Written and Directed by: George A. Romero
Starring: John Amplas, Lincoln Maazel, Christine Forest, Tom Savini
Reviewed by: Tyler B.
"Things only seem to be magic. There is no real magic. There's no real magic ever."
The vampire film: a sub-genre of horror in itself featuring one of the genre's original monsters and curiosities. The character of the vampire has been portrayed by many actors in many forms throughout the history of cinema. From Max Schreck, to Bela Lugosi, to Christopher Lee, to Gary Oldman, to even (regrettably) Leslie Nielson. Over the course of film history the vampire has remained relatively unchanged; presented as an undead romanticized rich European out for the blood of virgins and even not-so-virgins. If you take a look at Hammer horror and the Universal Monsters and all the other incarnations of the vampire, he is almost always based off of one source - the iconic character of Count Dracula. Immediately when we hear the word vampire we almost always picture a tall man dressed in a suit wearing a red inlayed black cape with fangs and the trademark sharp peak of black hair right in the center of the forehead. We also have the classic, and repeated, vampire mythos of how to destroy said creature engrained in our consciousness. Such as with a stake, or sunlight, and how they are afraid of garlic and the crucifix. Personally, that classic romanticized vampire bores me. Though, one lesser-seen vampire movie gives us a real vampire... and that film is Martin.
George A. Romero, who single-handedly created the zombie movie genre with Night of the Living Dead, completely re-created and re-invented the vampire as we know it in 1977, two years before he made Dawn of the Dead. Martin, as the titles suggests, tells the story of Martin (John Amplas), a young man who comes to live with his relatives Cuda (Lincoln Maazel) and Christina (Christine Forest). Cuda truly believes Martin is a nosferatu, as according to him and his family history books, there is a long-standing family history of vampires. Cuda states and believes Martin is one of the three family vampires still living today. Is Martin just a misunderstood young man suffering from his supposed family history, or is he really an 84 year old vampire?
This is not your typical vampire movie. Romero invites us to Braddock, Pennsylvania to witness Martin's battle with his own personal demons as a young man with vampiristic tendencies, and the battle between family ties and the dark history of his family. When we first meet Martin, he is headed to Braddock via train and he follows a young woman (Fran Middleton) back to her sleeping car. Martin attacks the woman, injecting her with something in a needle that renders her unconscious, and then he proceeds to lay with her in the bed where he slits her wrist with a razor blade and drinks her blood while embracing her naked body. Martin has no fangs, no magical powers through mind control, no classic vampiristic powers or qualities. This is also the only way Martin is able to do the "sexy stuff" with women. He does have a vampire-like thirst for blood and has to somehow quench that thirst. During that first attack, before the woman succumbs to the drug in the needle, Martin is quick to assure the woman that "[he's] always very careful with the needles. It won't hurt. It's just to make [them] sleep." Right then and there we are presented with a fascinating and damaged character and we know that Martin does not want to do the things he does, but he needs to do them for the survival of his own way of life. He cares for his victim's pain and wants as little for them to suffer for his needs as possible.
The question lies throughout the film, and is up for us to decide the answer: Is Martin really a vampire, or isn't he? When Martin arrives at Cuda's home, he is exploited with strings of garlic nailed to the doors and crucifixes in place. He quickly takes these objects and throws them in Cuda's face, indicating he is not a vampire, these items are just what they are; garlic and crosses. He also has no aversion to sunlight, but that doesn't mean that Martin does not have his problems and vampire-like tendencies. Martin watches and follows a woman home and later that evening breaks into her house finding her in bed with another man. She was supposed to be alone, so Martin has to betray his original plans and take care of both of them. Since he is new to Braddock and doesn't have any friends, Martin calls into a late night radio show as "The Count" telling the listeners of his confessions of his needs to satisfy his blood lust. Martin is obviously a loner vying for desperately needed attention.
During the day Martin works as a helper at Cuda's store helping deliver groceries. Here he meets Mrs. Santini (Elyane Nadeau) who asks for his assistance. Martin connects with her and her damaged character, as they both are loathing, yet needing, love. Soon, Martin finds himself not being able to decide on which women he will attack as the ladies don't look pretty to him anymore. He finds himself embracing Mrs. Santini, doing the "sexy stuff" without the blood, with an awake person. This frightens Martin as he now becomes worried he'll make a mistake during his attacks for blood, and he is finding his old ways are fading. He has seen someone love him and care for him, if only for a few moments. With Cuda watching Martin's every move, it also brings the film closer to it's climax where Cuda finally discovers the truth.
Martin is a serious, dark, dramatic, and thought-provoking horror film. George A. Romero expertly tells the story of Martin through the use of the film stock, shooting on 16mm, using the locations of the industrial-and-steel stricken and worn out town of Braddock, and the haunting jazz (yes, jazz) score from Donald Rubinstein. Every element of the film, both visual and through audio, creates an atmosphere of dread and haunting loneliness that I'm sure everyone of us has felt. George A. Romero and director of photography Michael Gornick (Dawn of the Dead, Creepshow) also employ black and white film during flashback sequences that show Martin in a much earlier time, around the early 1900's, as he feeds his urge on the girl he once loved and the vengeful townsfolk after him. Again, due to the impending question that the film asks, are these flashbacks real sequences of Martin's vampire past, or are these nightmares of his need for blood and his fear of getting caught? Romero's direction is at the top of his game and John Amplas, in his first role, is fascinating, haunting, and real as the title character of Martin. I can't remember a more personal character in horror cinema as sad as Martin. Also, the film features Tom Savini's first collaboration with Romero. Savini not only provides outstanding special make-up effects, but he also has a small role as Arthur, Christina's boyfriend. Also keep an eye out for George A. Romero himself in the role of Father Howard. This film is a much needed shot in the jugular that the vampire sub-genre needed, and possibly the most fascinating take on the vampire mythos ever committed to celluloid.
There are two different DVDs of Martin available. Originally it was released by Anchor Bay back in 2000, but this version is now out of print. Anchor Bay presented the movie in it's original full frame aspect ratio with extras including an audio commentary track with Romero, John Amplas, and Tom Savini as well as the original theatrical trailer. The other DVD release was put out by Lionsgate in 2004. The Lionsgate DVD contains a new transfer from HD of the film, but it is cropped to 1.78:1 widescreen, so you are missing a bit of information on the top and bottom of the frame. You don't miss a whole lot with the 16x9 enhanced widescreen transfer, but unfortunately there are one or two scenes where some of Savini's effects do get cropped out. Also, there is a new 5.1 Dolby Digital audio mix. The extras on this disc include a new commentary track, different from the Anchor Bay disc, which features Romero, Richard Rubinstein, Tom Savini, Michael Gornick, and Donald Rubinstein. The other extras include a photo gallery, "Making Martin: A Recounting" featurette, original TV spots, and the original theatrical trailer. So both discs have their own pluses. The original Anchor Bay is the correct aspect ratio, but both discs feature completely different commentary tracks, and the Lionsgate disc has some additional great extras. Both discs are a must have if you can find both. Martin is, to me anyway, the single greatest vampire film ever made. With repeated viewings, it keeps getting better and better and I'm continually finding something new as there are many layers to the story. Romero leaves it open for our interpretation of Martin's true character, and this is a bold and brave move. I'm confident to say it's George Romero's best film, and one of the best films in the horror genre. You don't need fangs to sink your teeth into this one. Essential!
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