By DEIRDRE CRIMMINS
Starring Denise Gough, Kiera Thompson, and Sienna Sayer
Written and directed by Ruth Platt
Kids can be quite creepy. To amp up the childlike creep factor, MARTYRS LANE focuses on the relationship between two young girls, though one is not just any old living child. In blending ghost stories, personal missions, and dark family history, the film manages to hit a balance between satisfying and spooky.
Much of the film is focused on ten-year-old Leah (Kiera Thompson). She is restless and curious in the ways that inquisitive and slightly lonely children are. Her family lives in a vicarage, with all sorts of people coming and going through their doors. Her father, the vicar, maintains that the home is theirs to share and knows they must not deny help to anyone who might need it. Leah seems to enjoy the people who come and go, which explains her relationship with the little girl who visits her window at night.
This little girl (Sienna Sayer) seems a little younger but just as precocious as Leah. She knocks at the window long after dark, looking as ghostly as can be. Her appearance only startles Leah a little bit, as Leah is more interested in getting to know her new mysterious friend. As their nighttime meetings carry on, it emerges that this little ghostly girl might not have the best intentions. None of this is apparent to Leah at first. She is just happy to have a friend. Soon, the window visiting girl asks Leah to start tracking down hidden treasures for her, so that she can complete a mission. These requests seem innocent and magical before they start to stray into the realm of sinister and questionable. What does this ghostly girl want, and why does she need Leah’s help to get it?
Despite starring two adorable girls, the atmosphere of MARTYRS LANE is incredibly tense. Leah’s mother (Denise Gough) is on edge and emotionally unable to cope with what seem like innocuous incidents. Her anxiousness and the sudden emergence of this unsettling presence make the air heavy and suffused with excitement at a moment’s notice. Both Sayer and Thompson are shockingly good as their respective characters. Knowing when to act shady and when to feign innocence can be credited to writer/director Ruth Platt, but the credit to pulling off these complex and sometimes confused characters should go to these young girls.
With the missions that Leah is tasked with, there are hints of a less fantastical Pan’s Labyrinth within MARTYRS LANE. The Spanish Civil War is nowhere to be found, nor is a brutal and fascist stepfather, but the notion of a small girl carrying out a specific number of missions in order to solve her problems is a buoying motif in both films. There’s a faint waft of Big Trouble In Little China as well. Admittedly, that comparison is quite a stretch, however, it is a perfect example where the main character in the film is not the main character in the story. Leah is instrumental in the plot of MARTYRS LANE, but ultimately she is just a helper, like Jack Burton.
MARTYRS LANE is sweet and tense, but never questions whether or not those modes can or should coexist. Emotions and life are complicated and messy, and this film manages to sort through all of that in its own uniquely haunting way.
MARTYRS LANE hits Shudder on September 9th, 2021.