Supernatural fairytale Martyrs Lane is Ruth Platt’s follow-up to her micro-budget dark comedy The Black Forest (2019). The film puts the viewer in the tiny shoes of 10-year-old Leah (Kiera Thompson), who is visited by a mysterious presence every night in the vicarage where she lives with her mum (Denise Gough), dad (Steven Cree) and older sister Bex (Hannah Rae).
The surrounding woodland, graveyard and church building provide ample spooky space for ghosts to roam and make mischief. As Leah strikes up a friendship with a spirit who claims to be her ‘guardian angel’, it’s her naive faith and trust in those around her that Platt uses to effectively build suspense and intrigue. Martyrs Lane explores themes of loss and grief in inventive ways, creating an unsettling ambience that makes you terrified for Leah’s safety as she’s led on a treasure hunt of sorts to uncover a buried secret.
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Horror has always held up a mirror to reality, and supernatural stories often confront painful truths tethered to the personal and the political. In recent years, grief and unfinished family business reach out from the beyond in Oculus (2013), Personal Shopper (2016), A Dark Song (2016) and Hereditary (2018), while comedy is effectively blended with horror in Housebound (2014) and Extra Ordinary (2019) to explore similar territory.
Real events have provided the jumping off point for many contemporary ghost stories, with the recent past haunting the present. Culturally specific folktales and history have been powerfully woven in. The Devil’s Backbone (2001) looked to the Spanish civil war, Los silencios (2018) to the Colombian armed conflict, La llorona (2019) to the Guatemalan genocide, and the genre-bending Sicilian Ghost Story (2017) to an infamous Mafia kidnapping.
Host (2020) was a viral sensation during lockdown in the UK, summoning our collective dread and panic through a terrifying Zoom séance. The Others (2001) and Insidious (2010) took inspiration from haunted-house classics, and The Conjuring (2013) added real-life to the mix by channelling the cases of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren into a wholly frightening experience.
Jump-scares, dread-induced tension and sorrowful drama – the supernatural horror combines all these elements, using ear-piercing sound design, emotive performances and potent imagery to examine our deep-rooted fears.
Martyrs Lane, backed by the BFI Film Fund, is released on Shudder from 10 September 2021.
Dark Water (2002)
Director: Hideo Nakata
In the 2000s, American remakes of Japanese horror films were all the rage, with Hideo Nakata’s Ring (1998), Takashi Shimizu’s The Grudge (2002) and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse (2001) all redone by Hollywood in varying degrees of quality. The US remakes never held a candle to the originals, and that’s certainly true in the case of Nakata’s heartbreaking Dark Water, which was remade to diminishing returns starring Jennifer Connelly.
Striking a melancholic tone from the start, this nuanced horror about a woman going through a messy divorce gradually reveals details about its central character’s past to unearth a deeply buried traumatic event. Nakata employs watery metaphors, a labyrinthine apartment and strange spirits to create a disorientating ambience of impending doom and psychological deterioration.
A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
Director: Kim Jee-woon
Director Kim Jee-woon’s modern interpretation of a Korean folk tale about two sisters drowned by their stepmother was one of the breakout films of the Korean New Wave. It got a Hollywood remake in 2009. The suspicious death of her mother haunts young Su-mi (Im Soo-jung) who returns to her rural family home after a stay at a psychiatric hospital. Her father all but ignores her presence, and a wicked stepmother instils fear, which in turn forces Su-mi to become hugely protective of her younger sister.
Truly horrifying ghosts, menstrual blood, a whole lot of screaming and twists galore punctuate this unnerving ghost story about trauma. As Su-mi pieces together fragments of painful memories, guilt and blame torment her fragile psyche to breaking point. This is a film that subverts expectations throughout as it turns back time to reveal grief’s lasting force. It establishes a sense of eerie unknowing as it navigates the long corridors of an isolated home to heighten tension. A Tale of Two Sisters uses richly toned colours to symbolise repression and the death of childhood innocence.
The Orphanage (2007)
Director: J.A. Bayona
One of the saddest ghost stories ever committed to film, J.A. Bayona’s feature debut, produced by Guillermo del Toro, conveys with haunting elegance the anguish of a mother whose son has disappeared, feared dead. It captures the joys of motherhood before they are cruelly snatched away in an instant. Belén Rueda’s grief-stricken mother goes on a search for her seven-year-old adopted son, turning to paranormal investigators for help when she starts to see a strange sack-masked child wandering her home.
Set in an old orphanage for disabled children, this film confronts a history of tragic neglect and a society that turns its back on its most vulnerable. There are shades of Shirley Jackson’s gothic literature in Bayona’s unsettling horror as it reaches a devastating conclusion.
The Innkeepers (2011)
Director: Ti West
In his fifth feature film, Ti West riffs on both twenty-something existential crises and the inconveniences of staying in a hotel for an effectively jumpy and hilarious haunted-house horror. Sara Paxton and Pat Healy star as receptionists who work at the Yankee Pedlar Inn, which is going out of business in two days time. The last guests have checked in (one played by Kelly McGillis), and Paxton’s Claire is convinced she’s seen the ghost of a woman who took her own life in the 1800s.
