I love horror films, I always have. As a kid, I can still remember sneaking films like Nightmare On Elm Street into the stack of VHSs I was hiring from the video library and hoping to hell that mum wouldn’t notice what I had. Despite loving the genre so much though, I have noticed over the past few years that so many horror films coming out onto the market are so formulaic, that serious fans of the genre can nearly predict what is going to happen just by looking at the poster.
Therefore, it is so refreshing when films like Martyrs Lane come about. Now I am not going to sit here and say that this is a horror classic, because it’s not. It has it flaws. But at least filmmaker Ruth Platt had the skills and the stomach to make a horror film that moves away from any cinematic formula and actually keeps its audience interested.
Martyrs Lane centres around 10-year-old Leah (Kiera Thompson) who lives in a vicarage with her father Thomas (Steven Cree), who is the local vicar, her emotionally damaged mother Sarah (Denise Gough) and her sister Bex (Hannah Rae).
Leah lives an almost sad existence. She never really knows where she stands with Bex, given that one moment her sister will be showing her love and the next she will be cruelly bullying her. Added that while she is close to her father, his job brings emotionally needy people around their home and often Leah hears and sees things that she shouldn’t. Then there are the whispered conversations that her father and mother have. There is an obvious secret that nobody ever mentions. But all of this changes with the sudden arrival of Rachel (Sienna Sayer), whom only Leah can see and whether she is there for good or evil is a mystery.
I am a bit of a sucker for a creepy child horror and while recent films like The Boy (and its sequel) have been worthy chapters in the genre, it is good to see a film like Martyrs Lane, which takes a more natural approach with its mood and tone. The arrival of Rachel adds a more sinister form of suspense, given that the environment the film is set in could be somewhere that any audience member could find themselves in.
The film’s power is with the scenes between Leah and Rachel and Leah and Bex. Ruth Platt makes sure that the scenes with Leah and Rachel ooze with suspense, as you never really know what Rachel’s intentions are towards Leah, and they are made even more creepy with some of the revelations made about Rachel as the film goes on. Meanwhile, the scenes between Leah and Bex also provide more questions. At times, a real sense of love seems to be between the sisters and Bex seems to want to protect Leah, then at other times she is the tormentor.
The film’s biggest weakness, however, is its length. Platt tries to draw out the storylines involving Thomas and Sarah, and while the secret between them plays an important part to the film’s plot, those scenes seem to drag. As an audience member, you find yourself just earning to get back to the scenes involving Leah and Bex or Leah and Rachel. Luckily, it is the story around those three characters that does at least bring a sense of closure to the film.
Of course, with power generated in these scenes, I found the acting performances of Kiera Thompson and Hannah Rae truly amazing. Rae is one of those actresses that can steal any scene that she is in, and when you combine her performance here with her work in Carmilla and Fighting With My Family, there is little wonder why she needs to be considered one of Hollywood’s breakout artists at the moment.
Thompson is also impressive, a real credit when you realise that at her young age she basically carries the film and is pretty much in every scene. At times, throughout the film, her performance resembled that of a young Drew Barrymore in E.T.. Thompson is guaranteed to become a star in her own right.
As far as alternative horrors go, Martyrs Lane is well worth a look. Brilliant performances by its lead actresses and a realistic yet supernatural plot line makes this one of the surprise films of Fantasia.
Martyrs Lane is screening as part of the Fantasia Film Festival until the 25th of August.