Scream for your life

At Midnight: Martyrs

There is an escalating game of one-upsmanship that Midnight Madness plays with itself every year. Renowned for bringing the nasty back to Toronto screens again and again, each year's programme is set the task of finding a flick that out-ickies last year's most upsetting feature film. When 2007's closing show, Inside, proved to be one of the most gruesome films ever shown at the Toronto International Film Festival, finding a topper for 2008 was always going to be a challenge.

Martyrs has been brought in to fit the bill, a neo-horror picture so extreme, Midnight programmer Colin Geddes described it as "a suckerpunch." And if you can suckerpunch that guy, you've certainly earned a place in the program. After disappointing with Deadgirl and The Burrowers but hitting the nail on the head with Acolytes, how did Martyrs fare?

There's been a collision coming between the French horror new wave (expertly exemplified at last year's Midnight Madness with Frontiere(s) and Inside) and American torture porn (think Hostel or The Passion of the Christ). Torture porn is an exercise in gratuitous gruesomeness, the brutalization of human bodies and souls for the pleasure of the audience. The French horror new wave, meanwhile, has spent the last few years building momentum by turning all the old horror/slasher tropes we grew up with on their ear via almost blindingly cathartic shock cinema. I have a growing respect for the latter - who knew the French were so fucked up? - and little more than lazy contempt for the former. Their inevitable collision finally occurs in Martyrs.

This film's first act is an effective primal scream of vengeance picture fury, as a teenage girl named Lucie escapes from an urban dungeon where unseen captors have been abusing her, only to return 15 years later and slaughter the family responsible for the crime. It's rat-a-tat cinema, blood-soaked as hell. Lucie's murderous rampage also introduces the freakiest jump-out-of-the-shadows monster since that Japanese kid spider-walked in Ju-On, five years ago.

Lucie's best friend and guardian angel, Anna, arrives at the scene of the crime to try to sort out the mess - Lucie is unabashedly psychotic, gibbering and crying and beating her own head against the wall - but as some clues to the motivation of Lucie's original imprisonment are revealed, Martyrs flips over and becomes torture porn through and through. Any hope that the flick would redeem its excesses vanishes as the audience is put through an entirely gratuitous 20 or 25 minute sequence of Anna being brutalized past the point of being recognizable as a human body. When she resembles nothing so much as a BodyWorks exhibit, and a weird, quasi-metaphysical "answer" is provided as to the machinery of the plot as a whole, the film sputters and dies.

There will always be something useful in cinematic horror, the film world's amped-up psychodrama which lets the audience confront, and hopefully purge, its deepest and least-accessible neuroses. Torture porn, on the other hand, is little more than an exercise in human cruelty dressed up in a game of one-upsmanship of "who can come up with the grossest gag." Martyrs falls shamefully into the T.P. camp, a mean-spirited, wholly unlikeable plane crash of a movie whose only lingering aftertaste is shame.

Had enough Midnight yet? Thursday night brings Eden Log, a Heavy Metal-inspired (the magazine, not the music) science fiction flick from France, followed on Friday night by Sexykiller, a killer comedy (pun intended). The 2008 show closes on Saturday night with Chocolate, which puts the Muay Thai firmly back where it belongs: on the screens of Midnight Madness in Toronto.

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