Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Grave Reviews: Martin (1977)

Directed and Written By: George A. Romero

Starring: John Amplas, Lincoln Maazel, Christine Forrest.

I first watched MARTIN about twenty years ago on VHS. I was 15 at the time, and had seen most vampire films back then such as Count Yorga Vampire and the Hammer Horror Films. I didn't know Rollin and Franco's work existed as of yet, and Martin was the one of the last vampire movies on the Horror shelf I had yet to watch, so after picking it up and putting it back a few times I finally rented it.

To be honest as it was so long ago I couldn't really remember what happened. I think I remembered the train scene at the start and that's it, so when news of a remake was announced recently, I thought it was time to revisit this strange little film.

Romero is mostly famous for his zombie movies, but I think this is his most underrated film and it's certainly his strangest. We first meet Martin Mathias boarding a train to go live with 'cousin' in Braddock, Pennsylvania (A modern Transylvania perhaps?). On the train Martin attacks an unwary fellow passenger with a needle pumped with narcotics and as she passes out he slices her arm with a razor blade and drinks his fill. As Martin does his clean up, the audience sees he is used to such a thing. He cleans most of the blood and changes into a fresh set of clothes, and scatters pills around the cabin to suggest the woman was depressed and attempted to commit suicide.

At the end of the journey Martin disembarks scott-free and meets with his superstitious and fantatical cousin Cuda, who is dressed like Colonel Sanders and drops the word "Nosferatu" towards Martin as a foul-mouthed expletive. During his stay Martin lives under Cuda's roof subject to his superstitious rule, tries to avoid his neurotic Niece Christina, and while working at Cuda's Deli strikes up a sexual friendship with lonely housewife: Abbie Santini.

Throughout the film we see Martin's struggle with his bloodlust, while putting up with the religious prattling of his cousin, who swears if one person goes missing or dies under suspicious circumstances, Cuda will blame Martin and destroy him before his soul is saved. Both Martin and Cuda claim that Martin is an 84-year old Vampire, and that the curse runs in his family from the Old World. It seems to be a recessive gene and has only afflicted perhaps five people in the last century.

When Martin hunts for his blood throughout the film, the footage is interwoven with surreal black and white imagery that could be Martin from an earlier time, or his own delusions of his supposed nature. For instance when he comes in contact with his female prey, Martin imagines her willing to seduced by the vampire much like they are in vampire movies, complete with candlebras and flowing gowns. In reality the women flee for their lives before Martin stabs them with narcotics, subduing them till they pass out so he can feed.

Martin does not possess the usual powers of the classical vampire. He isn't fast or strong, does not shapeshift nor has eye mojo, doesn't have vampire fangs, yet he claims he hasn't aged past the age of 18 or so. When Cuda attempts to repel him with a crucifix after Martin enters his bedroom, Martin chomps down on a garlic bud hanging from the door screaming "You see!" and holds Cuda's crucifix to his face lovingly, sighing that "their is no real magic, ever."

So it is up to the viewer to decide whether Martin is the vampire he and his cousin claim him to be, or that since he is not a Catholic like the rest of his family, they have labelled him a Devil due to his 'ungodly' nature. In the middle of the film after delivering meat to Mrs Santini, he discovers she has become enamoured with him which unsettles Martin because before no other woman has been interested in performing the 'sexy stuff' with him. After a few encounters and curious to know what it's like to make out with a woman while she is awake, Martin begins a short affair with her that expounds on her loneliness and ends in tragic results. Cuda doesn't see it that way and is quite certain to prove to Martin his 'point'.

This was a charming film, and at the same time unsettling. I can't really remember it making an impression on me 20 years ago, perhaps I didn't like it as I was used to vampires having powers and living in crumbling castles while flossing their fangs. I clearly remember coming home from school having discovered my Father watched it that day and getting quite an earful about how disgusting it was (hey it must have been good!), which was a similar experience to my Auntie walking in on my cousin and myself watch Grace Jones in VAMP around the same time.

Ultimately it is up to the viewer to decide whether Martin was actually a vampire, or a deluded, sick little boy who had his head filled with superstitious nonsense from his Catholic Family at a young age. There really wasn't anything else in the film that triggered Martin's 'madness'. He didn't watch vampire films, nor read horror novels. His supressed sexuality could be part of it as he seemed to have trouble hunting and feeding once he started doing the sexy stuff. I tend to think that this film was a social commentary on established religion much like Romero's Zombie films were a social commentary on consumerism. The only scene at the Church in the film had the Priest ask his parishioners to sell their unwanted goods so they could give all their money to the Church, along with Cuda's total domination of Martin and the rest of his family. Also during an exorcism at the house, Martin grows bored rather fast and wanders off to do something else.

The scene where Martin attacks Cuda in the playground at night dressed as Dracula with cape and plastic fangs is gold. After Cuda begins to freak, Martin spits out his teeth and wipes the white pancake make-up off his face professing "It's only a costume", but unfortunately for Martin, Cuda seems to get the last laugh.

My Grade is B.


  1. How do you think they should do the remake? Of course it's going to be changed somewhat. I wonder if they will keep the Pennsylvanian setting and keep all the characters intact?

    Further more the reason I enjoy these old horror/vampire movies is because of the 70s setting. That's what makes films such as Count Yorga, Vampyros Lesbos and Daughters of Darkness etc so good, the 70s decor, locale, fashion, music and attitudes plus lack of tech.

    I'm fearing they'll make Martin some kind of Emo...

  2. Making him an emo kid would make the film fall flat on his face... whilst the film had a seventies feel one felt that Martin, even then, was a little out of time...

    In the remake making him emo would make him 'in time' and they should aim for a generic young man look (if that makes sense) with his fashion sense maybe a little stuck behind...

    that would add to the 'is he... isn't he' question.

    They could go down a full retro look route but I feel that is unnecessary so long as, if they modernise it, they do it right.

    Still feel some trepidation about the idea of a remake.

  3. Hey -- I'm from Pennsylvania!!! There were many monsters in my backyard that made it into my closet, I can tell you that much!

    Nominated you for an award, Count: http://nicole-hadaway.blogspot.com/2010/05/writers-wednesday-blogging-award-to.html

  4. Loved this movie. SO subtle. You were left wondering if he was a vampire or not. And if he was, your traditional view of a vampire is blown out of the water!. Awesome.

  5. Thanks Nicole - in Supernatural there was a Vampire episode set in Pennsylvania that was quite funny. I passed on the award :)

  6. Hello Sarah,

    Glad you enjoyed the movie, there certainly isn't another vampire movie like it. I hope the remake keeps the same mystery and charm.