The way genre can be used to explore and enhance thematic material isn’t a secret anymore. Horror films used to be routinely dismissed at face value, thought of as distasteful or juvenile with no redeeming qualities. Given that “prestige horror” has gradually become a thing since the late 1960s, with horror movies looking and feeling almost indistinguishable from mainstream dramas, it’s easy for such films to let the trappings of the genre substitute for any drama by itself. Martyrs Lane is unfortunately one of these films, a movie that creates a great deal of mood and portent around a story that it holds back from the audience for nearly the entire runtime. While certainly eerie throughout, the film keeps too much at arm’s length, making what could’ve been a moving look at death and loss a frustrating guessing game.
Writer-director Ruth Platt does a fantastic job establishing a mood and tone for Martyrs Lane right from the beginning, as 10-year-old Leah (Kiera Thompson) finds herself largely on her own in her small English town. Her family provide little companionship: pastor-father Thomas (Steven Cree) is kindly but often absent as he tends to the needs of his parishioners, big sister Bex (Hannah Rae) is moody when she’s not bullying and mother Sarah (Denise Gough) is inattentive and emotionally distant while fussing over curious details like the locket she wears around her neck. One day, Leah opens that locket, finding a tuft of golden hair inside, her theft unseen by her mother but nonetheless sending Sarah into a minor breakdown over the locket’s missing contents. Soon after losing the hair by accident, Leah comes across a young girl her age (Sienna Sayer) running around the woods near her home. The girl is wearing a tattered, Halloween costume-style angel outfit, and the impressionable and devout Leah believes this could mean the girl is her guardian angel. She begins playing and hanging out with the girl, who she discovers does not have a name, and who drops eerie riddles regarding where that tuft of hair from the locket may have disappeared to. As Leah searches for the hair based on the girl’s hints, she finds clues to a part of her family’s history she hadn’t known before.
With that setup, Martyrs Lane adopts a spooky short story vibe, which makes a lot of sense given that the feature is an expansion of a short film Platt made in 2019 of the same name. There are many literary allusions in the film, from the way the mysterious girl insinuates herself into Leah’s room (tapping on her window at night, evoking Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot) to the girl’s game of having Leah give her a name, echoing the Brother’s Grimm’s Rumpelstiltskin. While production designer Gini Godwin gives Martyrs Lane a tactile grounding with the setting of an old, modest home and a surrounding woods that are filled with various found and aged objects, Platt and cinematographer Márk Györi give these details a Gothic flavor, making each object feel somehow occult. The movie never ventures into any sort of blatant action setpiece, yet it features some fantastic jump scares. Platt uses the tone of Martyrs Lane and its disquiet to mislead the audience into a false sense of security, allowing for moments of subtle nightmarish imagery — no obvious ghouls or grisly things, but rather odd and surreal moments that feel truer to the uncanny experience of a nightmare. Martyrs Lane is a gorgeously shot film, and its visual aesthetic along with its talented cast carry it far.
Sadly, it’s not far enough, as Platt’s script keeps all its secrets held tightly until literally the last 10 minutes of Martyrs Lane, the wonderful mood she’s built deflating long before then. The way Platt trusts her audience to put various pieces of backstory together is admirable, refusing to spell everything out and telling the story through Leah’s limited perspective. However, it means that one is often a little ahead of the film and Leah, making it frustrating as one waits for the character to catch up and learn what’s already been surmised. Thanks to Leah being in the dark about the true nature of her mysterious “angel” friend, the viewer is left confused as to what stakes — if any — are in play. In other words, it’s unclear whether Leah and/or her family are in mortal danger from Leah’s continuing to let this spooky girl into their home, or merely emotional danger from buried secrets coming to the surface. It’s a shame, because the ultimate reveal is very much an emotional one, and while it does allow much of Martyrs Lane to fall into place, it’s too late for the reveal to have the power the film seems to hope it has. Rather than allowing her characters the space to deal with the trauma that Leah literally and figuratively digs up, Platt treats the bulk of the story as a twist, closing the movie down just as it thematically opens up. In this way, it feels like Martyrs Lane is doing a disservice to its actors — they’re all giving layered, fascinating performances, but the way the story is structured means their work becomes more of a guessing game then an empathetic window into their characters.
Ultimately, it feels like Martyrs Lane would work better in its original truncated format, the story a perfect length for a short subject. As a feature, it’s expanded in such a way that feels less like a deeper dive into the material and more like a delay. Like most last-act twist movies, it’s entirely possible that Martyrs Lane works better upon a repeat viewing, the clues and hints finally coming to fruition with the foreknowledge of the whole story. That doesn’t change the fact that an initial viewing is remarkably unsatisfying, the film’s attempt at catharsis in its finale ringing hollow thanks to the emotional groundwork not being laid properly. Ironically, Martyrs Lane does feel appropriately titled, named for a hidden road deep in the woods near Leah’s home that cars speed down dangerously fast, as the movie is similarly obscured, filled with hints and danger and yet is over too quickly. Hopefully, as the horror genre continues to grow and deepen, it won’t lose sight of itself as Martyrs Lane sadly does.
Bill Bria (@billbria) is a writer, actor, songwriter and comedian. ‘Sam & Bill Are Huge,’ his 2017 comedy music album with partner Sam Haft, reached #1 on an Amazon Best Sellers list, and the duo maintains an active YouTube channel and plays regularly all across the country. Bill‘s acting credits include an episode of HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and a featured parts in Netflix’s ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and CBS’ ‘Instinct.’ His film writing can also be seen at Crooked Marquee as well as his own website. Bill lives in New York City.