(In French, On TV, October 2017) I did not approach Martyrs with the best of intentions. I’ve never been partial to gory horror, and Martyrs comes billed as a closing instance of the thankfully short-lived (2001–2008) “New French Extremity” horror subgenre, which combined extreme graphic violence with intentionally transgressive themes and premises. It certainly delivers on both counts: The gore is extreme in-between graphic shotgun deaths, ripping metal hooks from the head of a still-living victim and having the protagonist flayed alive. More philosophically, there’s claptrap about pain being the way to transcendence and a shadowy organization deliberately torturing young women in order to get a glimpse at the afterlife. How droll. At the very least, it’s worth acknowledging that Martyrs is somewhat more ambitious than your usual run-of-the-mill horror. Intuiting that putting some distance between myself and the movie was the way to go, I deliberately put Martyrs on as background while I was doing something else (if you must know: sorting a stamp collection, which should provide you both with a hilarious visual and a telling yardstick through which to gauge my relationship with horror cinema) and never regretted the choice. I’d complain that the new Québec-based “FrissonTV” horror channel does not provide close captioning, but that’s not such a big deal in a movie in which half the dialogue is made of women screaming or weeping. What I had not realized prior to seeing the film is that it’s a France/Canada co-production, and so it’s visibly shot in an isolated house in rural Québec, features some familiar French-Canadian actors such as Catherine Bégin, Robert Toupin and wunderkind director Xavier Dolan (!!!), leading to a mishmash of slipping French/Québec accents that do distract a bit. To say that I did not enjoy Martyrs is as much an understatement as it is an inevitability: This is not a film meant to create positive feelings and you can almost feel writer/director Pascal Laugier begging condemnation from non-gorehound audiences. I’ll grant Martyrs a few things, though: the film may be stuck in its trash aesthetics and nihilistic intentions, but it’s almost refreshingly impossible to predict as it hops from female kidnapping to home invasion to creature horror to torture to secret-society conspiracy. It’s a wild ride made even worse by the extended graphic sequences of extreme torture—as a representative of the New French Extremity, it takes that last word seriously. Most casual viewers (i.e.: not horror fans) are guaranteed to quit watching before the end, casting dark aspersions upon the filmmakers and anyone who likes the film. As for myself, my curiosity is satiated, my stamp collection is in a slightly better shape and I can live knowing that I’ll never have to watch Martyrs again.
(On-demand video, October 2012) My first thought after seeing a title like “The Tall Man” and reading a plot description involving missing children was to wonder if the “Slender Man” Internet meme had made it on-screen. Alas (maybe), The Tall Man defies a number of assumptions, and not having any relationship whatsoever with Slendy is the least of its narrative transgressions. Initially presented as a horror movie about a mother searching for her abducted son in a small town that has seen a wave of child abductions, The Tall Man turns out to be something quite a bit different than just another horror thriller with a generic monster. After a conventional (but well-executed) beginning, the middle act of the film defies our assumptions about the protagonist and the nature of the film. The overlong last act limply completes the transformation from horror thriller to provocative drama, leading to a flurry of questions, doubts and hesitations about the film’s true intent. Is it social commentary smuggled underneath a glossy patina of horror, or a horror film that loses its nerve? Does the ending lead to eucatastrophe or unsettling doubts? (“Right? Right?”) This particular issue has been better-addressed in one of Ben Affleck’s movie (I’m obviously dancing around spoilers here), but there’s something almost admirable to the way The Tall Man commits itself to a full-blown chase sequence knowing fully well the revelation it has in store for audiences later on. Writer/Director Pascal Laugier established himself as quite the iconoclast with Martyrs, and if The Tall Man is more mainstream-friendly, it’s certainly not your average straight-to-video thriller. It’s relatively well-shot, sports a decent budget and Jessica Biel gamely incarnates the main character, lending her sympathetic personae to a character that requires a bit of misdirection. Elsewhere in the film, Jodelle Ferland turns in another noteworthy performance as a character that becomes increasingly important as the film advances (in-between this, the third Twilight and a lengthy filmography on Canadian TV, she’s probably due for a breakout role soon enough). I suspect that The Tall Man will divide audiences: annoy horror fans, while intriguing those who are always looking for a bit more substance in their genre films. While the social message may not be all that well-integrated, the attempt seems interesting enough to warrant a look.