“See it with someone you’re sure of…”
The next two reviews that will be discussed on this site come from two of the horror genres greatest ever directors, both whom became close friends, associates and on occasion collaborators over the next several decades. The directors I refer to are one Mr Dario Argento whose masterpiece Suspiria, 1977 will soon take T.C.M.R. limelight. Firstly however we must deal with and now concentrate on Mr George A. Romero’s individual masterpiece, Martin 1976, which was eventually given its full cinema release in the summer of July ’78. Again many of you may think why start here with the illustrious canon of work from this man. The answer is very simple. To date this is still Romero’s own personal favourite and extraordinarily his only dip into the vampire genre and what a delve into this particular part of the genre it is. Secondly because his work is so major, nay prolific it is therefore inevitable many of his other works will one day be reviewed on this site. We chose Martin simply because it is a side of this director not often mentioned in formal conversation, (yes because of the zombie thang!) Those with a greater affection and understanding of Romero however still often mention Martin as one of his finest works, so there you have it folks. Not only is this film full of wonderful originality but it is simply a unique and extraordinary movie on many more levels. It shows a pragmatism too frequently absent from this genre and apart from Harry Kümel’s wonderful Daughters of Darkness, 1971, or Tony Scott’s beautiful and haunting 1983 effort The Hunger and more recently Tomas Alfredson’s pretty amazing 2008 contribution, Let The Right One In. These four sublime movies go way beyond the standard way we look at this often over inflated vampire arena. This film also pointed out Romero’s greater range when tapped and quite easily puts him in a elite circle of film directors that could quite have easily done far more as a director than they actually became more famous for, though again I have no complaints on what made him world renowned.
Martin is most definitely among a very elite group of vampiric masterpieces that shows an often and frequent disparity in being in the strange and often banal reality of the undead – being a bloodsucker. What Romero does with his main character is show confusion, despair and often a great loneliness that come as a result of having to live in this terrible realm, whether self created (delusional?) or of a genuine and true vampiric temperament. What this film immediately does is offer a view into how reality viewed through the eyes of a complicated force can often cause many strenuous and often terrible events to occur for those cursed by this great difference. In actual fact the film deals with the pretext that maybe Martin Mathias – John Amplas whose performance is worthy of a great deal of special mention, for he is very convincing as an often confused young loner on the cusp of insanity or someone that at the very least formulates a detailed obsession of how to control his personal warped nature? Amplas’s performance brilliantly deals with the complexities of this character dichotomy and as to whether he is indeed nothing more than a delusional fantasist, a possible schizophrenic who is possibly suffering from the most severe mental pathology or is he genuinely a cursed man? What is also wonderful about John Amplas in performance is how he strides forward to bring to this epic story a perceived undertow of innocence that those characters that surround him throughout see within his noted personalty as merely a meek, weak and standoffish soul, this façade however often belies a deceitfulness that when unravelled makes Martin all the more terrifying to those who become his claimed victims, more uniquely the effect it has upon the audience who get to muse and participate, even delve into the mindset of this confused and extrovert character which in John Amplas’s performance, this often sad and unique vampiric soul matches Romero’s dark tale to the letter.
The films incredible opening moments start off by offering us the possibility that our main character may be nothing more than a monstrous and manipulative killer (serial?) who may simply be acting out his fantasies while in the act of a cruel brutality. The attack of a female passenger on board a long distance train journey which travels from Indianapolis to New York and the way in which Martin’s primal, cold and calculated approach to take immediate and forceful control of the whole situation as it unfolds is still to this day one of the most uncomfortable and premeditated events witnessed in a genre film. This moment defines a dramatic opening discomfort that encapsulates the very barbaric essence of what this master work is all about and how to our main character this is just his way of physical contact and an acceptable routine, a normality. There are numerous scenes throughout the film that show this organised, conspiring manipulation and though under different circumstances it appears just as compelling and disturbing and truly shocking in approach, this opening scene highlights and testifies this blatant point. This is what makes this disturbing opening salvo particularly unsettling because this is just a mere taster of what is to come later, though I must add this scene is perhaps one of the movies finest moments and therefore has to be considered one of the best opening impact sequences in a horror movie. The audience is given no opportunity to settle before events take hold with frightening speed. The victim performance by Francine Middleton though brief is both feisty, compelling and ultimately convincing as she initially fights vigorously for her life. This scene of siege is also prolonged in act and I would suggest dips into becoming a very unnerving experience as we are subjected to what many may view as an unrelenting, realistic attack followed by a killing that at no point offers us the traditional vampire mesmerism nor seduction ceremony familiar to many staples of this sub-genre. This opening act of violence goes a tremendous way to formulating the storyline and what we will go on to perceive as the true manic side of our character Martin and his whole deep routed demeanour and delicate state of mind. It is a truly terrifying experience for the victim who’s eventual helplessness will lead to only one horrific conclusion. It is the sheer intensity of this opening bloodletting and pseudo sexual behavioural scene that shows true difference to this genres often self obsessed familiarity, indeed this wonderful and twisted overview of vampirism shows just how superb Romero is as not just a director but also as a writer of wonderful genre material, someone whom often likes to tweak and twist standard material in order to offer it a fuller more extended originality and shape toward what is usually an area of often traditional steadfastness that many fear to tamper with… Romero notes clear tradition in Martin’s output throughout but still works extremely hard in providing a modernism of the genre with a considered humanist angle. When filming this very uncomfortable opening scene with its dark subject matter as disturbing as this bloody homicide becomes, Romero does not make it a total visceral onslaught, indeed for someone who would later on in his career become world renowned for his more graphic depictions of horror, in the particular case of Martin he is often very cautious and focused more on restraint, making Amplas and Middleton create an event in which they must do the more intense work rather than simply play it for just pure bloody graphic assault, though again this scene like others is graphic and not short of blood spilled, it’s not however the usual high end of what we have come to expect of Romero’s latter material or that of Tom Savini’s special make-up gore laden effects that we have come to love and appreciate. This fact is all the more incredible in the knowledge that this was the first time in what would become a long association with special effects maestro Tom Savini who also features in the films cast as Arthur. Savini would also perform many of the movies ambitious often dangerous stunts. We must also remember in Martin, Romero also puts in a acting performance, he as the local priest, Father Howard. Romero and Savin’s working relationship would span across many of Romero’s other projects in the years that have subsequently followed since this ’76 effort, a relationship that would gain them both their unquestionable reputations for being two of the greatest exponents in their field of expertise. The strange thing about Martin is the fact that Romero and Savini are so committed to this $80,000 (estimated) low budget project that Martin produces only a vague offering of the established signature of Romero/Savini collaboration that would in later working achievement become trademark familiarity. It is clear that for Savini, Martin was a learning process and this is quite clearly shown in the more graphic moments that though still pretty impressive for a beginner do not meet the high standard of his later work, indeed his next feature with Romero which as we all know became legendary for the reasons above and many reasons besides would quickly show the incredible learning curve Savini took away from this particular project.
