Before you read this review, there’s a question that I think you need to answer, because it’s probably a better barometer for how well you will enjoy Martyrs Lane than anything that follow. Do you think the modern state of horror is in a bit of a rut?
Personally, my answer to this is a sharp “no”. It is, however, hard to deny an undercurrent of annoyance that seems to be following just about every single horror release over the last couple of years. Right now, there’s a voracious appetite for horror films in the general public. A Candyman remake, for example, is a marquee release, instead of just merely being late summer filler. Yet, there also seems to be a frustrated backlash of sorts against what is termed as “elevated horror.” Watching people dismiss the excellent Saint Maud as being simply “another silly A24 film” suggests to me that we’re at a bit of an impasse here.
Ruth Platt’s Martyrs Lane can be easily paralleled to Saint Maud (albeit much less intense), hence why I ask the question at the top. Nobody is making Eli Roth movies at this time, not even Eli Roth, whose last film is a tepid spooky house thriller with Jack Black and Cate Blanchette. At the risk of making an unfair totalizing statement, horror films have moved away from the disturbingly violent. Instead, recent horror films are something that’s probably closer to a weepy drama with a couple of jump scares.
Martyrs Lane is ostensibly bloodless, and the film is very clearly more interested in the emotions of its characters than anything else. Moreover, it centers on a young child named Leah (Kiera Thompson) who lives in a very cold world. Her older sister Bex (Hannah Rae) is cruel to her, seemingly without reason. Her summer days are spent alone without playmates. And her mother (Anastasia Hille) seems very distant and cold towards her youngest daughter.
As a result, Leah seems decently devout, at least for a 10-year-old. She has innumerable figurines of the Virgin Mary, suggesting both a sense of precociousness and openness to the spiritual realm. It’s suggested that this might be a coping mechanism for her. If she’s ostensibly the forgotten child of the family, then surely a higher power won’t forget her too, right?
As if to answer her prayers, Leah is visited in the night by a young girl who’s roughly the same age as she is. Remembering a proverb about showing hospitality, Leah believes that this young girl is an angel. And thus, she might provide some answers as to why her mother acts the way that she does. As a result, Martyrs Lane shifts into being both a mystery film and a coming of age one.
Those are ultimately better genre tags than horror, because although Shudder will ultimately be releasing Martyrs Lane to the wider public, it’s tough to really quantify this as a horror film. It is, but in the same way that The Sixth Sense is a horror film. Platt seems to understand that, at their core, horror films are melodramas. Film such as Alice, Sweet, Alice work because they’re melancholy and deeply felt. There is, ultimately, more than one way to skin a cat.
It’s not hard to see where Platt is going. Thankfully, the director does little to hide the twists, which allows the actors to lean into the emotions. I tend to avoid discussing the performances of child actors unless they’re notably strong. And that’s because it seems unfair to critique those just learning their craft. But it’s important to recognize that Thompson is the soul of Martyrs Lane; her facial expressions demonstrating a pensiveness that is both inquisitive and worried. It’s a very strong performance and it manages to hold the film together.
I don’t want to imagine what the film would be without that performance. Ultimately, what holds Martyrs Lane back is that it is just a touch bland. Visually, the film struggles to maintain color timing and invokes gothic aesthetics without really understanding what makes those aesthetics what they are. That I remain more curious about how people will react to Martyrs Lane than I do for any of the ideas the film presents is a pretty prescient critique of the film. Horror definitely isn’t in a rut, but this is more of a drama than a horror film.