Martin (1977) Written and directed by: George A. Romero; Starring: John Amplas, Lincoln Maazel, Christine Forrest, Elyane Nadeau and Tom Savini
Available on DVD (Out of print)
“Martin’s an honest guy. He’s right up front with everything.” – George A. Romero
“I’ve been much too shy to ever do the sexy stuff; I mean do it with someone who’s awake. Someday, maybe I’ll get to do it awake, and without the blood part.” – Martin (John Amplas)
Today’s review is sort of special, not just because it kicks off Horror Month, but marks my blog’s sixth anniversary. Yep, I’m still here, and there’s no sign of stopping anytime soon.* With this in mind, I’m proud to continue my ongoing mission to discuss little-known gems that have slipped through the cracks. The decade between Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead was hardly a dry spell for George Romero, who continued to hone his craft as a low budget filmmaker, and test his storytelling boundaries. Arguably his best effort during this period was his unconventional take on the vampire genre, Martin.
* And they said it wouldn’t last (By “they,” I mean the nagging little voices in my head, but they don’t have a vote).
As in Romero’s earlier productions, he employed many local actors from his native Pittsburgh. The lack of household names, born more out of necessity than anything else, provides a certain level of veracity to the film. Likewise, the 16 mm cinematography, filmed in real locations as opposed to sets, lends Martin a gritty, documentary-style feel. Our feet are planted firmly in reality, leaving us more willing to accept whatever is thrust upon us.
John Amplas anchors the film with his low-key performance as Martin, a troubled young man with some very unusual nocturnal habits. Although he’s 20-ish, he claims to be 84 years old. In lieu of fangs, he uses a tranquilizer-filled syringe to subdue his victims, and razor blades to take their blood. He doesn’t regard drinking blood as a means of sustenance as much as a compulsion. We’re introduced to him in a disturbing opening scene, as he stalks a woman on a train, and subsequently breaks into her cabin. He proceeds to drug her, straddle her body in a ghoulish mockery of sex, and drink her blood. As she bleeds to death, he rearranges items in her cabin to make the murder scene look like a suicide.
Martin’s predatory behavior stems from his delusions. He lacks any supernatural powers (which he never claims to possess in the first place),* yet, he’s convinced he’s lived many decades and must feed on human blood. After he gets a phone in his room, he takes up calling in to a late night radio show, confessing his predilection as a vampire. The host (voiced by cinematographer Michael Gornick) humors Martin and refers to him as “The Count,” but sees him as a ratings boon. Martin’s radio conversations might fail to convince anyone else that he’s a supernatural predator, but they reveal his inability to relate on a meaningful level with other people (“In real life, you can’t get people to do what you want them to do.”). His detached affair with a bored housewife (Elyane Nadeau) represents a brief glimmer of normalcy in his life (“That’s why you’re so nice to have around, Martin. You don’t have opinions.”).
* In his DVD commentary Romero asserted, “I don’t believe he’s a vampire in the supernatural sense.”
In one of the few artistic flourishes, Martin appears as a full-fledged vampire in a series of black and white sequences. He’s an idealized version of himself, confident and sophisticated, seducing young women in their bedrooms. We also see the fantasy flipside, as he’s pursued by angry villagers.
Martin’s nemesis is his superstitious elderly uncle Cuda (Lincoln Maazel), who insists on referring to his nephew as “nosferatu.” He believes in a generations-old family curse from the Old Country, and that Martin was born before the turn of the century. Martin’s cousin Christina (played by Romero’s future wife Christine Forrest) sees him as mentally ill, and attempts to intervene on his behalf. Cuda shrugs off his daughter’s skepticism, asserting the nosferatu’s strength is that no one believes. While Christine sees only illness and paranoia, Cuda is on a one-man crusade to rid the world of the perceived family curse. At one point, Martin contradicts his uncle’s superstitions by biting into a bulb of garlic and grasping a crucifix, but despite all of the evidence to the contrary, he’s still viewed as a menace. On the surface, Martin’s uncle could be viewed as similarly delusional, but another interpretation suggests he’s bound by a sense of tradition and a strict adherence to ancestral lore.
Romero appears to suggest we are blinded by our preconceptions and superstitions to the point where we can’t see the facts in front of us. The film leaves just enough ambiguity about Martin and his uncle to wonder “what if,” even if the evidence suggests there’s nothing beyond the ordinary. Martin speaks to our disconnect in modern society, where fear and suspicion commonly override reason. Even if the folklore isn’t real, the traditions are very much alive and well. By extension, these traditions and folklore could have spawned from mental illness along with the fears associated with it. As the movie draws to its inexorable conclusion, it doesn’t matter whether Martin’s a real vampire or (as most of us would likely conclude) mentally unbalanced. His fate remains the same.