‘Martyrs Lane’ review: an imaginary friend horror filled with subtle scares

The worst kind of 'frenemy' is the one no one can see but you

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    I know someone who, as a child, lost his two imaginary friends on the ferry crossing to a family holiday in France. His grandfather, sick of hearing about them, confirmed precisely where the invisible pals were standing then shoved them overboard into the English Channel, where they sputtered and sank. The pair never visited my friend again and his granddad had probably done him a favour in the long run – even if the memory haunts him to this day.

    Were that things could be so simple for little Leah (Kiera Thompson) in Martyrs Lane, streaming on Shudder now. Minister’s daughter Leah is a pious, serious child who believes her pet rabbit is pregnant by the Holy Spirit, and that an angel – in the form of another little girl – visits her at night. The visits are full of fun and laughter at first, but they take a subtly sinister turn when the angel begins sending Leah on treasure hunts to find lost objects relating to family secrets.

    It’s perhaps unfortunate that this ‘imaginary frenemy’ film arrives one day before horror titan James Wan unleashes his own take on the idea, Malignant, in cinemas nationwide. But these are different beasts. Where Wan is a maximalist, a virtuoso of the loud bang, Martyrs Lane director Ruth Platt lets subtlety and storytelling do the work. In that regard, it helps to have a cast with acting chops as serious as its adult star Denise Gough, the go-to unravelling woman following her award-winning appearances in The National Theatre’s People, Places & Things and recent ITV three-parter Too Close.

    In its own way, and without the implication of baked-in naffness, Martyrs Lane feels a bit like a good quality British TV drama done up as a horror film. Its on-trend poster has a washed-out picture of Leah’s friend behind a veil, looking like she’s about to projectile vomit ectoplasm and satanic bile all over you. In reality, the film isn’t like that – it’s much more human; a story about families, faith and grief. It’s a simple tale but it’s told with subtlety and understatement. Little over-reactions in human interactions are explained when the truth begins to reveal itself, and the relationship between the two little girls is reminiscent of the core friendship in Let The Right One In, even if the young stars here are a bit too fresh from Saturday acting classes to carry it.

    If lured by the poster, horror fans will appreciate the couple of jump scares, the angel’s increasingly creepy tone and scenes so dimly lit you worry you might evolve into a Mole Person before its 95 minutes are up. Those who might normally turn their nose up at horror can tell themselves this is a classic British ghost story in the tradition of M.R. James and Susan Hill. They should also get over themselves and watch the bonkers new Wrong Turn as well, but you have to start somewhere.

    Details

    • Director: Ruth Platt
    • Starring: Denise Gough, Keira Thompson, Steven Cree
    • Release date: September 9 (Shudder)
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