West builds tension and uses clever wordplay to subvert expectations in a film that acts as a perfect time capsule for the early 00s. It speaks to a generation who grew up in the dot.com boom and spent hours building social media profiles using MySpace before it was overshadowed by Facebook.
The Babadook (2014)
Director: Jennifer Kent
Essie Davis turns in a powerhouse performance as single mum Amelia in Jennifer Kent’s inventive debut feature. Amelia is grieving the death of her husband, starved of intimacy, horny as hell, and can’t get any respite in between her demanding job and caring for her son Samuel, who is displaying behavioural issues. When a creepy kids’ book, titled Mister Babadook, suddenly manifests in their house and turns into an unstoppable beast, it acts as allegory for an inescapable nightmare of growing resentment and fear.
The pressures of motherhood were turned into big scares in James Wan’s The Conjuring (2013), and, here, Kent adds nuanced layers by blending a monster movie about compounded grief and depression with supernatural tropes. Creaking doors, the menacing (now iconic) top hat-wearing apparition slithering out of dark corners and a basement full of dark secrets all make for seriously terrifying viewing.
Crimson Peak (2015)
Director: Guillermo del Toro
At turns scary and sexy, this gothic romance from horror maestro Guillermo del Toro summons the spirit of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Hitchcock and Hammer productions, adding a sly postmodern edge. As is the tradition with del Toro, the spectres in this piece – played by Doug Jones and Javier Botet – may appear in terrifying form but are a helpful presence to Mia Wasikowska’s aspiring author and newlywed, Edith Cushing, as she arrives at her new home.
The sumptuous production design of the crumbling Allerdale Hall combined with an alluring Tom Hiddleston, a menacing and endlessly quotable Jessica Chastain, and Charlie Hunnam over-pronouncing ‘Edith’ so many times you lose count makes for deliciously enthralling and macabre viewing. Wasikowska’s bookish heroine’s coming-of-age is glorious to behold, as it makes a radical departure from the norms of the genre.
Under the Shadow (2016)
Director: Babak Anvari
For his debut feature Babak Anvari explores the human cost of the Iran-Iraq conflict and Sharia law from the point of view of a woman who has been stripped of her independence. Set in 1980s Tehran, Under the Shadow sees a family being slowly torn apart during a missile strike by Iraq. Father and doctor Iraj (Bobby Naderi) is conscripted to the front lines while mother Shideh (Narges Rashidi) stays behind with daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), her insecurities and fears for her own future and the future of her child manifesting into a djinn spirit.
The emotional toll of living under the shadow of war and having your aspirations stolen away in the blink of an eye is powerfully conveyed, with slow-burn tension and one of the most memorable jump scares of this century. Anvari takes his time in releasing the terror on a woman who is losing her home, her freedom and quite possibly her mind, with the last 20 minutes of the film a nerve-wracking race against the clock and away from imminent danger.
Tigers Are Not Afraid (2017)
Director: Issa López
Director Issa López combines magic realism, social drama and the supernatural to pay tribute to the lost children of mothers who’ve disappeared during the violence waged by drug cartels in Mexico. When her mother disappears, young Estrella (Paola Lara) joins a gang of boys and pickpockets who have created a rooftop fort and family of their own in order to survive.
In López’s hands the drug war told from a child’s perspective becomes a powerful tale of loss of innocence and grief, packed full of potent imagery and imagination. She turns graffiti into animated animal spirits, and plastic wrapped corpses into frightening yet benevolent guides. Hauntings even take place in the daylight, with the film unafraid to call out a corrupt government.
Director: Mati Diop
Actor turned director Mati Diop made history with her poetic supernatural horror set in Dakar, as the first Black woman to win the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival. The film, based on her docu-fiction short, pays tribute to male refugees who set sail across the treacherous ocean from Senegal to Europe in search of a better life.
Together with cinematographer Claire Mathon, Diop sets a melancholic and otherworldly tone through haunting visuals of the sea at night, and uses the culturally specific djinn spirit as a supernatural force. The score by Fatima Al Qadiri furthers the eerie tone, as the lost men possess the bodies of the women they left behind to call out greedy capitalism and speak their last words to their loved ones.
His House (2020)
Director: Remi Weekes
Remi Weekes’ chilling depiction of the British asylum-seeking process told from the perspective of a displaced couple from South Sudan features two deeply affecting performances from Sope Dirisu and Wunmi Mosaku, beautiful production design that recalls the hand-painted backdrops of the classic Japanese ghost story anthology Kwaidan (1964), and a strong grip on politics similar to the socially charged films of George A. Romero.
Weekes is careful not to make his characters mouth pieces for social commentary, instead using haunted-house tropes to unearth personal demons and ghosts. As the pair find it increasingly difficult to adjust in a hostile environment, and psychological decay sets in, Weekes creates an oppressive tone that’s at turns absurd, surreal and absolutely terrifying.