William Castle meets David Lynch in the widescreen horror romp "Saint Martyrs of the Damned." Simultaneously sending up the genre while presenting an unsettling story of bizarre mystery and genetic mischief in a rural Quebecois hellhole, French-lingo writing-helming debut from thesp and music vid helmer Robin Aubert satisfies on many levels.

William Castle meets David Lynch in the widescreen horror romp “Saint Martyrs of the Damned.” Simultaneously sending up the genre while presenting an unsettling story of bizarre mystery and genetic mischief in a rural Quebecois hellhole, French-lingo writing-helming debut from thesp and music vid helmer Robin Aubert satisfies on many levels. Nevertheless, pic is so determinedly out there that it may prove a tough theatrical sell beyond its home territory. Fests with late night sidebars will genuflect, and, while pic will lose visual oomph on the tube, DVD afterlife on large-screen home rigs will be brisk and rewarding.

Summoned by his editor father (Pierre Collin), who wants one last big scoop for his tabloid before retirement, cocky correspondent Flavien Juste (Francois Chenier) is dispatched, along with photog pal Armand (Patrice Robitaille), to investigate strange disappearances in and around the remote Quebecois burg of Saint Martyrs of the Damned. When they arrive at the 2 Malvinas Lodge, which appears at first blush to be the Canadian cousin of The Overlook, Armand promptly vanishes.

While trying to find him, Flavien is dogged by the spirit of a long-dead bride, who is trailed by tin cans from her train and weeps a great deal. Things only become stranger, as Francois grapples with two violent greasers, a corrupt mayor, a pair of innkeepers who may or may not be dead, a masked mechanic, a teddy bear named Raymond, and, ultimately, sinister experiments in a large deserted factory outside town.

With the help and support of blues-playing local Missy (Isabelle Blais) and her cute kid Quentin, aka Peanut (Alec Poirier), Flavien finally uncovers the town’s ghastly secret — but pays a high price for the information.

For the first 45 minutes or so, Aubert seems torn between spoofing horror film conventions and telling a straight-ahead story. The nearly continuous reappearance of the dead bride gives rise to a procession of cheap shock effects that become absurdly amusing even as they continue to sting auds.

Indeed, story’s set-up is so transparently thin that it’s a credit to helmer’s genre savvy that second and third act events obliterate the initial skepticism. Cockeyed tributes abound, from nods to mainstream screamers “Night of the Living Dead” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” to more esoteric fare such as Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” and even 2004 Hungarian chiller “After the Day Before.”

Only ambitious plotting, some late-reel repetition and sporadic dragginess mar the otherwise smart running time.

Little-known outside Quebec, popular tube and stage star Chenier brings an everyman insouciance to Flavien. Blais had two distinctive scenes as the shipbound daughter in “The Barbarian Invasions,” and here impresses with a combined winsomeness and mystery. Remainder of cast is well into pic’s bizarre spirit.

Tech package is damned fine, led by Steve Asselin’s playfully inventive widescreen lensing, atmospherically desaturated and re-colorized by Nico Ilies. David Pelletier’s terrific production design makes everything old new again, as if the sinister sets of “Blue Velvet” had been re-imagined by Laura Ashley. Measured editing and complex sound design contribute mightily to the sense of unease and otherworldly shenanigans.

Pic opened in Quebec Oct. 14; thesp Hubert Loiselle died in November 2004, immediately after completing his role.

Saint Martyrs Of The Damned

Canada

Production

A Max Films production. (International sales: Max Films Intl., Montreal.) Produced by Roger Frappier, Luc Vandal. Directed, written by Robin Aubert.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Steve Asselin; editor, Michel Arcand; music, Yves Desrosiers; production designer, David Pelletier; costume designer, Julie Charland; sound (Dolby Digital), Gilles Corbeil, Jean-Philippe Savard, Gavin Fernandes; assistant director, Mireille Goulet. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Canada First!), Sept. 17, 2005. (Also in New Montreal Film Festival.) Running time: 117 MIN.

With

Francois Chenier, Isabelle Blais, Monique Mercure, Monique Miller, Patrice Robitaille, Alexis Martin, Hubert Loiselle, Pierre Collin. (French dialogue)

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