Fantasia Fest 2021: Martyrs Lane ruminates on grief via unconventional ghost story

Martyrs Lane - Courtesy of Sharp House/Fantasia
Martyrs Lane - Courtesy of Sharp House/Fantasia /

The following is a spoiler-free review of the Fantasia Fest film Martyrs Lane

Martyrs Lane is a haunting fairytale and melancholic ghost story grappling with the overbearing presence of grief. While there is a supernatural presence in the shape of a cherubic little girl played by Sienna Sayer, Martyrs Lane uses mourning and bereavement much the same Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House does. While watching the film, I was reminded of the quote from Steve Crain, that a “ghost can be a lot of things.”

Directed and written by British filmmaker Ruth Platt, Martyrs Lane is a deeply introspective film told from a child’s perspective. Much of the film weighs on the performance of newcomer Kiera Thompson, who plays the central protagonist Leah. Leah lives in a vicarage with her older sister Bex (Hannah Rae), her father Thomas (Steven Cree), and her grief-stricken mother Sarah (Denise Gough).

From the film’s opening moments, an immediate contrast is created between the quiet, somber nights where the house lie empty and the bustling, loud days where the family is often busy tending to church commitments. Religion is a significant overture throughout Martyrs Lane, both in how Leah’s spectral friend is initially depicted as a guardian angel and the many references that appear throughout.

Yet despite the family’s dedication to their religion, Leah seeks solace in other ways as she tries to bridge an insurmountable gap between herself and her mother. Sarah’s gold locket is a point of endless fascination for Leah as she tries to understand why her mother is so distant from her. She fixates on the locket, believing an answer might reside inside it.

From the very beginning, Leah struggles to connect to her mother and often feels like an outlier in her family. That’s why it’s so easy for her to form a kinship with her strange nighttime visitor, a lovely little ghost girl who is happy to play games with her. But as the film progresses, Leah’s new friend starts assigning her increasingly dangerous tasks, and it begins to feel as if she has a sinister ulterior motive.

Martyrs Lane
Martyrs Lane – Courtesy of Sharp House/Fantasia /

Martyrs Lane is an introspective tale of grief.

And what is a martyr? Someone so dedicated to their religion or a purpose that they’re unwilling to give it up even if it means succumbing to death or sacrifice. It’s an interesting theme toyed with throughout the film that sometimes reminds me of Pet Semetary, except here the movie ruminates and meanders instead of resorting to traditional horror tactics like blood and gore.

Martyrs Lane likely won’t scare any diehard genre fans. It’s not as much a terrifying movie as it is a thoughtful, reflective one. The performances are all top-notch, and the score is a low, thrumming sound like the blood rushing through your ears, adept at building palpable suspense.

I recommend this movie to those interested in watching a unique ghost story that leans more into family drama than abject horror. Martyrs Lane could probably have used another edit, as the pacing is too slow in some parts and can leave the viewer restless, but overall it’s still a captivating entry from Platt, who clearly has a distinctive vision. Ultimately the movie culminates in an ambiguous ending that feels cathartic and earned for the characters’ emotional journeys.

It’s not surprising that given the film’s cast and its evocative story that Shudder purchased the North America, UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand rights.

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