Martyrs Lane

Martyrs Lane ★★★

Horror streaming service Shudder has an already fascinating slate of original movies behind it, taking in all manner of sub-genres, styles and tones. And as with any such slate, there is just as much a range of quality to them – from the utterly sublime and soon-to-be classics of ‘Anything for Jackson’ and ‘Host’, to the insanely fun ‘Slaxx’, ‘Monstrum’ and ‘Blood Quantum’, right the way through to the frankly abysmal ‘The Banishing’ and ‘The Marshes’. However their hit rate is certainly higher than other much larger streaming services we could care to mention and onto this slate comes a new chiller from sophomore writer/director Ruth Platt and the BFI no less.
And it takes up its rightful place on that Shudder Originals slate somewhere in the middle of the pack…….

Ten-year-old Leah is trapped. Sure, she may live in a sprawling vicarage in the middle of the leafy English countryside. And she may have all the trappings of being the child of a well-to-do middle class suburban family. But her father is away with his work for the church, her older sister bullies and resents her very presence and her mother is coldly distant, always keeping her at arms-length, almost pretending to be the loving parent she needs, whilst being anything but.

After stumbling across a young girl of a similar age in the woods around her house, Leah is begun to be visited each night. And each night the mysterious youngster leads her to a clue……a clue to what, she’s not quite sure of……but the girl’s worsening complexion and the strange, bony protrusions on her back she calls ‘wings’ indicate that the mystery may not be what Leah or her family want to finally know…….

Platt establishes an almost calm, sedate tone immediately. Steering us through Leah’s household is shown entirely from the young girl’s perspective, early scenes using the same technique Spielberg did with ET in keeping the camera almost fixed at Leah’s eyeline, never quite showing us the whole picture of what’s going on around her, mirroring that sense of strange exclusion from the real word that being child can often feel like.

The strange behaviours of her family however are never shied away from, an almost brutal sense of isolation established for Leah that cleverly places us perfectly into her world alongside her. But when the strange girl begins to show up at Leah’s window in the middle of the night, rather than take a more overt genre tone here, akin to Bayona’s ‘The Orphanage’ or Del Toro’s ‘The Devil’s Backbone’, the film retains its sense of almost quiet family drama. It’s a strange pitch for the film to take, as while there is little doubt as to the supernatural origins of this stranger, so little is made of this, the film feels like its constantly holding back. In place of the skilful mix of wider, almost gentler narrative and hardcore genre thrills and spills that something like The Sixth Sense wonderfully gave us, we’re left with a slight film that never really gets out of the starting blocks. It’s lack of obvious genre stylings across its visuals and even its soundtrack doesn’t help either, giving it a curious feel that doesn’t quite satisfy.

Which is a shame because as the film progresses and the stranger reveals her true identity, it sets itself up for a strong and convincingly emotional finale. The pain at the heart of the family is never spelled out yet when we’re able to slowly piece it together, its origins are utterly heart breaking and the horribly realistic sense of almost guttural pain emanating from Denise Gough as Leah’s mother is tangible and keenly felt.

But again, Platt doesn’t quite follow through with her convictions – after almost eschewing the supernatural for the entire film, she choses to completely 180 at the film’s highly emotional conclusion and replaces what should have been an intriguingly ambiguous finale with a horribly traditional supernatural battle that now feels terribly out of place and robs the film of its by now, well-earned heart-rending climax.

The small cast are all very good, with plaudits going to the two young leads (Kiera Thompson and Sienna Sayer) who utterly convince in their highly emotive portrayals. And while Platt has certainly conjured up a very handsome and atmospheric chiller, the unsuccessful blending of the genre elements and the family drama at the film’s core means it always feels like its waiting for something to happen that never does.

Thoughtful and intriguing, yet slight and tonally inconsistent and unsatisfying, it’s a solid watch that will hopefully signal the start of bigger and better things for its creator Platt.

First reviewed over at AVForums here:

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