MARTYRS LANE ****
Directed by Ruth Platt.
Starring Kiera Thompson, Sienna Sayer, Denise Gough, Steven Cree, Hannah Rae.
Horror/Drama, 97 mins, cert 15.
Released on DVD and digital in the UK from Acorn Media International on the 4th July 2022. RRP £15.99.
If SALEM’S LOT didn’t do enough to deter children from letting in undead playmates who tap on their window in the middle of the night, then perhaps MARTYRS LANE will finally do the trick as Ruth Platt’s hauntingly melancholic chiller sees its release on DVD and digital from Acorn Media International.
The story centres on a lonely 10-year-old girl Leah (Kiera Thompson) who lives in a large and creaky rural vicarage alongside her busy priest father Thomas (Steven Cree), emotionally distant mother Sarah (Denise Gough) and unpleasant teenage sister Bex (Hannah Rae). No-one has time for Leah until she gets a knock on her window during a stormy night and meets a strange little girl called Rachel (Sienna Sayer) wearing homemade angel wings. They soon bond over anecdotes about dogs eating tubes of toothpaste, and boasts of custard cream eating skills, and as the evening ends Rachel leaves Leah with the first clue to a scavenger hunt around the vicarage grounds. With each subsequent nightly appearance Rachel gives Leah another clue to a new item’s location, but she also starts to look less and less well. With each object that she finds, Leah is lead closer to a tragic revelation about Rachel’s past that will change her relationship to her family for ever.
It’s always a risk to have a film so dependent on the performance of a child actor (Leah is in nearly every scene), but thankfully the two young stars of MARTYRS LANE turn in fantastic performances throughout, even outshining their adult counterparts. They have a believable naturalistic chemistry with each other, vital for the film to work on an emotional level, and neither of them ever strays into precociously annoying child actor territory. I can imagine that they both have long successful careers ahead of them, and it’s also a massive credit to the director Platt for getting these great performances out of them.
MARTYRS LANE worked for me but it’s not a horror film for everyone. It’s more likely to leave you feeling sad, and slightly uneasy, rather than outright scared or thrilled. For the most part the horror is understated, and as a whole it almost functions more as a family drama examining grief or a gothic fairy-tale than a straightforward “horror”. There are no cheap jump scares or a reliance on a bombastic score (music is mostly absent, and when there is a score it’s very subtly used). This is in the vein of other recent low-key moody independent British and Irish horror dramas such as YOU ARE NOT MY MOTHER and MANDRAKE (which both screened at this year’s Glasgow FrightFest).
The special features included on the DVD are limited, there’s a short behind the scenes video with interviews from the cast and crew and another separate one featuring an interview with just the director (but, cheekily, some of her same soundbites are repeated in both videos!) and then there’s a photo gallery. These disappointingly bare bones featurettes are to be expected from this kind of small release and this does mean that, since this film is a Shudder Original, that there’s no real reason to purchase this DVD if you already subscribe to that streaming service.
Overall, this is an effectively haunting low-key horror drama with some great performances. It’s certainly not one to pop on for a fun movie night, but if you’re in a melancholy mood and fancy something a bit more thoughtful then MARTYRS LANE might be for you.
Reviewed by John Upton