JANUARY 20, 2016
I am cursed from seeing Martyrs at Screamfest. In 2008 the original was one of the only movies for the entire festival that I missed (I had to get to the New Beverly for something, probably Phil's all-nighter), and in 2015 I ended up sleeping through half of the remake, which is why I didn't review it even though it was one of the fest's high profile screenings. So once again I had to settle for watching it at home (with the windows closed this time!), finally putting together those random chunks of the movie that I saw in a way that a. made sense and b. weren't getting gummed up with my memories of the first film. See, when I say I slept through half, it wasn't like, the LAST half or a big chunk of the middle - I'd fall asleep for 10 minutes, see 10-15, fall asleep for another few minutes, stay awake for a bit, fall asleep for 20 minutes... you get the idea.
Now, if this was a new movie, it'd render the viewing experience completely incoherent, but as it was a remake, I was just sort of filling in the blanks ("Oh right, the monster thing was in her head") and more or less getting it. I mean, if you fall asleep just before Marion gets into the shower in Gus Van Sant's Psycho, it's not like you won't know where she went if you wake up thirty minutes later. However, this remake took my favorite approach for these things, which is to start off more or less identical and then take a turn somewhere. So by the end, I was having a lot of trouble with my "fill in" process, because I was using elements that were no longer in play and mixing up the two lead characters, and that's because of the film's biggest change - Lucy doesn't die at the end of the first act. Long story short, by the end I knew I had to give this movie a total rewatch, and make sure I was actually seeing things in the right context instead of some (admittedly kind of appealingly funky) blend of what I was seeing, what I had seen seven years earlier, and what I was possibly just dreaming in between.
Of course, all anyone cares about knowing is whether or not this remake is "pointless" or whatever other derogatory term you might want to throw at such fare, and in that case no it is not. There will be some backlash, I'm sure, but the movie gambles with some big changes and for the most part they pay off. Most importantly is that it's an easier film to watch, and I know some might say that it SHOULDN'T be, but we already have the nearly unbearable version of this story. Pascal Laugier directed it in 2008 and it's available from Amazon and other fine retailers. The whole point of a remake, at least to me, is to either fix a story that got broken the first time around, or just try it a different way whether it worked fine or not. It's like a Choose Your Own Adventure book - you pick your options and see how things turn out, and then you flip back to page 1 and try some other things. Maybe it'll be a better experience, maybe not - the point is that you TRY (unlike Gus Van Sant).
So Lucy (Troian Bellisario) lives this time, and it's she, not Anna (Bailey Noble), that goes through the torture during the 3rd act, albeit nowhere near as excessive as in the original. There are some truly unsettling moments, of course, but as the director hilariously said at the screening, he wanted people to be able to actually see it this time (alluding to the original, which was either cut heavily or banned outright in several countries). I don't think there's anything wrong with the idea of telling a story in a way that will make it more digestible for a larger audience, and since the horror genre isn't exactly drowning in inventive narratives or multi-dimensional villains, I'm all for a way that can allow more people to see this particular story. As you might have guessed, none of that stuff changed - the title has the same meaning, the girls are still being tortured for the same reason, etc. It just has some different ways of going about it, one that allows a little more character development for Anna (as she now gets to do something besides scream and get beaten for the film's final half hour or so) and some other little tweaks that I won't divulge here.
Plus I liked how it worked for newcomers and old fans. People who had never seen the original won't be surprised to see Lucy survive, but the film manages to replicate the original's sense of confusion during its first act or so, when you're not sure who your heroes are, how the things you're seeing are connected, etc. The pieces fall into place when they need to, so I assure you that if you're confused at first - it's intentional, and it pays off. And this goes for those who have seen the original, as they're likely to feel ahead of what's going on at first and lulled into a sense of security, only for Lucy's survival to kick off a new chain of events that they might NOT fully grasp until they're supposed to. This sounded like one of the least necessary remakes in history when it was first announced (a long time ago, and with Last Exorcism director Daniel Stamm attached - he's no longer involved), so it's ironic that in the grand tradition of horror remakes (and in particular the ones from last 10 years or so) it's actually a lot closer to the "THIS is how you do it!" end of the spectrum (with We Are What We Are and The Crazies) than the "You fucked it up!" area occupied by Halloween and pretty much every post-Grudge Asian horror remake.
That said, there are two decisions I wasn't crazy about in October and haven't really warmed to here. One is an audience-relief kind of moment near the end that is a bit of a groaner (though, without spoiling things, I can say that it's softened by the action another character takes just before it, which is more in line with the point). The other is that while Anna is the one we're with the whole time (and the one that the lady explains their purpose to), she doesn't really put through anything, making her kind of a bystander in the narrative. Lucy survives and gets put through the ringer again, but (perhaps to keep the violence level down) we barely get back to her once she's recaptured, staying with Anna as she avoids the torture folk (I wish they had a cult name or something to refer to them!), rescues another victim, etc. It feels like we're watching the B-plot of the story during the 3rd act, making it lack a real anchor to the proceedings. Not that I want to see Anna get tortured (or anyone else), but I couldn't help but think, rather than have both of them survive, if they killed Anna off halfway and made it all Lucy's story, the new filmmakers would earn their points for changing things (albeit not as much) but retaining the strong grip on the audience that the original had. Laugier made us experience Anna's awful plight - here they let her off and background the one going through the real suffering. It's not a crippling flaw, but it'll certainly give the kneejerk remake haters something that will be hard to argue with should I ever have to defend the movie in a debate.
But it all comes back to the story itself, which I find just as fascinating now as I did when I saw the original (which, if you recall, I also felt had some issues). What really could have ruined things is letting us know what the girl (Lucy or Anna) was whispering at the end, and they don't make that mistake - we are still allowed to draw our own conclusions as to what she saw. For those who haven't seen the original, this would be the rare instance where I recommend starting with the remake, because you will get to experience this unique and thought-provoking tale in a manner that's not as difficult to watch. If you feel it's too tame, you can always go back and watch Laugier's take, which, ultimately, is probably the superior film if I'm being honest. That said, it's not like Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street where the difference between the two films is night and day, and considering all that was stacked against it (director switch, kind of a dumped release, a relatively quickie remake that was probably largely inspired by the language change than any real narrative necessity), I think it deserves some measure of respect, and certainly a watch. After all, it's not like Martyrs is the sort of movie you watch over and over - if it's been 6-7 years since you gave it a look, go with this one! Even if you hate every scripting decision, it has a terrific score by Evan Goldman. I WILL win that debate should it ever come up, dammit.
What say you?
P.S. The writer is Mark L. Smith, who also co-wrote The Revenant. I find it amusing that if you look at his resume and see a Martyrs remake and a Leonardo DiCaprio movie that will probably (sigh) win Best Picture, you'd think Martyrs would be the one that was ultimately buried by pointlessness and an excess of torture inflicted on its protagonist. Nope! It's the one stealing all of Hateful Eight's rightful audience!