Featuring two of the most captivating child performances I’ve seen this year, this British horror offering, Martyrs Lane, from actor-turned-writer/director Ruth Platt (The Black Forest), centers on 10-year-old Leah (Kiera Thompson), whose family lives in a vicarage that would seem haunted on the best of days. In the case of Leah, however, she has always felt a distance between herself and her family, particularly her mother, Sarah (Denise Gough), who seems to be hiding a painful secret that makes her look at her youngest daughter with a blend of compassion, suspicion, and regret. With her father (Steven Cree) being the local minister and busy taking care of other lost souls, and her older sister (Hannah Rae) about to go away to university, young Leah feels especially isolated and alone, until an unexpected visitor in the form of Rachel (Sienna Sayer) comes tapping at her window one night.
I don’t think I’m spoiling anything to say that it’s fairly clear right out of the gate that Rachel is not completely normal. She’s likely a ghost or some entity that has a great deal of knowledge about Leah and her family, although she parcels out clues as to what these secrets might be as an excuse to keep coming back night after night to visit her new friend. These late-night exchanges are a way for the two girls to bond, but they also set up some of the most tense and outright scary moments in the movie. Very often, these clues are hidden around the house or property that are dangerous for Leah to get to, which perhaps might lead us to believe that Rachel is out to harm her. The incident that precedes Rachel showing up is Leah opening up her mother’s locket that contains a lock of blonde hair (neither Leah nor her sister have blonde hair). It isn’t that difficult to deduce what is going on within the family or who Rachel actually is, which doesn’t necessarily lessen the impact of the the film overall, though it does shortchange the mystery element somewhat.
Martyrs Lane is a delicate and beautifully shot work, and filmmaker Platt deserves a great deal of credit for making such a confident and genuinely eerie tale with such assurance and without always resorting to the usual horror tricks and tropes. The other fascinating aspect of the story is that we’re never quite sure what Rachel’s endgame is. Is she protecting Leah? Is she envious of her life and meaning to do her harm? Or is there someone else in the family she’s looking to take away? Since the story is clearly born of tragedy, it feels fairly certain throughout that it will end the same way, but even there, Platt finds ways to intrigue us. I loved the slow, creeping sense of dread that builds during the film’s brisk 90-plus minutes, and the core interactions between the two girls get increasingly more emotional and frantic with each new night. As mentioned, the two young actors are extraordinary here, their friendship as believable as the rift that ultimately divides them. Martyrs Lane is a powerfully intimate tale, whose only real shortcoming is that its big reveal isn’t much of a shocker. But when the storytelling is this strong, it’s a forgivable offense.
The film begins streaming September 9th on Shudder.
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