Martyr’s Lane (2021), centres on ten-year-old Leah (Kiera Thompson), who is visited at night by the ghost of a girl who presents her with a series of challenges. In exchange for successfully completing each challenge, Leah is gifted a piece of information that reveals part of her family’s past and explains her mother’s emotional distance.
Ruth Platt’s ghost story, developed through the British Film Institute (BFI), is a return to the horror genre. She debuted with the unsettling urban horror The Lesson (2015), about a teacher (Robert Hands), who reaches breaking point and holds two of his delinquent students hostage. From there, she shifted into comedy with her sophomore feature The Black Forest (2019). Despite the tonal contrast, the story of two families vacationing in Europe who become embroiled in conflict when secrets are exposed has shades of Martyr’s Lane.
In conversation with PopMatters, Platt talks about finding acceptance in the film industry, manipulating capitalist and patriarchal structures from within, and the influence of English and Spanish genre traditions.
How do you compare the filmmaker of The Lesson to the one you are now?
Broken [laughs]. I had that gung-ho energy when I made The Lesson. I wanted to prove myself and I thought, ‘I’m going to pour as much money as I can into it and just make it.’ I didn’t have to think about development, and I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, but there was a raw energy to it. I managed to make The Black Forest in a similar way, but then I entered into this development process with the BFI, which was fantastic.
I felt accepted by the industry I’d never felt accepted by before. It was hard developing something, especially when you’ve been doing micro-budget stuff, putting it out there, and getting a small team of people who were passionate about it. There are other voices to include and collaborate with. It was a good process, but it wasn’t always easy.
Then you have to get it greenlit, and I had to do this short as proof of concept. Finally, when I got the green light, it became a bigger responsibility. You’ve got a bigger crew and you’ve got bigger wheels turning. It feels like you’re on a cruise ship rather than a little old speedboat [laughs].
It’s still a low-budget film in the industry’s eyes, but it felt like a big step-up. I learned a lot and I’m pleased I managed to do it. I feel maybe now I’ve one big toe in the door, which I’m just keeping there [laughs], whereas before I was banging on the door.
‘What we are’ versus ‘who we feel we are’ can often be out of synch. I’ve spoken with directors who say that it took a number of films before they felt they could call themselves a filmmaker. When did you feel you could call yourself a filmmaker?
I felt like a filmmaker after I made The Lesson because it was a film that divided people. Some people loved it, some people hated it, but I thought it had something original to say. In 2015 there weren’t many female genre filmmakers around. There has been a big breakthrough recently, but at the time I felt I was an unusual voice.
I’d been out of the industry for a few years having kids and I felt I was on the outside. We managed to sell The Lesson, get distribution, and make the budget back. It felt like a little breakthrough, a little crack in the wall.
Being accepted by the BFI and developing Martyr’s Lane obviously felt like industry approval, and I was getting closer to the inside. It was another tick, and then playing at Fantasia and being released by Shudder is another feeling of being higher up the filmmaking ladder. It’s not necessarily being commercially lauded and getting that kind of salary, but just feeling like I know what I’m doing, and getting some creative appreciation for that. There have been layers to it.
What do you attribute to the reason for this explosion of women filmmakers?
Thinking they could make money from it. When I released The Lesson, that was the moment people were thinking, ‘Hang on, there are not many women in horror.’ I was thinking, ‘Had we not realised that before?’
It’s a bit confusing to think how these things go in waves, how people all seem to connect and wake up at the same time. Obviously, women have known for a long time, but it has been a tsunami of something starting small and then building, and suddenly there’s a cascade. People being willing to fund [Martyrs Lane], that’s what happened.
There’s a cynical edge to this female empowerment because it’s a male-driven industry profiting not off the bodies, but off the minds of women.
It is a cynical edge and the thing about it is that you have to use it because we live within capitalism. […] in a patriarchal capitalist society, you’ve got to find your outlets where you can, and find your support. You can’t live outside the industry. There are many fantastic voices coming out now that are using the system while still being subversive from the inside, and that’s all you can do.
What have female voices contributed to the genre that you see as being distinctly different from what their male counterparts have expressed?
