Sunday, October 29, 2006

Martin (1977, George A. Romero)- for Nathaniel R's Vampire Blog-a-thon

By way of introduction: Welcome all, Silly Hats Only regulars and newcomers alike. If you've never visited before, hope you enjoy the piece and the blog as a whole. If you like what you see, be sure to stop by my main site as well, which contains my top 100ish list of all time, yearly lists, a screening log, and the like.

A warning: if you haven't seen MARTIN (and you really ought to) there will be SPOILERS contained in this essay, as there should be for any essay that discusses a film in depth. So if you want to come to the film with fresh eyes, you can always come back later. I won't take it down or anything. And besides, with Halloween coming up, it's the perfect time to rent it. I haven't seen SAW III, THE GRUDGE 2, or TEXAS LAMESAW: THE PREQUEL, but I can pretty much guarantee MARTIN is better. Any reasonably good video store should carry it. If yours doesn't, find a new one.

Here's a link to the Film Experience blog, run by Nathaniel R, who coordinated this blog-a-thon. I'll be posting links to some of my favorite entries in the series as they become available.

Thanks for reading this far. Enjoy, and please find it in your heart to forgive the occasional grammatical error.

Most vampire movies dress themselves up in the trappings of the past. Think about the various incarnations of Dracula- exotic, cultivated, gliding around his decaying castle and dressed to the nines. For all the horror inherent in vampirism, there’s something comforting about setting the legends in the past. The past, after all, was a time of magic and superstition, and there’s no place in the present for that sort of nonsense, right?

George A. Romero’s MARTIN would beg to differ with you. Here for a change is a vampire movie that remains resolutely contemporary, starting with the film’s protagonist. Martin (John Amplas) isn’t a cape-wearing Dracula clone, but a shy, awkward “young” man who works as a delivery boy. Whereas Dracula could never be mistaken for anyone else, Martin appears completely ordinary; as well he must, in order to survive in the world. Most obviously, Martin lacks fangs. One might think fangs would be a prerequisite for vampirism, but that becomes more a less a question of semantics once he starts drinking human blood directly from the source.

As with all of Romero’s best work, MARTIN is set in Western Pennsylvania. Braddock, like many industrial communities during the seventies, has fall upon hard times. Many of the citizens of working age are unemployed or work low-paying jobs, and much of the population is elderly. And so Martin moves here, into the home of his relative, Cuda (Lincoln Maazel), who promises Martin not long after meeting him at the train station, “first, I will save your soul; then I will destroy you.”

One aspect of MARTIN that intrigued me was the ambiguity over Martin’s problem. Yes, he craves the blood of human beings. But is he really a vampire? It’s hard to say. As he exclaims a number of times, “it’s a sickness!” Because he doesn’t have fangs, when he attacks he must drug his victims and slice open their veins with a razor blade. Also, he is able to see his reflection in mirrors, and as he tells the host of an all-night radio show, he doesn’t respond to various traditional vampire deterrents- garlic, crosses, and the like. Sunlight affects him to a point, but only to the extent that he must wear sunglasses during the daytime. But if he isn’t a vampire, why does he act like one? Martin has no doubt heard talk all his life about “the family shame,” which Cuda talks about incessantly- perhaps being surrounded by this level of superstition in his own family has convinced him that he has been cursed as well.

And what do we make of the black and white scenes that Romero employs at various key moments in the film? In these scenes we see Martin, presumably in his former life in the old world, living the elegant life we usually associate with movie vampires. But the film never makes it clear whether these are his memories, or merely fantasies of his. In Romero’s best-known films, the LIVING DEAD tetralogy, whether the villains are zombies is never in doubt. But in MARTIN, vampirism isn’t a given but a matter of faith.

Romero made MARTIN a little more than a decade following Vatican II, which began a modernizing period for the Roman Catholic Church. Braddock, as seen in the film, is predominantly a Catholic community, and nearly all of the film’s significant characters are seen going to Mass. But there is a gulf between the faith of the older characters such as Cuda and the younger ones. When Cuda invites a newly-arrived priest to his home for dinner and begins to tell him about Martin’s affliction, the priest reacts with skepticism. He’s happy to perform the old-style Latin Mass to please the parishioners, but vampires and exorcisms are out of his domain. Cuda can’t believe his ears. In his eyes, doubt and cynicism make it easier for vampires to prey on people, and “if our priests cannot save us from demons, who can?”

