Kevin and Michael Goetz’s Martyrs is hardly a desecration of Pascal Laugier’s 2008 French horror film of the same name, but that assumes the original is a canonical text. The earlier film’s first half is distinguished by an attention to character and a moral intelligence that gives its gruesome violence a certain measure of emotional weight. But, then, Laugier expands his thematic reach with the second half’s grueling depiction of hell on Earth, with Morjana Alaoui’s Anna systematically tortured and eventually flayed all in the name of a mysterious group’s belief that, by pushing a woman’s body to such an extreme, she’ll eventually reach a higher plane of consciousness.
The original is a rare example of torture porn with intellectual and even spiritual ambitions. As such, it’s more than a little disappointing that it cheaply builds up to a sick joke when, just before the group’s elderly female leader is about to reveal to her cohorts what Anna said she glimpsed in her final moments of life, she commits suicide in the apparent belief that it’s better to preserve the mystery of what lies beyond death after all.
For this American remake, the Goetzes and screenwriter Mark L. Smith (who co-scripted another recent epic of martyrdom, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant) basically make text just about everything that was left subtextual in Laugier’s film. It’s not enough for Lucie (Troian Bellisario) and her friend, Anna (Bailey Noble), to bury the bodies of the family the former murdered in the belief that they tortured her as a child; Lucie must also explain that disposing of these bodies is necessary so that it’s “as if they never existed,” thereby making explicit the motivation Laugier trusted his audience to intuit. This heavy-handedness is also glimpsed in changes the filmmakers make to the original story—most memorably, images of actual, fiery Joan of Arc-like crucifixion deaths to make the martyrdom theme even more obvious.
Most of these changes are, if not exactly imaginative, respectful to the original film’s intentions. The Goetzes also infuse their version with an eerie slow-burn vibe distinctly its own, exemplified most of all by Evan Goldman’s portentously droning electronic score. But if the original ended on a nihilistic punchline, the Goetzes’ more sentimental finale is scarcely an improvement, forgoing Laugier’s perverse spiritual aspirations for a mundane confirmation of the two female main characters’ emotional bond, which is strong enough to transcend death. Though passable, the remake rarely summons the scarring and unsettling experience of Laugier’s darker and grimier original.