Martin (1977)
By: Mr Intolerance on November 15, 2008  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Umbrella (Australia). All Regions, NTSC. 1.77:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 5.1, English DD 2.0. 95 minutes
The Movie
Director: George A. Romero
Starring: Lincoln Maazel, Christine Forrest, Elayne Nadeau, John Amplas
Screenplay: George A. Romero
Country: USA
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True master of horror George A Romero cites Martin, a modern day vampire tale, as his favourite of his own films. That's enough to make you sit up and take notice, considering his body of work includes some of modern horror cinema's most impressive and seminal works. Martin, as opposed to the Dead films or Creepshow, is barely known by the public at large, and yet among Romero fans has a fair amount of cache.

Martin (Amplas) is a vampire. Oh, he's not Count Comic-book with the fangs and a cape and a dodgy Eastern European accent, he's someone who looks like the kind of guy you'd walk past in the street without even noticing. Lacking Dracula's powers of mesmerism and sheer force of will, he has to drug women before slicing their veins open to feast on their blood, leaving the body to look like a suicide – drug overdose and slashed wrists –as he does in the opening scene of the film.

Martin's been packed off to live with his uncle Cuda (Maazel), a Catholic headcase in the big city. It's quite clear from the outset of the film that this is not to his liking, or his uncle's, either. It's worth mentioning at this point the dinginess to the point of squalor of everything that we see in this film. Romero has obviously tried his hardest to de-romanticise the vampire story as much as he can – the only romantic vampire stuff a la the old Hammer and Universal films we get is through Martin's eyes, when he sees thing in black and white, as though from an old German expressionist film. I guess this is meant to emphasise his distance from reality. It certainly throws the violence into sharp relief.

Uncle Cuda's obviously got a few bats loose in the belfry, as he addresses Martin as Nosferatu, and tells him he's going to save his soul before he destroys him. Not the most welcoming of salutations. Plus, the house and its grounds, such as they are, are packed tight with religious iconography, and bundles of garlic. I suppose that part of what we should be questioning is how much of this is real, and how much is Martin's perception, which given his extra-curricular activities, should really not be trusted.

Martin has flashbacks to some kind of bizarre exorcism rite performed upon him, which probably didn't help his state of mind, and debunks the commonly held beliefs about vampires – he can be seen in mirrors, he's not scared of crucifixes, and garlic doesn't bother him. He's not too keen on direct sunlight, but he doesn't explode into a ball of flame, either. Product of his environment? Sure, factoring in some psychological disturbance that was probably already there. He's not too good with strangers, either – when he meets his cousin Christina (Forrest), he runs away – admittedly, he was instructed by Cuda to not speak with her, but it still looks pretty damn weird.

"Things only seem to be magic. There is no real magic. There's no real magic ever."

Martin demonstrates to Christina and Cuda that magic is merely sleight of hand, smoke and mirrors and nothing more. He can be quite charming, in a geeky kind of way, and Christina, being a tad on the naïve side, buys it, with some slight misgivings, Cuda, not so much, still believing the boy to be a vampire. Arthur (Savini), Christina's boyfriend, turns up to dinner, and Martin immediately goes into awkward, uncommunicative mode again.

Cuda runs a grocery store, a mom and pop operation without the mom, and Martin is his delivery boy. Now, Romero's trademark, much like Cronenberg's, is social commentary, and while on a first viewing of this disc, I was a little mystified at what he was trying to do in this film, it sort of hit me on the second watching – I think I was confused by the fact that the film is on such a small scale, unlike Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead or The Crazies, this is an acerbic view on family and suburbia, and Martin being a delivery boy and seeing folks from all walks of life, this allows Romero to comment on the foibles and mores of contemporary society quite effectively – the self-confessed moaning housewife being a case in point.

And the commentary on family? Martin overhears a conversation between Cuda and Christina, where the elderly chap quite firmly believes that Martin is not only a vampire, but in the ballpark of one hundred years old. Christina is naturally incredulous. Family, as an institution, is criticised here in terms of its adherence to ritual and lineage – the "family shame" is brought up by Cuda – ever been accused of being the black sheep of the family for being a little different to the norm? Well, Martin's your brand new homeboy, because he's getting that shit in fucking spades.

The medieval nature of the Catholic church comes in for a bit of a walloping, too. Dr Cuda, who firmly believes without a shadow of a doubt that Martin is a literal vampire, despite Martin's empirical proof that he is not (although Martin does believe that he's 84 years old – but then again, that's what he's been led to believe by the family), holds science in contempt, believing that it cannot answer everything. And religion can? The old-school religious characters are all old and superstitious (the traditional Church out of touch with the modern day) or greedy and cynical (the modern Church running itself as a business without faith).

