By: Steph Cannon
Horror movies utilizing young children as the centerpiece of the story is hardly a new concept; in fact, some may say it’s overused and derivative. It’s easy to understand why this particular storytelling device is often applied, though. Children offer a precocious viewpoint into the world of the supernatural and unexplained that all can relate to, and empathize with.
MARTYRS LANE, written and directed by Ruth Platt, takes the familiar plot of a little girl in a big, old house, and offers a compelling and unique take on the supernatural overlay. Leah (Kiera Thompson) lives in a large vicarage with her parents and older sister Bex (Hannah Rae). By day, the house is in a constant state of activity, full of parishioners and the needy. It’s enough to keep her Vicar Father perpetually distracted, and her mother distant and disinterested in her needs. This leads to noticeable loneliness in Leah, allowing her ample time to wander the grounds and nearby forest, all while attempting to thwart the bullying tendencies of Bex.
Leah has a natural curiosity for both her surroundings and the details of her parents’ lives, which leads her to take a mysterious locket worn, and closely guarded by, her mother. This is the catalyst that sets off a chain of events that is the crux of the film. While the locket has the implication of being a pivotal totem that will be the most integral piece of the story, it’s merely one piece of a deeply-tangled web.
Despite this, the secrecy of the locket, plus the curl of hair contained inside consumes Leah for reasons she can’t fully comprehend. To further ignite these flames, a spectral little girl (Sienna Sayer) begins visiting Leah nightly, dressed in tattered clothes, with angel wings strapped to her back. Wings notwithstanding, there is an obvious angelic quality about this enigmatic girl, with just a twinge of dread that briefly emerges in unnerving moments.
The two girls interact in a natural, believable way, playing games and hiding under sheets, while sharing secrets with one another. Leah is equal parts fascinated by, and terrified of, her new friend. The film does an excellent job of subtly playing this out in a creeping, meticulous way. Every frame feels as though it’s gliding along in an ethereal manner, which expertly sets the melancholic tone that cloaks the entire story.
As the visits from the ghostly girl become more frequent, so do her influential suggestions to Leah on how to recover that missing lock of hair. Each terse order from Leah’s ghost friend leads her into increasingly dangerous situations, all in an attempt to find what she has lost. Not only do these excursions prove futile, they also uncover other strange items that only further the secrets surrounding her family.
While the conclusion to the overall mystery isn’t that difficult to deduce, the movie’s strongest points come from the phenomenal performances of its two young leads. Both girls exude maturity and confidence in their roles that is far beyond their years, and sometimes never achieved by counterparts in the industry three times their age. Each actress has her own unique brand of expression, that relies heavily on the “show don’t tell” aspect so highly respected in performing arts. Thompson, in particular, excels at facial cues that tell the audience exactly how Leah is feeling without even uttering a sound.
Platt’s screenplay and the production design are also equally impressive. Since a large bulk of the film is viewed through Leah’s perspective, everyday objects, such as furniture and religious statues, exude an oppressive malevolence. This only adds to the eerie filter that one views MARTYRS LANE through, which culminates in the gloomy final frames. It’s a delicately-weaved, quiet ghost story that provides a profound look into the secrets families hold, and how they come back to haunt us, no matter how hard we try to bury them.
MARTYRS LANE will stream exclusively on Shudder, beginning September 9 in the US, Canada, UK, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand.