Ten-year-old Leah (Kiera Thompson) is a vicar's daughter in rural England, but while her dad is a well-balanced sort of chap, he is much in demand from his parishioners and does not always have time for his family, including her. She has an older sister, Bex (Hannah Rae), who teases her relentlessly, especially about her deep reserves of religious faith which includes insisting her pet rabbit Mary is pregnant with kits despite never having been in the presence of an adult male bunny, something Leah is convinced is a miracle and a sign from God Almighty. But her faith may be blinding her to dangers she never considered before: that Bible quote about giving succour to strangers because they may be angels in disguise, for instance...
A curious little ghost story, writer and director Ruth Platt, herself a former actress, developed her short film for this piece which found justifiable acclaim for its spooky atmosphere that evoked the best of the so-called hauntology of the past. Indeed, you could envisage Martyrs Lane as standing alongside those creepy nineteen-seventies children's television serials like The Owl Service, The Changes or The Enchanted Castle, among many more, now celebrated for freaking out a generation of kids who grew up hankering after that sensation once again in adulthood. It was safe to say that though Platt was younger than that, she had the style down pat and that was evocative of something like Paperhouse, which arrived after the heyday of such series, but was based on the same source as one of them.
There were even jump scares in that manner used there by future Candyman director Bernard Rose that were brought up here in the same approach, and so tense did Platt manage to make the atmosphere that the most jaded of post-millennial horror watchers could find themselves starting in their seats every so often while watching this. The strongest suit about it could be said to be the mood, uncanny in an elemental way yet rooted in the natural world since that would care little if someone's family was in crisis, it would merely carry on, trying to create more life and taking away what had not gained a foothold sufficient to allow it to hang around. This is the problem that Leah is facing, and may have invited precisely that unknowable judgement on herself the minute she turns detective to find out why her mother is so highly strung.
You may be ahead of her there, there certainly were enough clues strewn throughout the narrative and design to put you in the privileged position of being well aware what is going on before Leah works it out for herself. But in that lesson that it's often best to let the past rest in peace which is ignored by the little girl, her vivid imagination conjures a nightly visitor in the form of a nameless "angel", another little girl (Siena Sayer) who appears at the window Salem's Lot-style and she welcomes in, since Leah is a lonely child whose religious nature has set her against her peers. That ostracization, which may only be a lack of understanding that has seen her isolated and nothing purely malicious, sees her playing verbal games with her new pal but she seems oblivious to how sinister this is, her very own angelic visitor as the Bible describes, until it is too late. The clues are literal here, as if she was picking up points in a game, but the danger is metaphorical until she realises she should be taking it seriously and her safety is in peril. It might not have broken the folk horror mould, but Martyrs Lane played by the genre's rules very effectively. Music by Anne Muller.
[Martyrs Lane - Premieres 9 September 2021 on Shudder.]