👻👻👻 out of 👻👻👻👻👻
Directed by Ruth Platt.
The go-to move for horror filmmakers in the modern era is the tortured family dynamic. It’s creepy, hidden, sinister, and above all tragic. When you mix in a heaping dose of the death of a child, tragic can take a very dark complexion and make it, well, darker.
One of Shudder’s more recent offerings, Martyrs Lane, has all the touchstone markings of a great horror film, but it just doesn’t quite hit the mark. Director Ruth Platt assembles all the perfectly horrible elements that surround a great horror film, but each time the film begins to wander down the lane, it’s quickly diverted to something less frightening and intense.
Martyrs Lane follows a perfectly constructed British family helmed by the father, Thomas (Steven Cree) a pastor who is forced to contend with a family secret that is gnawing at his wife, Lillian (Anastasia Hille). The film, however, centers around 10-year old Leah (Kiera Thompson) who is the bane of her older sister, and the subject of a sad and unaffectionate relationship with her mother.
Early, in the film Leah’s mother is cleared bothered by — everything. Each scene is filled with a deeply uneasy tension punctuated by a mother on the verge of cracking for good. Leah becomes fixated on her mother’s fixation, her locket. Her suspicions get the best of her and she eventually nabs the locket and unearths its secret, a blonde locket of hair.
Leah’s fascination is compounded by a series of well-placed clues in the forms of letters, buttons, and the aforementioned hair. In addition to these dainty pieces of horror ephemera, Leah is visited each and every night by a weird friendly and familiar ghostly young girl, Rachel (Sienna Sayer). The two are immediately connected, close, and familial. Save for Rachel’s slow and physical demise, Leah welcomes their nightly visits.
At this point is should be obvious (trust me, I never pick up on these plot twists) that the family has experienced a loss and the mother is in the throes of malicious parent syndrome. She’s purposefully keeping young Leah at arms length to help her compensate for this nagging loss.
Interesting, most films save this obvious plot twist involving the ghost of a close family member who forces the family to reckon with their secret until the end of the film. However, Martyrs Lane is less coy with meting out these details. It’s clear that there’s a loss and it’s clear that the family is suffering, but it’s the tension in between these details that helps create the dread.
While there are several very terrifying moments in the film — and one, in particular, at the beginning of the film — that had me jump off the couch — Martyrs Lane really backs away from the horror when it should have had its foot firmly on the gas.
Unlike the Dark and the Wicked or Hereditary, Martyrs Lane steers clear of deeply brutal scares and offers a softer more safe tone. Replete with a wasted religious backdrop and the trappings of Christianity, the audience is forced to suspect that something truly demonic is about to happen, but it never quite does. Almost, but not quite.
Martyrs Lane is a superbly acted and shot film. Ever last actor turns in a wonderful performance, notably Leah (Kiera Thompson). Without her cast in this film the entire affair could have easily crumbled at the altar. If you’re looking for something slightly less psychologically jarring than Dark and the Wicked or Hereditary then Martys Lane is a safe and ecclesiastical jaunt to the theater.
Martyr’s Lane is likely Rated R and is available for streaming on Shudder.