AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY: 27TH MARCH, from SECOND SIGHT FILMS
RUNNING TIME: 96 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Martin is not a normal teenager. Okay – he’s awkward, shy and rarely engages in conversation, much like many teenagers. But he’s also a killer who drugs women, then has sex with them, then slits their wrists and drinks their blood, all the while imagining that he’s a 1930’s movie-style vampire welcomed by beautiful white clad victims. He goes to stay in Pittsburgh with his cousin Tateh Cuda and Tateh’s orphaned granddaughter Christine. Cuda calls him “Nosferatu” and threatens to drive a stake through his heart if he kills anyone in the town. Martin gets shaky when he hasn’t had blood in a while, but he manages to strike up a friendship with a neurotic housewife named Abbie who takes a real shine to him….
I really hope that I’m not tempting fate here and won’t wake up tomorrow with the awful news that this film is about to be remade, but I felt it interesting to say that a conversation I had with a fellow movie-loving friend at work struck up the question as to why Martin hasn’t yet been subjected to the remake treatment. Its premise is such a strong one that it would seem fresh even today, while there are also different passageways one could go down with the material. Now of course I’m not saying that there should be a remake, just expressing surprise at there not having been one [so far], even if certain ideas from it seem to have turned up in quite a few places. Writer/director George Romero has said on several occasions that Martin is his favourite among his own films, and it’s not hard to see why; its small-scale, gloomy, questioning nature smacks of a movie that was very personal, that really came from the soul. It remains one of the most sophisticated and original examinations of the idea of a vampire, and was easily the best look at a vampire in modern times to its date [in fact only Let The Right One In may have topped it since], though it’s extremely downbeat, not to mention the fact that it’s possibly not really about a vampire at all! It also can’t help but look and feels very cheap, something which extends to the acting, which is mostly by amateurs, friends and relatives of Romero and other crew members. All this however gives the film a great sense of realism; it’s almost like watching a home movie at times. There’s not a whiff of glamour, in fact everything is de-glamourised, to the point where all the characters, while 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 the suburb of Braddock, Pittsburgh, Romero’s home town, which is portrayed as a dilapidated shit hole where anyone with any sense has long packed their bags and moved away. The film achieves a depressed kind of poetry with all this, oozing a miserable but effective sense of nihilism which is perfect for its main character to inhabit.
Romero’s original script, which he based on an unfinished novel of his called Blood, had Martin as an older person and a real vampire struggling to live in a modern world, but when he saw John Amplas’ performance on stage he re-wrote the character with Amplas in mind, making Martin younger and more innocent. Shot on 16mm reversal film, a type of stock typically used for home use which produces a positive image on a transparent base instead of negatives and prints, Martin was filmed on a budget of supposedly around $250,000, though in reality it was only $100,000; producer Richard P. Rubinstein didn’t want anyone thinking that they could just commission a film for $100,000, so he inflated the figure to what sounded like a reasonable amount. Cuda’s house belonged to Romero’s friend Tony Buba; Tony’s grandmother was worried that some harm had come to Amplas when she saw one of the sinks full of fake blood. Martin walking through the parade was never in the script: there was a scene being shot on a porch when the parade and marching band came through the streets blowing out the sound for the porch scene, so the production crew took to the street. There was originally an extensive voice-over narration by Martin, as in the trailer; much of the dialogue can be read in the film novelisation. Romero shot in colour but wanted a black and white film; his initial, much longer, cut [described lengths vary] is in that format. Lost for decades, a print was supposedly found in 2021 though it doesn’t seem to have been shown anywhere. Martin made no money but got a strong critical reception. The Italian version called Vampyr lost 13 minutes, rearranged some scenes such as placing the opening murder 16 minutes in, and had a score by the band Goblin. It works in its own way. While a prosecution for obscenity did not result, Martin wound up on the subsidory list of “video nasties” in the UK so videos were still seized and confiscated.