Another area in which Martin is unlike his fellow onscreen vampires is his sexual anxiety. Most vampire movies contain an element of eroticism, with the vampire doubling as an expert seducer in order to capture his prey. But Martin admits on the radio show that, “I’ve been much too shy to ever do the sexy stuff with someone who’s awake.” Martin may claim to be 84 years old (“young for a nosferatu,” says Cuda) but sexually he’s still a confused kid. Even when a local housewife seems to be interested in him for sex, she ends up having to take matters into her own hands.

“In real life, you can’t get people to do what you want them to do,” bemoans Martin late in the film, and this is doubly true of his victims. While we see him in the black-and-white sequences being playfully invited into the bedroom of a nubile young lady, it’s hardly that simple for Martin in the film’s present-day world. In the film’s centerpiece sequence, Martin breaks into a middle-aged married woman’s home at night and unexpectedly finds her with a man who isn’t her husband. Thinking quickly, he drugs both the woman and her lover, and improvises a new plan of attack. In a delicious bit of irony, the woman’s indiscretion ends up saving her life, as Martin takes out his frustration on her lover instead, taking his blood while yelling, “You weren’t supposed to be there!”

MARTIN is a well-made film, but to his credit, Romero doesn’t give it the polish of a traditional vampire movie. Along with his avoidance of stereotypical set direction and costumes, the cinematography is grainier and more hardscrabble than one might expect from a movie of this sort. There’s a great deal of handheld camera work, and little of the extreme chiaroscuro that tends to distinguish this genre that’s often heavily influenced by German Expressionism. The one exception to this comes in a scene where Martin dons a cape and a set of plastic fangs to frighten Cuda. In this scene, Romero employs fog and some extreme camera angles to contrast with his less stylized work in the rest of the film. When Martin pops his fangs out of his mouth at scene’s end and tells Cuda, “it’s just a costume,” the film makes its central theme explicit. Normally, I would have resented such an on-the-nose statement, but Romero’s assured filmmaking and storytelling sell the moment perfectly, turning it into an effective and strangely comic scene.

While I’ve always enjoyed spending a few hours in the cinematic presences of Dracula, Count Orlok, and friends, to me there’s something that’s much more unsettling about MARTIN. Rather than comfortably placing its vampire in the past, Martin takes place more or less in the present day, in a setting like many in America. Martin must learn to live by the unwritten rules of modern life in order to survive, and strangely the rules are much the same for him as they are for everyone else- mind your own business, keep your head down, fit in with the crowd, et cetera. And Martin’s tortured relationship with Cuda hits home even now, when the rift between the devout and the skeptical is stronger than ever. Of course, it’s doubtful that most faith-based conflicts on the basis of faith would end with a stake being driven through the protagonist’s heart, but despite all its new wrinkles, MARTIN is still a vampire movie at heart. There are some genre tropes that you just can’t get around.

Special thanks to Nathaniel for allowing me to take part. You can check out his blog for links to all the other participants, but here are some of the more interesting ones:

Certifiably Creative
No More Marriages
Eddie on Film
Forward to Yesterday
Modern Fabulosity
When I Look Deep Into Your Eyes...
Pfangirl Through the Looking Glass
Way of Words
My New Plaid Pants
Nick's Flick Picks
Culture Snob
100 Films
Film of the Year
Critic After Dark
Auteur Lust

And I would be remiss if I didn't give shout-outs to Richard Gibson, Tuwa's Shanty, and Tim Lucas, all of whom have written their entries (at least in part) on MARTIN. I salute your taste in vampire movies, even if my subject feels somewhat less unique now than it did when I chose it.


Tuwa said...

I just saw this for the first time last month and it really knocked me out. Remarkable film, with a very sensible treatment.

Jason_Alley said...

Excellent essay, dude. Makes me want to watch it again (it's been years).

My opinion has always been that he's not a vampire, that he's really just a budding serial killer with serious mental problems that have been caused and / or enforced by the wacko family superstition. I always viewed the B&W segments as pure fantasy.

But like I said, it's been several years. I should pull it out again one of these days.

Noel Vera said...

Excellent post, Paul. I would put it to you that the scene with the fake fangs works so well because it plays up to expectations being denied to us all along--where's the fangs? Where's the cape? Here they are, with a vengeance, and just when you're starting to doubt what the film's realist texture has been asserting throughout--bang! Realism is back, the teeth pop up, and Martin walks away from the illusion he's made (the joke here is that Cuda believed long before we started to doubt, and is practically climbing the walls in terror by now).

Same with the ending, only with an extra twist (SPOILER): Cuda leads us to expect a stake, and we get a stake. Enough said.

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