find themselves drawn in by the deeper levels of the storyline. 

Apart from Laugier’s incredible script, Martyrs gets much of its strength from the incredible look of the film. Joined by cinematographers Stéphane Martin and Nathalie Moliavko-Visotzky and editor Sébastien Prangère, Laughier creates a world that disturbs and puts the viewer on edge from the very opening frame. I am usually not a fan of films where the camera seems to always be in constant motion, but here it worked for me.  Like both Anna and Lucie, the audience find themselves in a world where nothing is ever calm. There is no time to rest. The film starts at a frenzied pace, and by the time we get some moments of still silence, they are punctuated by scenes of torture and violence that will leave all but the most jaded viewer cringing. 

Adding to this feeling of disquiet is the score by Alex and Willie Cortes. Like most great scores it enhances the scenes and serves to build tension. It never distracts from the action, and from now on when I hear the main theme from the film, it’s quiet, simplistic tones will instantly bring me back to the feelings I experienced during Martyrs. To me this is what a film score should do, and I will be eagerly awaiting future work from these composers. 

Real credit has to go to the two main actresses Morjana Alaoui and Mylene Jampanoi. These two young women give thrilling performances, and without them being able to actively convey the myriad of emotions and make them feel real, no matter how good the script or how it looked, it could not have reached the heights of terror that it reaches. Also to be commended is Catherine Begin. Even though her part is extremely small, Begin manages to make quite an impact on the film.

This was a difficult review to write. I have spent months avoiding any kind of spoilers or anything that might cheapen the impact of the film. So while I wanted to put my two cents in, but avoid all the kind of things that I wouldn’t have wanted to read. Down the road somewhere this is one that I will have to revisit and talk about a bit more in depth. For now, I will leave you with this thought. Martyrs may not be what you expect. It is not exploitation, it is not “torture porn”, and it is not your average horror film. It is a film that will be debated for years. It is as moving and important as people are making it out to be, and it is out on DVD today so go out, pick it up, and let’s hear what you think. 

Bugg Rating


  1. Hey, a great review. I have the dvd of this one at home, but am waiting for the right night to watch it. Your review has certainly given me food for thought on this.

  2. I've been looking forward to seeing this for a while now. Yours is the first review that I've read--like you, I've been avoiding reviews of the film as well, but I couldn't pass up your take on it. I will be checking this out as soon as I get my grubby hands on it. Can't wait!

  3. I felt much the same way when I first saw the film and am now reading your review.

    I saw Inside a few weeks before this and even that film did not prepare me for what I would see in Martyrs.

    You're absolutely right. This film is not torture porn in the slightest.

    My Martyrs Review:

  4. I rad an article about this film in Rue Morgue magazine but I was ambivalent. You have made me both eager and afraid to see Maytrs...

  5. Seems like I'm in the minority here, but I thought Martyrs was one of the worst movies I've seen in a long time and might well become the movie that killed the new wave of French horror. I'll try to avoid spoilers too here, but I felt the script was incredibly weak and illogical and while the first half actually worked as a fairly well done terror movie, the second half was the worst kind of horror movie - the pretentious one that feels ir has something profound to say, but only regurgitates existentialism 101 cliches. The quote you mention is perhaps the best example of this - yes, "Martyr" has more meaings than just the commonly known Christina/religious one, but the meaning the movie tries to apply to it is not amongst them and a plain misrepresentation of its original Greek meaning.

  6. well...i'd say the best french horror film so far!

  7. the sneering (homo-phobic) snobApril 30, 2009 at 6:08 PM

    this film acheives a very strange contradiction, it is a masterwork and complete genius from first frame to last, but it is also murderously problematic, hideously objectionable, and totally unacceptable.

  8. Thanks for all the great comments. I feel like this will be a polarizing film for genre fans to discuss for years to come. I'm going to give it a second viewing this weekend, and I look forward to seeing if it has the same impact on a repeated viewing.


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