Sunday, January 13, 2013

Martin (1977)

... aka: George A. Romero's Martin
... aka: Martin: The Blood Lover

Directed by:
George A. Romero

Martin opens aboard a train late at night, where the title character (John Amplas) is on the prowl for a victim. He spots an attractive young woman (Francine Middleton) and decides that she's the one. He unfolds his kit, revealing numerous tools, including a syringe and a vial of liquid; a sedative. He positions himself outside the door of the woman's compartment in nervous anticipation of what's about to happen, having a black-and-white vision of her dolled up in a flowing nightgown; arms outstretched for an embrace, wind blowing back her hair. When Martin actually enters, the stock reverts back to color. Instead of the dream encounter he'd imagined, the woman has just finished using the toilet and comes out of the bathroom blowing her nose; face covered with cold cream. He jumps on her, injects her with the sedative and there's a struggle where she calls him a "freak rapist asshole." He tells her that all he wants is for her "to go to sleep" and assures her that he's "always very careful with the needles." Once she's out, he strips her naked, takes off his own clothes and joins her in bed, where he slashes her wrist with a razor and drinks her blood. There's a reason to describe this opening scene in detail because it wonderfully sets up the rest of this offbeat film that deals with themes of alienation and loneliness. There's the cold, colorful truth of reality and then there's the romanticized black-and-white world of fantasy, which can be just as destructive.

Though he uses fantasy himself as a means of escape, fantasy and superstition are also why Martin is as awkward and disturbed as he is. He's come from a rather odd family who have convinced him he's alien and evil; an 84-year-old vampire; the "family shame." If he truly is what they say he is, it's certainly not in the traditional sense. He's fine in the daylight, casts a reflection, bites into a garlic bulb and has no problem handling crucifixes. He also lacks fangs, so in order to extract the blood he thinks he needs, he's forced to use a razor blade. Martin goes to stay with his deeply religious, superstitious, elderly cousin Tata Cuda (Lincoln Maazel), who immediately informs him that he's going to destroy him. After saving his soul, of course. He is a staunch Catholic, after all. In the meantime, Martin goes to work in the family grocery store and finally comes out of his shell enough to become acquainted with several other people. There are numerous scenes of our protagonist strolling down the street aimlessly, with a grimy, dying industrial town on its last legs as a hopeless backdrop to a hopeless situation. 

Cuda's granddaughter Christina (Christine Forrest), who lives in the same home, is bored and disillusioned by it all to the point where she's hooked up with an out-of-work mechanic (played by Tom Savini) she doesn't even love and is using as her ticket out of that hellhole. Christina does not believe that vampirism runs in her family but mental illness does, and thinks her young cousin needs to see a doctor. Indeed he should. Martin sneaks out of the house one night for another attack on an unfaithful married woman (Sara Venable) and her lover ("Al Levitsky" / Roger Caine), which ends in Martin killing and feeding on the man and tranquilizing the woman and raping her. This brilliantly directed sequence (which edits in black-and-white fantasy footage and uses a voice over) shines light on the fact that blood is a substitute for something else sorely lacking in Martin's life: intimacy and love. The only way he feels comfortable getting either is if the other party is incapacitated, and the blood is a psychological driving force for him to get what he truly needs.

Martin eventually becomes involved with Mrs. Santini (Elyane Nadeau), a neglected, depressed housewife who lures him to her home under the pretense of handyman work but is actually just looking for love and affection herself. Martin takes his first step at normalcy in a consensual adult relationship, but even that is doomed. There's even less hope in breaking through to cousin Cuda, who is so dead-set in the "old ways" and his inherited beliefs that it's futile to even introduce logic into the discussion, though Martin tries anyway. He disproves the effectiveness of garlic and a cross, runs away from a ridiculous exorcism attempt and, during one memorable sequence, even dresses up like a traditional vampire in a cape, suit and fangs and pretends like he's going to attack him, only to spit out the plastic teeth and wipe off his face paint as if to say "This is what you think I am [vampire], but this is what I really am [a person]." Despite proving time and time again there's "no magic," Martin is fighting a losing battle against the destructive force both family and religion have had on his impressionable mind. While all this is going on, he becomes a local (anonymous) celebrity on call-in radio show where he airs his thoughts and troubles and is nicknamed "The Count."

Romero is, and always will be, best known for his gory zombie films and for creating the flesh-eating zombie subgenre that's even more popular today than it ever has been. Martin proves his talents go far beyond what he's usually given credit for. This is a superb low-budget film that uses the vampire theme - and all its imagery and accompaniments - metaphorically as a means to dig deeper into the outcast condition. Here the director intelligently spins the tired old conventions on their head into something fresh, original and utterly compelling. Despite very positive critical reviews, you will seldom see this movie crop up on 'best of all time' lists, though it should. It's also a slap in the face to Romero's detractors, who sometimes claim he lacks artistry. This is a low-key work that's not only thoughtful and smart, but also visually stylish and highly atmospheric, with intriguing black-and-white fantasy / "flashback" sequences recalling vintage vampire movies edited in throughout. Romero has also gotten excellent performances from his unknown cast here, particularly from Amplas.

In addition to directed and writing, Romero also edited and appears in a small role as a priest. Donald Rubinstein contributes a haunting score, Michael Gornick (who also provides the voice of the radio host Martin frequently calls) did an terrific job shooting it and the makeup effects (which are only sporadically used) are from Savini.

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