Martin does something at the very beginning which only brave films do; show its main character, a character whom you’ll soon be asked to sympathise with, in the worst possible light, in a scene which is still quite strong meat, even though parts of it are handled with restraint if you think about it. Some people are getting on a train, one of them, a lady, holding off for a bit. Is she expecting somebody who never turns up? We’re never told the answer, and, if you’ve never seen Martin before, please get used to not getting answers; the film does this all the time, preferring to tantalisingly hint and be vague, though who knows what’s in the extended cut which could be twice as long? The lady catches Martin’s eye and eventually gets on the train and into her cabin, Martin following her, surprised a little by a hand sticking out of something as he passes down a corridor. He goes into a bathroom where he prepares a syringe, breaks into the woman’s cabin while she’s on the toilet, whereupon Martin does something else odd which you’ll have to get used to; the picture briefly turns black and white as we go inside Martin’s head, the woman welcoming him with outstretched arms. “I just want you to go to sleep”, “I’m always very careful with the needles” are his words as a struggle ensures, the lady putting up some fight before he injects her and has sex with her while she’s out cold before cutting her wrist to suck out blood. Martin wasn’t actually meant to slash her twice, but the fake blood didn’t come out properly the first time. Leaving it looking like it was a suicide, Martin is met at Pittsburgh train station by Cuda, who escorts him to a second train destined for the suburb of Braddock, the first thing he says to him being, “First, I will save your soul, then I will destroy you”. The Lithuanian Cuda, in accordance with family tradition, has reluctantly agreed to give Martin room and board alongside his orphaned granddaughter, Christina, but he treats him like an Old World vampire, trying unsuccessfully to repel him with traditional methods like strings of garlic and a crucifix while Martin cries “it isn’t magic”!
So that’s two possibly insane people who live in this house. Fortunately for Martin there’s also Christine, who’s highly skeptical and critical of Cuda’s beliefs, and thinks Martin, who tells her he’s 83 years old, should receive psychiatric treatment. She even thinks that Cuda’s behaviour and the books detailing the family history towards Martin have made Martin the way he is, though of course she doesn’t know what he gets up to. Christine has a boyfriend, Arthur, but he doesn’t seem to want to be alone much with her. Martin observes and listens; it’s rather sad, seeing as what he’s observing and listening to is normal everyday life, something he can never be a part of. He even runs away from Christine the first time that they meet, feeling so awkward among somebody who’s actually nice to him. Howver, despite Cuda’s threat should be kill anybody local, we know that he’s going to start feeling hungry soon and begin to look for potential victims. In one of the film’s most wry touches, Martin confides in and even asks advice from a local radio disc jockey who dubs him “The Count”, explaining how the movies get so much wrong. correcting some common perceptions about vampires, saying there is no “magic stuff.” The DJ probably should be very worried at much of what he’s hearing, but the Count has made his show a hit, with listeners being very interested in Martin, in a slightly subversive early look at the cult of celebrity. And Martin, after displaying his usual extreme shyness, becomes friendly with Abbie, a lonely, bored housewife who takes a shine to him. Martin really wants to do “the sex thing” with her while she’s awake, but can be control his other urges? We really want this relationship to work out, but Martin seems to be faced with obstacles everywhere.
While there are a few nasty moments including a stick being driven into a neck and a truly gory staking – Tom Savini already showing his expertise at this kind of thing – it’s all quite slow paced, with lots of time given to not just the characters talking, usually in dialogue that feels natural and at times even improvised, or Martin either rushing around or just lurking somewhere. The final twenty minutes have things not just quicken but get somewhat fragmented, with scenes cut short as Martin blunders all over the place, until the unhappy conclusion which stems from the cruelest of ironies. Amplas is just perfect; he projects so much vulnerability that we do feel for Martin even though he’s a rapist and a murderer. He needs blood, preferably from women, but doesn’t possess Dracula’s hypnotic power and sexual magnetism even though at times he may think that he does. 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. He seems far less fearsome than the cops and junkies into whose shootout he finds himself in the middle of, not to mention Cuda who looks like he can overpower Martin at any moment, while the DJ just patronises him. Martin’s hallucinations have him in a black and white world of welcoming victims, Gothic mansions, swirling fog and torch bearing villagers, which are cleverly shot as a kind of drug-induced, half-remembered version of a 1930’s or 40’s horror film, with lots of Dutch angles and closeups. Well, I said “hallucinations”, though I do kind of like the theory that he is really is who he thinks he is, and Romero does keeps things just a little bit open. One scene full of obvious subtext is when Martin one night waylays Cuda in a Dracula costume, frightening him considerably, then spits out the plastic fangs, wipes off the greasepaint, throws off the cloak and bites into a piece of garlic, saying, “You see, it’s just a costume”. .
