Adapted from her own short film, writer/director Ruth Platt’s supernatural story should find the right audience when it appears on the Shudder horror channel later this year. A ghost story in the traditional sense, there’s some very familiar elements here; spectral little girls with ringlets, darting figures in the distance, toy blocks spelling out forbidden names. But Platt makes something fresh from the ingredients, and Martyrs Lane will work wonders for the discerning.
Leah (Kiera Thompson) is a ten-year-old girl who lives with her parents; her dad Thomas (Stephen Cree) is a local minister, and her mother Sarah (Denise Gough) is tormented by some past event. Leah herself is haunted by a spirit, Rachel (Sienna Sayer) who engages her with jokes and games. Could she be some kind of angel? Whether she’s an angel or a demon remains unknown for the length of Martyrs Lane; only in the last few moments does Platt shows her hand.
Horror in cinema has largely been a male preserve; it’s instructive to see that a female hand at the tiller produces a very different film. Gough has the look of ghostly child Sarah Collins in the tv show Dark Shadows, or even Kirsten Dunst in Interview with a Vampire, but Leah is too young to recognise a cliché and takes Rachel’s friendship at face value. Martyrs Lane is much more about the ongoing relationship between the two girls than any investigation or mystery; the audience will be several jumps ahead of Leah, which adds to the sense of doom.
Although the cars eventually give away that Martyrs Lane has a modern setting, the feel of the film is very mid-70’s, with olde worlde furnishings and no technology in view. That traditionalism extends to the feel of the film; this isn’t the kind of horror that sees the characters bloodily renovating their own skulls, but a cerebral piece that absorbs the attention. Leah’s disconnect from her mother and sister make more sense once Rachel’s secret is revealed, and what Martyrs Lane lacks in trauma, it gains in social relevance. Not for the splatter crowd, Platt’s elegant film is one that will delight those with a genuine taste for the supernatural.
Martyrs Lane screned at EIFF 2021 and premieres September 9 on Shudder.
Thanks to BFI and EDINBURGH INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL for access to this title.