Continuing in the grand tradition of American remakes of foreign films that completely miss the point of the original, Kevin Goetz and Michael Goetz’s Martyrs is an unnecessary, toothless exercise in sub-mediocrity. The original film, Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs (2008), was one of the most notable and popular entries in the New French Extremity — a movement of French filmmakers who made transgressive horror films that redefined the limits of onscreen gore and depravity. I’ve always viewed the movement with suspicious cynicism, not because I object to gruesome depictions of violence, but because so many of their films completely fall apart in the screenwriting department. Alexandre Aja’s High Tension (2003) was a high-octane thriller ruined by one of the stupidest, most poorly thought out twist endings I’ve ever seen. Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo’s Inside (2007) would have been a masterpiece if the characters weren’t complete, total idiots who made survival decisions that wouldn’t pass musters among fleeing teenage sluts in Friday the 13th films.
The original Martyrs was a rare exception. Centered on two young women fleeing an underground cult trying to ascertain the nature of the afterlife by systematically torturing “martyrs” until they experience transcendent visions on the brink of death, Laugier’s film seemed to have an authentic point it was trying to make about the nature of cruelty and suffering. Utilizing deliberately sterile environments and stylistic techniques, Martyrs was a sickening assault more concerned with evoking a mood of nihilism than strictly telling a story. However, the film lost my favor (and attention span) when the last 30 minutes essentially became a stag reel of one of the young women being brutally, repetitively tortured while increasingly sappy music filled the soundtrack. It reminded me of the central rape scene in Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave (1978) — an expertly shot, tonally abrasive nightmare devalued by its own gratuitous length.
But despite my complaints, I admired what Laugier tried to accomplish and his willingness to take his audience into an unapologetically dark place. The Goetz brothers have sanitized all of the most brutal gore that made the original so memorable. [SPOILERS AHEAD] An early scene in both films involves the sudden murder of a family of four via shotgun. In the original, each members is gruesomely blasted into pieces. The remake? The two teenage children are killed offscreen. Characters inexplicably survive despite dying in the original, the infamous cranial plate removal and flaying scenes have been entirely removed, and there is no nudity. [SPOILERS END] What’s worse, the Goetz brothers are so convinced that audiences will find whatever remains compelling that they don’t even bother to make the damn thing scary. The entire film contains only one authentic scare — and it’s of the poorly telegraphed jump variety.
What do we have left? A movie about suffering that barely features any; a movie that isn’t allowed to be disturbing on the off chance that American audiences might actually find it disturbing. Here is cinema without a purpose, without a point, without a reason to exist.