Thoughts on, and a place to discuss, the plot details we can’t reveal in our review.
The remake, or “reimagining,” if you will, of the Martyrs story feels—for lack of a better word—like a very Americanized retelling. For those who haven’t seen the original, but are willing to have it spoiled for them, here’s the gist of the first film’s plot (apologies for the length, but it feels necessary): Lucy’s monster turns out to be in her head, the result of her childhood trauma. Eventually, she kills herself, imagining it to be the work of this vengeance-seeking spirit. In the aftermath, Anna discovers a hidden panel in the house, leading to a secret basement, where it’s revealed the family has been taking young women prisoner and torturing them, likely for years. Lucy was right, after all—these are the people who kept her captive as a child. Anna discovers a young woman, tortured almost beyond recognizability, whom she frees, only to have this new woman killed, in what constitutes a truly shocking mid-film shift.
This is when we learn that the family was employed by a sinister group of people looking to create “martyrs”: Those rare individuals who are actually able to endure physical and mental suffering far beyond what the rest of us could tolerate. These few special people manage to survive their pain and achieve a state of transcendence, an experience outside the realm of our comprehension. This group hopes to create a new martyr, one in controlled circumstances; this person would then be able to communicate to them the secrets or thoughts revealed by attaining such a state of grace. After an agonizingly long montage of Anna’s torture, she becomes their martyr, and when the nefarious organization’s head leans in to hear Anna’s whispered secrets, the knowledge turns out to be too much for the human mind to absorb. The film ends with the leader killing herself, while a bevy of followers wait in the house, eager to learn the mysteries of transcendence.
In Pascal Laugier’s original, this is unpleasant, and grueling, and indeed an altogether upsetting cinematic experience. But it feels earned. He doesn’t cut corners, or shy away from the violence; and by engaging with a narrative explicitly about the horrific human cost of torture in the name of abstract religious or philosophical goals, the film achieves something like a state of grace of its own. For the viewer with a strong enough stomach to stick with it, the ending can feel like a transcendent transformation, a powerful and affecting experience. (Some, of course, would disagree.) In the remake, all of this is rushed through so quickly that none of it has time to land, so it ends up feeling like just another slick horror movie where terrible things are done to young women with a hasty (and over-explained) justification. But there are noteworthy differences.
The biggest change is that, in this version, Lucy survives the first half of the film. After a failed suicide attempt, she’s still alive when the secret society arrives, and their excitement at finding what is apparently their best shot at creating a martyr is fully explained to Anna, in a lengthy scene where the leader goes over the purpose of their practices—and meanwhile, we watch them try and fail to create another martyr by lighting an anonymous woman on fire. So Lucy remains the martyr for the whole film, with Anna a horrified spectator. Until, of course, the more traditional narrative choices kick in, and Anna turns into a full-on avenging angel, escaping the house only to return and kill the group’s heavies, one by one, until she manages to free an already-transcended Lucy, who whispers her secrets to Anna. The nearby cult priest overhears, and kills himself, leaving Anna to put a bullet in the leader, just before she, too, transcends and becomes a martyr, the result, we’re to presume, of hearing Lucy’s whispers about what lies beyond this mortal coil.
There are other changes that render the story more conventional, as well—the girl Anna finds in the basement is here a still-hale-and-healthy preteen, who runs away and summons the police to the house, apparently so the film’s ending can have the requisite scene of cops descending upon the scene of a tragedy too late to do anything for our protagonists. But ultimately, all the changes have the feel of servicing some theoretical mainstream audience who doesn’t want such an upsetting movie. And that’s what disappoints: It renders the story acceptable. Not toothless, exactly—it’s still a horror film, with scares and gore aplenty—but streamlined, accessible, and suitable for 3 p.m. screenings on Sunday afternoons for cable. By granting Anna bloody revenge on these people, and having them both, in essence, becomes martyrs together, the new Martyrs tries to have it both ways, granting tragedy and triumph for these young women. It’s a wholly different sort of movie—specifically, a lesser one.