Monday, October 7, 2013

Overlooked Gems #58 and 59: Wolf Creek/Martyrs

Wolf Creek Grade: 84/A-

Torture porn. It’s hard to get past a label like that, particularly when a film is released in conjunction with the likes of dunderheaded films like Saw. But there’s some real gems in the run of films I’d file under “extreme horror” rather than that loaded term. When it was released in 2005, Wolf Creek was dismissed when it wasn’t scorned. Roger Ebert famously gave it zero stars, and most other critics weren’t much kinder. But the film has found some champions over the years- Slant even put it on their Best of the Decade list. The film is deeply unsettling, even upsetting, but it’s not the pornographic exercise many made it out to be.

Two British tourists (Cassandra Magrath and Kestie Morassi) and their Australian friend (Nathan Phillips) are backpacking across Outback, eventually stopping at Wolf Creek National Park, the location of a giant crater. Their car breaks down, and they accept a ride from Mick (John Jarratt), a seemingly friendly local countryman. But the grouop soon finds Mick has more sinister intentions for them.

Writer-director Greg McLean hasn’t made much of a splash since Wolf Creek’s release, a real shame considering how deftly he handles the film’s two halves. For roughly an hour, there’s no violence in the film whatsoever, but rather an expressive sense of foreboding and doom. McLean shot the film on digital, but he manages to get evocative pictures of the Australian skies, seas, and deserts. It suggests an existential dread in style of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God, and it’s a shock that more critics weren’t knocked out by it.

Then again, perhaps they were thrown by the film’s gearshift in the second half, at which point the beautiful compositions and thrown into Texas Chainsaw Massacre-style grindhouse grit. Not all of the violence is actually shown (though what is on-screen is pretty gruesome), but the psychological effect is overpowering, and it isn’t leavened by the film’s grim, hopeless tone. The material might be familiar- Texas Chainsaw Down Under, if you will- but it’s nonetheless an effective portrait of youthful city folk meeting something horrifying out in nature. Like Hooper and Herzog’s films both, it’s a force to be reckoned with.
Martyrs Grade: 80/B+

But nasty as Wolf Creek is, it’s got nothing on Martyrs, a French horror film which seems to exist partially as the final word on how far extreme horror can go. The film follows Lucie (Mylene Jamponai) and Anna (Morjana Alaoui), two childhood friends dealing with the former’s horrible past. Lucie was abducted and tortured as a young girl, and now she believes she’s found the family responsible. But Lucie is psychologically disturbed, and she has visions of a deformed creature that’s after her. Anna knows her friend isn’t well, and she’s not sure that the people Lucie’s found are the people responsible.

That’s the set-up for the first half of Martyrs: Lucie’s revenge, and Anna’s reluctant help (and attempt to save one family member). It’s intense stuff, directed without mercy by Pascal Laugier, whose smart handheld work gives the film a nervy immediacy and sense of disbalance. The film’s use of POV, meanwhile, manages to blend horrible fantasy with harsh reality in a way that makes Martyrs feel like a nightmare.

And that’s the easy stuff. Without going into spoiler territory, the second half goes clinical and removed where the first half was immediate, as one of the characters is subjected to some of the worst torture imaginable (those with weak stomachs: avoid). This section breaks down our defenses systematically, using repetition to show just how hopeless the situation is. The film becomes reflexive and autocritical of the extreme horror genre, as if it’s asking what kind of pain a person can take, and what that suffering means. The answers are questionable, possibly even dubious- I’m still wrestling with what Laugier expects us to think of the film’s almost transcendently painful material. Nevertheless, it stands as proof, alongside Wolf Creek, that extreme horror isn’t half as artless as many believe it to be. It's pitiless, but not thoughtless.

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