Christine, played by Romero’s future wife Christine Forrest, is probably the film’s sole shining light, a positive, intelligent character, while Romero himself appears in two scenes as “Father Howard” who thinks that the wine in his church is “putrid” and engages in a good conversation about how a priest, if preaching to a mainly elderly congregation, should give them what they want to hear. This eventually leads to one of the least dramatic [and entirely intentionally so] exorcism attempts on film. Apparently The Exorcist got it all wrong. Throughout the locales are bleak, depressed, murky; even the inside of a church is dilapidated. Wreckage at a scrapyard and slaughter at a chicken coop is lingered upon; perhaps odder is when bells ring and we get a series of quick shots of steeples, symbolising the dominance of the church, an entity which probably played a part in making Martin so disturbed. There are a few individual great shots, like a slow coming into focus of Martin’s face as it’s framed by bushes in a rare idyllic moment for him, and cinematographer Michael Gornick sometimes likes to get up high to shoot down at things. Donald P. Rubinstein’s musical score is quite extraordinary, even though it took me two watches of the film to realise this. His simple main theme, often with wordless female soprano leading, is indeed often used, but throughout the rest of the score are a variety of unusual pieces both electronic and orchestral for small combos or soloists, often with jazz-like harmonies, at times distorted to create an unsettling effect.
A sequence sequence involving Martin, a woman and her boyfriend in a house doesn’t quite sustain its length and fails to build up as much tension as it ought to, while there are some glaring continuity areas including a truly obvious one at the end which I’m amazed wasn’t noticed [though then again maybe it was but there was no money for reshoots], but Martin nonetheless hits a very strong chord, especially, I think, if you were a rather lonely teenager who gorged on old horror movies and identified with the monsters, even if you [hopefully] didn’t turn out as a sex murderer. Fantasy is something that Martin uses as a means of escape, but it’s fantasy that also largely made him the way that he is. The monsters we create are far worse than the ones already out there, and monsters will always be among us, even a part of us, rather than just inhabiting fairy tales which are divorced from our everyday life.
A Second Sight Films 4K scan and restoration of a 35mm dupe negative supervised and approved by Director of Photography Michael Gornick
Martin understandably has never looked great on home releases up to now, so Second Sight have performed a kind of miracle here. I only played the Blu-ray disc as I have yet to make the move to UHD, but within a few minutes it almost seemed like I was watching the film properly for the first time, showing off how good its photography really is. I’ve never seen a print sourced from 16mm film looking so fine. The grain is very evenly distributed and the colours extremely vivid with no crush. The picture is obviously still a little soft, but would you really want it to look totally pristine? It wouldn’t be Martin, losing its naturalness.
4K UHD and Blu-ray discs both including bonus features
UHD presented in HDR10+
Audio commentary by George A Romero, John Amplas and Tom Savini
I decided to listen to the two old commentary tracks again, as it had been some time since I’d previously done so. However, I recalled that Romero’s talks with collaborators are always a great listen, and this one is no different, perhaps one of the best, wonderfully warm but never in a sickly way. Instead, it’s frequently amusing, right from the story very early on about a man waving a light, simulating the movement of the real train carriage they were filming in, being left behind still waving that light when everyone else left to take a break. Romero leads, admitting that all three of them are smoking while they record [doubt this would happen on a new commentary], points out people and locations and expresses sadness about the loss of the long version, which may have been stolen, but the other two contribute a lot too. Savini, who auditioned for the part of Martin, tells Romero “You must trust me a lot” because he had scenes with Forrest in Knightriders too, while Amplas describes how he played his character. Informative, fun and without a single dull moment, this commentary is a must-listen – even if Romero, Amplas and Savini are often just laughing.
Audio commentary by George A Romero, Richard P Rubinstein, Tom Savini, Michael Gornick and Donald Rubinstein
There’s only a small amount of repetition in this track from the previous one, which begins with an interesting story from Rubinstein concerning the MPAA [the American censors] who wanted some frames of the opening murder removed; the film was sent back to them with very little removed from said scene but some frames were cut elsewhere because the MPAA would check running times. We learn a lot about the working processes of Romero, who never had a shot list but always knew what he wanted and had the most old school method of editing. There’s also much reminiscing about the enthusiasm of everyone on a project despite shooting that often went through the night, and we learn that the virtually matching wallpaper on a flashback intercut with a present day were accidental. Donald Rubinstein tells of how Romero wanted constant music but that he won out with a more subtle approach, and Romero even gets to refer to his favourite film Tales Of Hoffmann. I think I enjoyed this track even more than the previous one, even if it often veers away from what’s happening on screen and goes off on tangents.
A new audio commentary by Travis Crawford
Some of Crawford’s tracks I really like, and some I don’t, but here’s one I really liked. He explains right away what he will talk about, then recommends the previous two commentaries for more scene specific stuff, which immediately sets the listener on the right track. Crawford chats about how Romero’s career had almost stalled before Rubinstein came to the rescue including those Spasmo reshoots which director Umberto Lenzi understandably hated, goes into detail about the enormous original script which has some notable scene extensions and scenes but which largely comprises of detailed descriptions like a novel, and also describe the Vampyr cut. He also tells us that the home invasion set piece was Romero’s favourite scene in the film; that makes me feel a bit bad for criticising it earlier. I’m not sure Crawford needed to go into a few things such as Romero’s recently discovered and released early film The Amusement Park, but he’s lively and enthusiastic-sounding throughout. As for the long cut, he tells us that the running time differs depending on sources, and contradicts Romero’s story of how it was stolen!