Martin targets another victim, a suburban housewife, and thinks he's getting her at home alone, as hubby's off at a business trip. He doesn't factor in that she's a cheating whore, and that her beau is there with her – again with the social commentary: the little peccadilloes of the middle classes will be their downfall, as they are here – as well as a "what will the neighbours think" mindset. I guess Martin's choice of carrying his syringes full of knock out juice between his teeth are meant to be symbolic of the vampire's more traditional fangs. It's a cleverly shot and plotted set piece, as given a stand-up fight, Martin wouldn't last too long, but gradually doping up his victims via hit-and-run attacks to the point where they drop where they stand certainly works in his favour. The kind of vulnerability, confusion and sensitivity the character possesses is stripped from him at this point, and Martin is presented to us as a cold-blooded implacable, calculating killer. The direction changes the audience's sympathies quite effectively.

Probably worth mentioning the direction at this point – it's quite different to the standard Romero approach, leaning towards the arty and surreal at times; the use of flashbacks most notably – the acting style in these scenes is very reminiscent of the more flamboyant style of the 20s and 30s (watch an old Universal flick like Dracula, or a German Expressionist flick like Nosferatu and see what I mean), and more what we would expect of a vampire film – all the clichés; vulnerable females (unlike the women Martin has to wrestle with even after he's doped them, and given his slight frame, it's pretty difficult ), period piece décor, even down to the villagers with flaming torches – by distancing the audience in such a fashion, and almost gently chastising them for being so mired in the past, Romero gives us instead, a grittier urban vampire for a time that is itself gritty for an audience that is largely suburban. It brings the horror closer to home.       

If you thought that Romero couldn't de-romanticise the vampire thing any further, Martin speaks about his exploits on a radio talk-show, calling himself "The Count". Ahhh, the moment of instant celebrity to the lowest common denominator. Y'know, it's a funny thing: at the same time that Martin is debunking the vampire myth, his black and white flashbacks are the only thing that romanticises the whole enchilada – that's that distance from reality thing again, I guess. We watch the flashbacks as little more than wish fulfilment, whether or not they really happened, and contrast them to the seedy nature of Martin's predatory nocturnal habits. Romero's a clever chap like that.

Cuda makes Martin come to church with him and Christina, and hello George Romero in a cameo as the priest! I suppose that considering he's cast his own wife in the lead female role, it's okay to cast himself as a bit part, as the largely unlikeable Father Howard. It's his film, after all. Considering what we were talking about before about the Catholic church, Romero isn't so much stamping on the religion, as grinding his heel into its face, the church only being interested in lining its own pockets in this film, lacking the courage of its convictions.

Exorcisms? Yeah, we got 'em, both in the past and the present. Cuda gets an old priest (there's another Romero social commentary moment – the old generation versus the new) to perform a rather lackadaisical exorcism upon Martin, reinforcing the uselessness of the Catholic church – this is such an atheist film. Hooray!  The exorcism itself is about as efficacious as pissing on a bushfire, but there you go; these God-types are nothing if not optimists.

Christina's on the way out, heading off with Arthur to the great Beyond (not in the Lucio Fulci sense), and so Martin and Cuda are left together. Martin's state of mind is falling apart rapidamento. He's looking at people as merely potential victims, to say the least, people who treat him badly most of all. Martin's bloodlust has increased, and he's taking positive steps towards improving his future. He wants blood, and he wants it now.

This of course leads to a colossal fuck-up, and Martin is headed for a rather sticky end (sorry, that is an awful pun), unless he can somehow deal with Cuda and his oppressive religious beliefs.

"I don't know what I'm going to do. I really don't."

All I'm going to say about the ending is that it reinforces the sense of melancholy established early on in the film, and the tragedy that simmers away under the surface of the tale.
Not the best, unfortunately. Yeah, it's anamorphically enhanced, but it's not very sharp, and not a great deal better than my old VHS copy. There's no real speckle or grain, it's just a bit of a soft image, with moments of sharpness. Also, this is presented in 1.77:1, not the 4:3 presentation Romero intended it to be seen in – on the commentary track, he does state that presenting this in widescreen does hurt the image at points. Yes, I am nit-picking, but it seems that I'm in good company.
Similarly, I don't think anything was to be gained by re-mastering this in 5.1 – if this were an action soundfest from the same period like Deathrace 2000 or Damnation Alley, I could understand it, but this is a film on a small, domestic scale. The surround thing seems somehow redundant.
Extra Features
Well you've got the usual stuff, including a commentary with Romero, the Rubensteins, Savini and Gornick, a photo gallery (*yawn*), the original trailer and TV spots, a trailer gallery including Day of the Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Thirst, and The Crazies, There's also a featurette, called Making of Martin – A Recounting, but it's only 10 minutes long. No, it's not a stunning package, but it's serviceable.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Not Romero's best film, but still a very bloody good one (jeez, the puns are coming thick and fast today) - and a sadly under-rated one at that - Martin is a worthy addition to your collection. It very successfully reinvents the vampire story for the modern day. Alternately, you could read it as a rather sad film about psychological illness. Ultimately, Martin's tale is a tragedy; once you get a glimpse into his past, you realise that the poor kid just never had a hope. John Amplas gives a fine, sympathetic performance as the eponymous Martin; it's a shame he never rose to be a bigger star.

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