Martin is not a well teenager. He’s a psychopath who drugs women, then has sex with them, then slits their wrists and drinks their blood, all the while imagining he’s an old Universal Studios- type vampire in the 1920s welcomed by beautiful white clad victims. He goes to stay in Pittsburgh with unsuspecting relatives, except his cousin Kudo, who calls him Nosferatu and threatens to kill him if he kills anyone in the town. Then the overly shy Martin strikes up a friendship with a neurotic housewife…….
George Romero is generally known mostly for his zombie movies, which seem to be steadily getting worse [I can’t believe Survival Of The Dead is from the same man who made Dawn Of The Dead!]. He has though made some interesting non-Living Dead films though and in my opinion Martin is the best of them. It remains one of the most sophisticated and original examinations of the idea of a vampire [only Let The Right One In really betters it in those respects] even if it’s too downbeat to be especially enjoyable. In fact, I’m surprised there hasn’t been a remake mooted yet, as there’s plenty of mileage in the central idea, though of course it probably won’t be as good.
As with all of Romero’s movies up to Dawn Of The Dead, Martin looks, sounds and feels very very cheap. This extends to the acting, which is mostly by amateurs. This however gives the film a great sense of realism, it’s almost like watching a home movie in some scenes, and as with [especially] Night Of The Living Dead, it really helps the movie, you believe what you’re seeing for the duration of the film. There’s not a whiff of glamour in this movie, in fact everything is de-glamourised, to the point where all the characters, whilst still remaining mostly convincing, are deluded and trapped in a hell partially of their own making [except for one noticeable exception, who escapes]. This feeling extends to the depiction of Pittsburgh [Romero’s home town], which is portrayed as a dilapidated shithole where anyone with any sense has packed their bags and moved away. The film achieves a depressed kind of poetry with all this, really depicting a miserable but effective sense of nihilism.
Of course at the centre of this is Martin himself. Brilliantly played by John Amplas, whose inexperience and awkwardness really work for the role, he’s a psychotic killer who may or may not be an 80 year old vampire. I’ve always thought that his fragmented ‘flashbacks’, where he imagines himself in a black and white world of welcoming victims, Gothic mansions, swirling fog and torch bearing villagers [which are shot cleverly as a kind of drug-induced, half-remembered version of a 1930s or 40s horror film], are just hallucinations, and that his cousin Kudo is just as mad in his own way, but that’s only my opinion, and I do kind of like the idea that he is really is who he thinks he is. One clever scene full of subtext is when Martin one night waylays Kudo in a Dracula costume, then spits out the plastic fangs, wipes off the greasepaint, throws off the cloak and bites into a piece of garlic, saying “you see, there is no real magic”. We certainly feel for Martin. He’s attempted to ‘update’ with syringes, safety razor blades and remote control gadgetry, but has to survive in a modern world where potential blood donours plaster their faces in mud and one possible victim is caught in bed with another man while her husband is away. We really want him to have this ‘proper’ relationship and to be able to do “the sex thing” just once while the woman is awake. He seems less fearsome than the cops and junkies into whose shootout he blunders into. He pours out his problems to a late night radio station, but the DJ just patronises him and calls him “the Count”.
Sometimes Martin throws up too many ideas and doesn’t really develop them, while some sections have awkward edits adding more to the rumours that the original cut was around three hours long. Although it does have a few very bloody moments including a truly gory staking and a nasty scene of a stick being driven into a neck [Tom Savini already showing his expertise at this kind of thing], and even an admittedly gloomy element of romance, Martin is a very slow moving film and does have a few dull conversational sequences which might stretch the patience of many. In fact, the Italian version called Vampyr, which removes some footage, totally re-edits the rest of the movie and adds a pounding Goblin score [replacing Donald Rubinstein’s more subtle, small-scale musical commentary], is probably a better piece of entertainment. Romero’s film though, as grainy, awkwardly paced, slightly messy and downright depressing as it is, is in my view a minor classic despite all it’s faults. Or maybe even because of them.