This is a generalisation, but can men ever write women characters well, and can women ever write male characters well? I’d say women can because the power imbalance means that women perceive things of men that men don’t always perceive. If the other is true – if men perceive women in a unique way, that’s more problematic. But I wouldn’t come down clearly on this.
Historically, if a voice has been repressed, then that voice is interesting. In genre, a diversity of voices is interesting because horror is often about the themes of power and the abuse of power, trauma and violence, victimhood and oppression. It’s interesting to see those themes through different lenses, and that’s why women’s voices, for example, are interesting at the moment.
I worry a little that Martyrs Lane is not going against gender and expectations enough because there’s that industry idea that women like to talk about feelings and emotions. There are great female filmmakers who turn that on its head. I loved Raw (Ducournau, 2016), but I haven’t seen Julia Ducournau’s latest film [Titane, 2021]. She’s clever at screwing that all up and chucking it in the bin.
The Lesson was more in that vein, but I couldn’t work against that for the sake of it. Martyr’s Lane hails back to Spanish ghost stories like The Spirit of the Beehive (Erice, 1973) and The Devil’s Backbone (del Toro, 2001), all these famous stories made by men, but they’re human-led, detailed, and delicate stories. Just because I’m a woman doesn’t mean I shouldn’t make that because I’m scared it’s too feminine.
Martyrs Lane is clearly placed within the genre tradition, but the use of horror is minimalistic. There are echoes of a family drama that gives it a place outside of the genre. Your intention seems to be to not scare the audience but to bring them into the tragedy of horror through the emotional experience, using it as a doorway of engagement rather than oppressive fear.
The seed of it came from my childhood memories. It’s not autobiographical, but it’s that seed of being a child in an adult world, and not knowing, then having visceral violent nightmares, and not being able to make sense or talk about those. It fits comfortably in the horror genre, but it’s more implicit and subtle than explicit.
It was more visceral and violent early on, and through development [Martyrs Lane] became a gentler and implicit ghost story. It was slightly steered around me, but it felt right. I worry whether tonally it’s genre enough, but it’s not drama because there are dark and uneasy elements that sit in the genre tradition.
I’m influenced by the gothic tradition of Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronté, 1847), Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronté, 1847), and Mary Shelley. Not Frankenstein (1818) exactly, but the world Shelley inhabited, which was pretty awful, and writing Frankenstein as a metaphor after losing her baby. Being able to use those painful and horrific moments that happen in our lives, and experience them through the genre lens is what interested me in Martyr’s Lane.
Horror is borne out of our desire to ignore the truth that we’re haunted by our memories and past experiences, positioning the genre as a metaphor for what we often repress.
Martyrs Lane is about what we suppress and there’s that romantic tradition of the child. We need to strip those blinkers from our eyes. [William] Blake talks about “the mind-forg’d manacles of adulthood” [in The Songs of Innocence and the Songs of Experience, 1794]. They craved to strip back those layers of suppression that we create as adults, of routine, of pushing down all the pain to exist.
Children are just truth-tellers, they point and they say. It’s what horror and ghosts do. They say, “I’m here, look at me.” We spend our whole lives not doing that, and telling children not to, but they’re naturally against that, and this is what I was trying to explore.
It’s interesting that you mention the Spanish influence because Martyrs Lane has a decidedly English vibe that reminded me of films like The Innocents (Clayton, 1961). We’re said to be a repressed culture, and perhaps this adds to the Englishness of the piece.
It’s definitely an English take on the Spanish ghost story and cinematic tradition. It’s influenced by English literature and the gothic tradition, and there is that element of suppression in the adult world that’s deep within our culture.
Looking at the child’s point-of-view, the toxic element is that adults subconsciously push those repressive tendencies onto children. Growing up, that was my experience, but children don’t necessarily take that on. They can be seen as problematic when they don’t and I wanted to look at that.
It’s definitely got that English flavour of rigidity and “don’t talk about it”, but with something lancing that – the presence of the child, the child’s voice, the child’s eye. Both children [Sienna Saye as Rachel and Kiera Thompson as Leah] do that in different ways in the film.