Martyrs Lane invites an angelic, ghostly child into a family home

British writer-director Ruth Platt’s vicarage-set return to genre work deals in body horror and emotional power rather than set piece shocks.

9 September 2021

By Josh Slater-Williams

Martyrs Lane (2021)
Sight and Sound

Martyrs Lane is available to stream on Shudder.

The spectre of unprocessed grief looms large in writer-director Ruth Platt’s Martyrs Lane, an effective British ghost story with religious undertones. Told almost entirely from a child’s point-of-view, it sees a devout minister’s daughter invite a believed angelic presence into her family’s home, only for the guest’s intentions to gradually turn sinister.

In its execution and exploration of faith and children’s relationship to death and beyond, Martyrs Lane brings to mind three key Stephen King texts in places, or at least their screen adaptations: brief telekinetic displays resemble Carrie, a roadside incident recalls Pet Sematary, and a drained child tapping upon another’s window to request entrance echoes Salem’s Lot.

There’s also some peculiar overlap with Céline Sciamma’s Studio Ghibli-inspired fable Petite maman, another 2021 premiere. The tones and overall plots are ultimately dissimilar, so this is not a case of ‘twin films’, but to be as vague as possible concerning spoilers for either, they share a surprising amount in terms of plot catalysts and emotional territory. Crucially, both contain two remarkable, intelligent child performances at their centre, the young characters navigating a curious friendship that begins with an encounter in local woods.

In Martyrs Lane we have Kiera Thompson as Leah, a lonely child living in a vicarage with her family, and Sienna Sayer as a cherubic girl wearing feathered angel wings, who pays Leah nightly visits to play increasingly tense games. The girls’ first meeting comes not long after Leah has lost something precious belonging to her mother, Sarah (Denise Gough), who doesn’t know she’s behind its disappearance: a lock of hair stored in a golden locket always kept on her person. Sarah, it’s implied, has been an emotionally distant parent for much of ten-year-old Leah’s life, though the child is also lacking in regular support elsewhere. Her father, Thomas (Steven Cree), is caring but generally absent thanks to his role in the community, while older sister Bex (Hannah Rae), soon to depart for university, stays out late most nights and often bullies Leah when she is around.

Martyrs Lane (2021)

Martyrs Lane is both an expansion of Platt’s 2019 short of the same name and a return to feature-length horror after The Lesson (2015). Her second feature The Black Forest (2019), as yet unreleased outside of festival play, now retroactively feels like an outlier in her filmography to date as a family drama concerning affluent Brits on holiday overseas, reminiscent in style and milieu of Joanna Hogg’s breakthroughs Unrelated (2007) and Archipelago (2010). There is, however, some connective tissue between Platt’s sophomore film and her latest, in that domestic dysfunction provides almost as much dread in Martyrs Lane as the more explicitly supernatural material.

Bar characters being jolted awake from nightmares, relatively little of Martyrs Lane is built around set pieces concerning overt frights, but Platt provides memorable, recurring body horror moments. The angel-winged girl’s physical appearance deteriorates with each visit, in the vein of Griffin Dunne’s ghostly guardian in An American Werewolf in London (1981), albeit with never as gory a makeup job. She suffers a nosebleed and loses a tooth one night, and by the next she’s actively rotting, saying she’s cold and that “everything hurts”. Leah’s granted a chance to view the stubs of ‘real’ angel wings her friend is supposedly growing, only to be greeted with ripped flesh and exposed muscle, a little blood still oozing from her many back wounds. The next night, her friend is so pale as to look caked in chalk (akin to the ghost child of Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone), barely able to walk thanks to the apparent onset of rigor mortis.

The winged girl’s identity is a deliberate mystery, its reveal saved until late in the film. Clues are doled out through items Leah finds in daytime, her ghostly friend setting her scavenger hunt tasks she keeps saying will lead to the missing lock of hair. Quite heavily telegraphed early on, the reveal of the ghost’s past life is ultimately not played as a plot twist, but as a natural culmination of thematic undercurrents; who she is matters less than why she’s come. The third act also allows the mother, intentionally side-lined earlier, to briefly take centre stage in the film’s lone break from Leah’s viewpoint. What the eventual endgame reveal of Martyrs Lane may lack in surprises, it more than makes up for in emotional power.

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