Guest post by Billy Russell
In 1976, sandwiched between Dawn of the Dead and The Crazies, George A. Romero directed a little-known movie called Martin. In some ways, I find Martin to be similar to Francis Ford Coppola’s movie, The Conversation, the other brilliant movie he made in the 1970s between The Godfather, Part II and Apocalypse Now. Martin doesn’t have the overwhelmingly positive reputation it perhaps deserves, simply remaining as something of a hidden gem waiting to be found by curious viewers.
Martin may not be as well-known as George A. Romero’s other films because it lacks the shocking, unheard-of-at-the-time level of horror that was present in his zombie movie classics like Night of the Living Dead. It lacks, maybe, the dystopian, hellish and bleak outlook of Dawn of the Dead. It doesn’t have the Saturday Night rewatchability of, say, Creepshow.
Instead, with Martin, we’re given something of a sweet, melancholic character study that is, at turns, funny, sad and absolutely terrifying.
Martin, played by John Amplas, is one of the most deplorable characters any movie or television show has ever asked an audience to spend time with, let alone enjoy watching. He is a young man with a terrible truth: he’s a vampire. Or, well, actually maybe he’s just a psychopath. Either truth is easily accepted given the ambiguous narrative of the movie, the actual nature of his evil is never revealed. It doesn’t matter, really, because whether he’s a vampire or a twisted individual, the heinous nature of his crimes is no less shocking and repulsive.
In the opening scene, Martin boards a train to come live with an elderly cousin. At night, when the passengers slip away to their rooms for sleep, he sneaks into one being occupied by a young woman and drugs her with a syringe, rapes her and then drinks the blood from her wrist after slitting it with a razor blade. What I like (and the word “like” seems like an odd choice, it’s a nasty scene) is that the victim doesn’t simply scream and accept her fate like most women victims do in horror movies. She screams, kicks, hits, calls him names like, “Asshole! Rapist!”, but is left powerless when the sedative he gave her kicks in. She’s not just a helpless victim with a pair of breasts, she’s an actual woman who’s scared for her life.
Martin is not like other vampires. In one scene, he actually decries the depiction of vampires as seen in movies….There’s no such thing as magic! He can walk in the daytime. He’s not deterred by garlic or crosses. He doesn’t have fangs and he can’t woo people with a hypnotic power. He has to resort to tools to help him satisfy his bloodlust.
Somehow, after this intense and brutal opening, the movie does a masterful job with the writing and performances to put Martin in a sympathetic light. You begin to care about him. You begin to believe that maybe, just maybe, he is indeed a vampire who needs blood to live because of a curse put on him. He may actually be an imbecile.
His cousin Cuda, an older, bearded and strict Lithuanian Catholic, lets him know that while he is staying with him, he may not seek prey in town. If he does, he will kill him. Cuda tells him that his plan is to save his soul, and then to destroy him. Martin is part of the family’s shame from the Old Country. Apparently, according to the books on record, he is an 82 year old man with the appearance of a young boy in his late teens or early 20’s. Cuda hangs a pair of bells connected to a string outside of Martin’s door that will alert him when he leaves his room. “Nosferatu!” he hisses at Martin. He knows the troubled boy’s nature, that he is a killer.
Martin is given a job at Cuda’s store in town as a delivery boy. He winces in the sunlight and it bothers his eyes, but he doesn’t burst into flame. Most of the people he delivers groceries to are appreciative and enjoy the laconic boy, especially Mrs. Santini (played by Elayne Nadeau), a frustrated housewife whose husband may be running around with girls on the side while she’s at home.
On a call-in to a radio station (where he becomes something of an anonymous celebrity), he has a chance to tell the show’s host—and the viewer—what’s real about being a vampire, and what’s nonsense perpetuated by silly films like Dracula.
Acknowledging Tateh Cuda’s demand to stay away from the people in town, Martin escapes to the city to stalk and kill his prey. The scenes featuring Martin satisfying his bloodlust are amazingly handled. They are intense and show a love for suspense. The entire build-up and pay-off to the scene involving Martin spying on a young woman, waiting for her to be alone, and then barging in on her with another man is expertly handled. Seriously, this is stuff that would make Hitchcock proud.
The cause and effect nature of Martin’s crimes reminds me, in a way, of how the crimes of Walter White are handled in Breaking Bad. In this film, a desire to satisfy his hunger sets off a chain of events that winds up with the police-involved shooting of—though, not strictly by any means—innocent, unrelated bystanders participating in a drug crime.
Ironically, however, the one death in the film that Martin has nothing to do with is what leads to his ultimate demise in one of the most unexpected, but totally logical and perfect conclusions of any horror movie ever made. The entire third reel of Martin is pure poetry. It is one of the best-handled finales of a film I’ve ever witnessed. It is magical (despite Martin’s objections that magic doesn’t exist).
The goings-on in the film have a chance to let us wonder about the nature of mortality, about insanity, about fear, about man’s inherent inhumanity to man, how even the most well-adjusted of all of us have dark secrets. It’s a ponderous film with much to say, and the film says it all wonderfully with a relatively short running time of 95 minutes. There was a rumored 165 minute original cut, which has since been lost, allegedly, much to the director’s disappointment.
In many movies, George A. Romero has been accused of being more interested in spectacle than story, allowing his main characters to become plot devices rather than actual, living, breathing people and having them take a step back from the main attraction, whether it be zombies, ghouls or a deranged simian in Monkey Shines.
Here, in Martin, that is decidedly not the case. Never has it been more evident that Romero is also a more-than-capable writer/director and world class editor than on this film. The pace of this movie is somehow both leisurely and brisk, allowing the viewer to linger on shots of cars being carried by cranes in a junkyard to give them a sense of their whereabouts and the neighborhood Martin is living in with his cousin, while a terrifying sequence of Martin stalking a potential victim for several hours is cut into three or five short segments that allow that action to move by quickly, to give us a sense of, “He did this and this to understand the layout of the house before coiling and striking.”
Martin is not as well-known or highly-regarded as Romero’s other films, like Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, or Creepshow, but it is as every bit deserving. It’s a mature work, reminding me somewhat of George A. Romero’s own kind of Jackie Brown (which I consider to be Quentin Tarantino’s most mature movie).
I would certainly recommend Martin to most horror fans. It’s not an unrelenting, grueling horror, but instead a dreamlike rumination on the nature of the vampire and the fun of subverting it with a gentle character study that just so happens to be splattered with gore. I sort of wish that Twilight was still all the rage so that I could use that vampire series’ success to potentially get junkies of the genre to check out this gem if they “just can’t get enough” of it to maybe move up from a teenage fantasy to a darker, more realistic portrayal of the monster.