A movie for every day of the year – a good one
Beginning of the Waco Siege, 1993
On this day in 1993, the Waco siege got underway. It started when the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) tried to raid the headquarters of the Branch Davidian sect, a breakaway of the Seventh Day Adventists. Housed in a compound east of Waco, Texas, after their numbers had grown, the Branch Davidians had originally been founded by Victor Houteff in 1929. They believed in imminent apocalypse. On Houteff’s death in 1955, leadership passed to Houteff’s widow. Florence predicted that the world would end in 1959. When this failed to happen she lost control of the Branch Davidians. Benjamin Roden took over, and when he died his wife Lois took over. She had decided against her own son, George, becoming the leader and fixed instead upon Vernon Howell. This led to a schism in the Davidians, which came to a head in 1988 when George challenged Howell to a corpse-resurrecting competition and Howell hit back by alerting the law to the fact that George was violating graves. After a gunfight and a courtcase, George killed a Davidian and ended up incarcerated, guilty but insane. Howell took over Branch Davidian HQ in Mount Carmel, changed his name to David Koresh “for publicity and business purposes” and set about recruiting followers who would accept his strictures – the men were to be celibate; the women were to have sex only with him. On 27 February 1993 the Waco Tribune-Herald started publishing articles alleging child abuse and rape at Mount Carmel. This prompted the raid by the ATF, who were keen to seize weapons they believed were held there. Four ATF agents and six Branch Davidians died in the ensuing gunfight. Which prompted the siege which lasted 51 days. At the end of which the FBI launched a tear gas attack. A fire started and burnt down the Mount Carmel centre, killing Koresh and 74 people, others having died from gunshot wounds, either self-inflicted or otherwise.
Martyrs (2008, dir: Pascal Laugier)
Martyrs opens with Lucie, a young girl recovering from some terrible ordeal that appears to have occurred in an abattoir. We’re not sure exactly what has happened, but we do know that it’s horrible. The film then cuts to 15 years later with a now grown-up Lucie and Anna, the friend she made in an orphanage, knocking on the front door of a nice suburban house, where they kill mum, dad and the two kids with a shotgun. “Do you know what your parents did?” Lucie asks the young boy just before she shoots him. “Are you sure it was them?” asks Anna. Seconds later the tables have been turned again and Anna is on her own. Minutes later Anna is in a cellar where she discovers something more horrific than a roomful of slayed children.
We’re a scant handful of minutes in and we’ve seen a victim become an aggressor become a victim in tense, bewildering style. And that’s just the beginning of the grisly fun and games. The French weren’t that well known for horror when Martyrs came out – there was Switchblade Romance, Trouble Every Day and a handful of others – but Martyrs really set the bar, particularly for the torture porn genre, which is where Martyrs usually gets lumped. It’s more than that though. It has relationships – the abused girl and the intense bond she has formed with another abused girl she met at the orphanage. It has psychology – how much of what’s going on is prompted by actual fact and how much has Lucie imagined as a result of the terrible trauma we’ve caught a suggestion of at the beginning? Most of all it has religious excess. And it’s this last that gives Martyrs its wild grotesque edge, though it would be spoilerish to detail how religion drives the plot, though a mysterious Catholic cult that fetishises transfiguration through pain – and the film’s title – are a hint. No, the French may not do horror too often, but maybe that’s a good thing when something as appalling (and compelling) as Martyrs is the result.
Frequently shot dark with directional lighting, shallow of focus, often in close-up, with a soundtrack of sighs and whispers, Martyrs prefers grotesque collage to straightforward storytelling. In terms of torture porn, it easily outdoes the Saw franchise, not least because there is some higher reason for the madness on display. And though watching a big solid brute of a man beat the shit out of a tiny girl isn’t my idea of fun, Martyrs at least isn’t pretending to be a horror film when it’s in fact a sex film or a comedy thinly disguised, as is so often the case with this genre. No, Martyrs really is a horror film.
- A contender for the best horror film of the past 50 years
- The soundtrack by Alex and Willie Cortés
- Spot the different DPs – Stéphane Martin, Nathalie Moliavko-Visotzky, Bruno Philip
- A thoughtful accompanying behind-the-scenes documentary
Martyrs – at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2014