We’re used to seeing kids make friends with ghosts in horror…
…Whether we’re talking Poltergeist, Sinister, The Amityville Horror, and many others, the genre has used kids as somewhat of a spiritual conductor for decades. But one thing we haven’t seen much of are those types of spooky tales from the child’s point of view, which is something writer/director Ruth Platt’s Martyrs Lane looks to change.
This grim story is put in the hands of Leah (Kiera Thompson), an asthmatic 10-year-old girl who resides in a vicarage by an old cemetery. Leah lives somewhat of an ironic life in that her house is constantly bustling with people during the day, yet she couldn’t be lonelier. Her mother, Sarah (Denise Gough) spends most of her time alternating between sleeping, crying and ignoring Leah. Her priestly father, Thomas (Steven Cree) is hardly ever around, and her sister, Bex (Hannah Rae) is the epitome of the mean older sister trope. So when a nameless little ghost girl (Sienna Sayer) comes calling, Leah immediately makes friends with her. But her new friend wants more than a playmate.
Off the top of my head, I can’t think of too many cinematic haunts that have been told directly through the eyes of a child, and that goes a long way in setting Martyrs Lane apart from the pack. Platt and cinematographer Mark Gyori present the film in a way which only Leah can experience it. The camera often stays low to the ground, making the adults and stick up her butt Bex appear larger and more intimidating. Platt opens the film with Leah wandering around, virtually ignored by everyone looming over her. She’s a little girl in a world of heartless giants, her vulnerability emphasized with a little casual abuse from Bex.
Angry teens are going to angry teen, I guess.
Thompson is utterly captivating in the role, and I’d be surprised if some viewers escape the film without her moving them to tears. She brings a tremendous amount of fragile loneliness to the part, as well as a bravery that commands your attention. For reasons unbeknownst to us, Sarah wears a pendant around her neck containing a single lock of hair, a pendant which she is extremely protective over, which of course has Leah’s curiosity through the roof. Watching Martyrs Lane inspires those fearful feelings of being a kid again, when something like a ghost was magical and adults were more terrifying than anything. A good chunk of the early suspense comes from Leah doing things like sneaking around the creakiest goddamn house on the planet in an attempt to steal the locket, a frantic cacophony of whispers building like her own rising heartbeat. Platt consistently forces us to relive that universal fear of getting caught when you’re a kid, and it works wonders throughout Martyrs Lane.
But once Leah’s pale new friend shows up, Martyrs Lane takes us down a much more sinister path. Though it doesn’t feel that way at first.
Martyrs Lane initially comes off like a dark fairytale. Between the gothic vibe of Leah’s house—filled with images of the Mother Mary, always watching—and deep, saturated colors that instill an earthy atmosphere, Platt nails the aesthetic of what many of us may imagine a ghost story would look like through an imaginative little girl’s eyes. Even the ghost herself is presented in a way that a little girl may think of ghosts, dressed all in white and wearing wings like an angel. The chemistry between Thompson and Sayer is so adorable that you might drop dead yourself from an overload of cuteness.
But that’s part of the horror of Martyrs Lane. Platt invites the audience in, offers them some hot cocoa and makes them feel safe, all before tossing them into the roaring fire nearby.
Platt makes the scares in Martyrs Lane look effortless. Accompanied by Anne Muller’s effectively creepy score which creaks and groans all throughout, Platt takes us through long stretches of quiet eeriness before suddenly screaming in our faces with rushing camera movements and brief but frightening images. You should know though that this isn’t The Conjuring. Scares are few and far between in Martyrs Lane. Instead, Platt lets the gothic atmosphere permeate. Sayer can proudly elevate herself onto the long list of creepy girls in horror, done up with an unsettling makeup that progressively becomes ghastlier and doing her best Salem’s Lot impression as she gently claws at Leah’s window to get in. And don’t even get me started on the skin-prickling sound design which has Sayer’s bones snap crackle and popping with each movement.
The downside to Martyrs Lane is that it’s one of those stories where the audience is always more than a few steps ahead of the protagonist. I won’t label it “predictable”—I hate that term—but as Leah’s creepy friend continues to give her new tasks, the viewer spends a lot of the time just waiting for Leah to catch up to what we’re already pretty sure we know, kind of like playing a board game with a small child. It can be fascinating to watch, but your patience may be tested. In other words, Martyrs Lane often loses momentum, with A+ performances and Platt’s top-notch direction keeping us engaged.
Martyrs Lane shares a lot in common with classic ghost stories, in that this is a movie much more inclined to explore the way in which grief and our inability to let go destroys everything around us. It floats along like a spirit in a graveyard, quiet and lonely and overwhelmingly sad. While Platt’s film may wander a little too much for some or surprise too little for others, it’s ultimately a moving ghost story told like a grim children’s book filled with wonder, chills, and most importantly, heart.
Martyrs Lane arrives on Shudder September 9th.
By Matt Konopka