Martyrs Lane is the latest horror film built around a metaphor for trauma in which boredom and cliche trump any catharsis.
There’s a palpable sense of melancholy at the heart of writer/director Ruth Platt’s Martyrs Lane, a ghost story that largely eschews scares in favor of exploring a young girl’s loneliness and her parent’s repressed trauma. 10-year-old Leah (Kiera Thompson) lives a reasonably comfortable life on an expansive rectory in the British countryside. Her father Thomas (Steven Cree) is the local vicar, who tends to a fairly diverse parish. Her older sister Bex (Hannah Rae) is killing time before leaving for college, and she and Leah bicker as siblings tend to do. Her mother Sarah (Denise Gough) has something of a stern air about her, always busy and reluctant to waste time on the frivolous flights of fancy that young children tend to indulge in. She’s not unkind, exactly; harried is more precise, with a kind of haunted, thousand-yard stare. Platt efficiently sketches in this quotidian familial dynamic with a careful emphasis on Leah’s perspective, frequently framing shots from her point of view — closer to the floor and peering around corners or through partially closed doors. One night, for no real reason other than that she’s a child, and children act on impulse, Leah steals a lock of hair from a pendant that her mother wears around her neck. Awakened by the disturbance, Sarah searches desperately for the item while Leah sneaks back to bed and tosses the hair out the window. She thinks she’s simply getting rid of the evidence of her harmless indiscretion, but Sarah is first frantic, then heartbroken. As if summoned by the lost totem, or perhaps by Leah’s guilt, a young girl begins visiting Leah in the middle of the night. Clad in a white dress with frilly angel’s wings strapped to her back, the visitor (played by Sienna Sayer) ingratiates herself to the lonely Leah as the pair play games and snuggle under the covers. To her credit, Platt doesn’t play coy with the young girl’s otherworldly provenance — she is a ghost, and she has a quest for Leah to complete.
Unfortunately, Platt does play coy about almost everything else in Martyrs Lane, creating a puzzle box narrative that quickly runs out of steam despite a relatively brief runtime. The visitor gives Leah new instructions every night, each one leading her to some lost bit of ephemera that, while meaningless to Leah, triggers furtive looks and audible gasps from mom and dad. Leah collects each trinket — small blocks with letters on them, an old doll, a missing button — and creates a kind of altar with them, although in service of something she doesn’t understand. Meanwhile, her nightly visitor becomes more aggressive with each task, and her white dress and costume wings begin to yellow and decay. It all eventually leads to the secret of what happened on Martyrs Lane, the source of Sarah’s distant, aloof personality. It’s a shame, as the narrative gamesmanship winds up detracting from what is a sharply drawn portrait of a family in distress. The film’s best scenes involve these fractured relationships mending, like Bex dropping her surly attitude to sleep next to a shaken Leah, or Leah’s father indulging in a moment of childlike glee while he prances about with her on his shoulders. Even poor Sarah occasionally relents and cracks a smile. Platt has a sharp eye, and gets outstanding performances from her cast; Thompson and Sayer are particularly good, and whatever virtues the film has rest largely on their small shoulders. There’s intimations of fairy tales here, as well as the occasional indulgence in “it was actually a dream” jump scares, but aside from an out-of-place, distractingly bombastic climax, which frustrates more than it edifies, Martyrs Lane barely constitutes a horror movie. And while Platt certainly has a knack for eerie atmospherics, there’s simply not enough here despite the ample talent on display. In the end, this is just another metaphor for trauma, with cliches and boredom ultimately trumping any sense of catharsis.
You can currently stream Ruth Platt’s Martyrs Lane on Shudder.
Originally published as part of Fantasia Fest 2021 — Dispatch 6.