A new audio commentary by Kat Ellinger
From memory I think I’ve enjoyed all of Ellinger’s tracks so far even if she hardly ever goes for the scene specific approach, or indeed goes much into production history. What she tends to do, and do very well, is go into context, and this is helped here by her clearly loving a film which she says she often references when talking about other films, though she does mention a few facts you’ll have heard on earlier tracks and makes some observations on Martin himself, a rare vampire who’s “Sexually inadequate”. She also mentions parallels with Romero’s very offbeat earlier There’s Always Vanilla, and discusses in detail the Gothic movements especially of North America, presenting a great case for Martin being a very Gothic film, it dealing with “the clash between modernity and the old” which is the major Gothic theme; we tend to forget that most Gothic tales were set in what was at the time of writing the present.
Taste the Blood of Martin: A new feature-length documentary including location tour [69 mins]
Right from the Hammer-referencing title to its opening footage of Amplas, Elphick and camera operator Tom Dubensky walking down a very familiar Braddock street reminiscing, I adored this documentary. The making of the movie and how participants in the documentary became involved with Romero is interspersed with more tour material which is quite poignant; nothing seems to be there anymore except for Comet News, while Braddock looks just as rundown as it did in 1976. Apparently Romero talked about making a Bigfoot movie – but Bigfoot was short with big feet. We also here that Lincoln Maazel [Cuda] was an opera buff and his very young son would pretend to conduct by stacks of records, and that Romero replaced another actor as Father Howard who was worried being in a bloody film would ruin his job, while Savini tells us that the same dummy head and torso used for one killing also did duties in Friday The 13th. There’s also a bit of chat about the long version, its running time described as being from 116 minutes to 265 minutes!! Amplas admits the film which he thought would make him a star had no real effect on his career, but doesn’t seem bitter. Everyone comes across as being happy they worked their guts off on such a unique film which has become more and more loved over the years.
Scoring the Shadows: A new interview with composer Donald Rubinstein [17 mins]
Rubinstein tells us some interesting things as regarding the music score, from one track being actually slowed down because it wasn’t long enough to cover a whole scene and being all the better for it, to Rubinstein recalling that he said he’d commit suicide to Romero if he didn’t get his own way; Rubinstein seems quite the character so I can well believe this. I wished for more incisive commentary on some of the pieces themselves, though Rubinstein does go into what inspired the music.
J Roy – New And Used Furniture: 1974 short film by Tony Buba [11 mins]
Buba is mentioned a lot in the extras on this Blu-ray, so it was nice to see something that he’d made even if I didn’t think I’d find it to be particularly interesting. “I’ve been broke eleven times” says the very positive and motivational J Roy who thinks he’s hit on a way to finally get lots of footfall while another guy shows some things in a flea market and other locals chime in or are asked things. I especially liked the zoom into and lingering on a guy’s face just watching. A snapshot of a virtually bygone era. I wonder if J Roy hit the jackpot this time.
Making Martin: A Recounting: 2004 featurette [9 mins]
Included on the 2004 Arrow Video DVD, this plays as a heavily abbreviated version of Taste the Blood of Martin. It’s worth watching if you lack time to watch the longer documentary, and does feature Romero himself, not to mention Tony Buba’s grandmother, so was definitely worth including.
Trailers, TV and radio spots [4 mins]
Limited Edition Contents
Rigid slipcase with original classic artwork
108 page book with new essays by Daniel Bird, Miranda Corcoran, Travis Crawford, Heather Drain, Kat Ellinger, Andrew Graves, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Elena Lazic, , Stephen Thrower, Jon Towlson, Simon Ward and Tony Williams plus rare stills and behind-the-scenes images
Original Soundtrack CD by Donald Rubinstein
5 collectors’ art cards illustrated by Adam Stothard
First announced in 2019, Second Sight’s release of “Martin” has been plagued by delays, most notably attempts to include the longer cut which were sadly prevented by red tape and cost. Those who have the 2010 Arrow re-release may also want to hang on to that, as it includes the “Vampyr” edit which Second Sight seem to have unable to obtain. However, with its still numerous special features, its superb restoration and the inclusion of that unique soundtrack, this is still otherwise the definitive release of this absolutely fascinating film. Very Highly Recommended!