James Jay Edwards reviews Martyrs Lane, a slow-burn horror mystery film, written and directed by Ruth Platt, and starring Kiera Thompson and Sienna Sayer. (Shudder)
This week, after slumming it with blockbusters like Aquaman and Furious 7, director James Wan makes his triumphant return to horror with Malignant. Unfortunately, studios have been stingy with screenings for Malignant. But fear not, fright flick fans, our friends at Shudder also have a spooky movie releasing this week that they did screen for critics called Martyrs Lane.
Martyrs Lane is about a little girl named Leah (Kiera Thompson from The Salisbury Poisonings) who lives with her vicar father (Outlander’s Steven Cree), her depressed mother (Denise Gough from The Other Lamb), and her abusive sister (Carmilla’s Hannah Rae). In between the unintentional neglect of her mother and the borderline sadistic treatment from her sister, Leah finds solace in caring for her pet rabbit and wandering the grounds of the vicarage collecting odds and ends. Leah’s life changes when she is visited by a mysterious girl (Sienna Sayer from Bumps) who claims to be Leah’s guardian angel. The more Leah learns about her new friend, the more she realizes that the visitor may not be who she says she is.
(Martyrs Lane, theatrical release poster, courtesy Shudder)
Writer/director Ruth Platt (The Black Forest, The Lesson) fleshed out her 2019 short film of the same name into the feature-length Martyrs Lane. It’s a wonderful study of the loneliness that children can feel when there’s not much familial communication or camaraderie. It’s also a subtextual treatise on how religion can sometimes leave some of its followers behind. But most of all, it’s just a spooky-as-hell ghost story.
Martyrs Lane is also the very definition of slow-burn horror. Even for its modest 96-minute run time, the movie has a glacial pace. And as long as the audience knows this going in, it works in its favor, as there are scares peppered throughout that keep the viewer on their toes. Many of the scares are cheap and gimmicky editing and sound tricks, but some are genuinely creepy.
(Martyrs Lane, courtesy Shudder)
At the root of that creep is Leah’s little visitor. The girl is always shrouded in darkness, even when she appears in the stark light of day. Platt skillfully conceals the young lady from the audience, using everything from gauze blankets to selective camera focus to cloud her in mystery, so that even when she is clearly on camera, there’s still a deep and dark aura of mystery to her. Outwardly, the girl’s presence is not scary at all, but when it’s put into a visual context, she’s horrifying.
And it’s the little girls who steal the show in Martyrs Lane. Kiera Thompson pulls off Leah’s mixture of wide-eyed innocence and afraid-of-the-world skepticism perfectly. Sienna Sayer plays the mysterious stranger with just the right combination of warm and cold feelings, putting Leah at ease one moment, and then freaking her out mightily the next. And, together, the girls are, for lack of a better word, charming. At least as charming as a pair of young actresses can be in a supernatural thriller where one of them may or may not be a ghost.
(Martyrs Lane, courtesy Shudder)
In a nutshell, Martyrs Lane typifies British horror. It’s a methodically unfolding mystery, dark and dreadful, with just enough thrills to keep the audience paying attention. It has a retro feeling, harkening back to seventies gems like Don’t Look Now and The Wicker Man, but still manages to stay modern with its storytelling. It probably doesn’t have as much adrenaline as Malignant, but sometimes the calm is a good thing. Martyrs Lane washes over its audience rather than hitting it with a wave.
Martyrs Lane is now streaming on Shudder.
Check out the podcast Eye On Horror for more with James Jay Edwards, and also features Jonathan Correia and Jacob Davison.