This film never overstates anything other than getting the work done with the meagre financial means at Romero’s disposal, all the core work proficiently done by a loyal cast and crew may I add. The almost family orientated comradery surely stems from an almost back to basics shooting schedule or the term more readily used today ‘gorilla’ filmmaking, a terminology I believe Romero had to be proficient at on many occasions and did so way before it became a fanciful pigeonhole word for a new concept of shooting movies; alas Romero was clearly at the forefront of this kind of filmmaking process before its more recent overused resurgence. This very exercise in the shooting process would come to a greater fruition come his next project Dawn of The Dead (1978) this working system and method still maintained only on a far larger budget than that used in Martin and clearly on a grander scale also. When watching Martin you must understand that this is a true early independent filmmaker who at the time was still having to work under great financial constraint which gives this film that often gritty, bleak imagery and outlook, intentional or otherwise? What is more extraordinary in Romero’s direction and in particular in the black and white flashback imagery of Martin, is the fascinating way in which Romero uses his camerawork in terms of making scenes look bigger, more extravagant, and his extraordinary ability in the use of expanding his visual vistas which significantly create a genuine gothic historical provenance in the pursuit of firming up the chilling back-story; it is indeed wonderful workmanship of the highest order. On close inspection these monochrome flashback moments eerily look quite grandiose at times and intersperse wonderfully with the colourful yet drab look of the steel town backdrop of the characters current reality, making these crossovers in the film even more remarkable as a visual concept. The night train finally pulls into Pittsburgh and Martin is able to disembark (note in daylight) and leave his victims body concealed in her quarters.
Martin is met at the station by a man dressed in a white suit. He is Martin’s cousin. A patriarch character we come to know as Tateh Cuda – Lincoln Maazel. This particular relationship becomes the backbone of the story and soon confirms to us the true and real historical family insight and significance that connects Cuda with Martin. We are also given an insight into Tateh Cuda’s traditional old country upbringing in Lithuania. The film deals heavily with Cuda’s strong Catholic background and upbringing, indeed this often religious fervent attitude allows Cuda to preach and use it to hide behind the alleged curse upon the family which plays a major role in Tateh Cuda’s often aggressive behaviour toward his cousin Martin. Later on in a heated discussion between Tateh and Christina – Christine Forrest aka Mrs Romero. (They met and married shortly after Martin). Christina is one of Martins distant cousins and lives with her grandfather Cuda. Here we are given the facts according to a bitter Tateh Cuda as he looks at a very old photo album of his family and narrates a tale of both the families background and Martin’s alleged curse, he also explains to a disbelieving Christina why he has had to take in Martin for sake of family. Before these revelations come to light however we are offered in opening exchanges an immediate declaration of intent, for no sooner as our protagonist walked into Cuda’s home; Martin is immediately threatened by his cousin. So strong is Cuda in his belief that any suggestion that Martin ever becomes the cause of anything untoward or suspicious, any wrong doing or foul play comes to light while he resides in Cuda’s home, he makes clear that he will not hesitate in putting a stake through Martin’s heart if convention dictates. Cuda in his religious rantings describing Martin as ‘Nosferatu’ in these opening exchanges. He also states in his summation, “first I will save your soul, then I will destroy you?” This early confrontation between the two men marks a significant pointer in what may be nothing more than the traditional religious ideological rantings of a foolish old man who uses this alleged folklore nonsense or alleged family curse to allow this bitter old traditionalist to deride Martin as some kind of freak, abomination, though it is obvious Cuda believes vehemently in the curse. This historical family line is made clear between Tateh Cuda and Martin and the tension between them becomes a continual thread of antagonism and intolerance of largely religious design which continually plays an important significance throughout this social conflict. Christina will often play peacekeeper and become a guarded confidant/allies to Martin. The relationship between Christina and Martin is much more amicable and this lays down a trust that brings Martin out of his often reclusive nature, though never fully. The way in which Romero uses family ties and tradition in the telling of this tale is very unique and rather than having a hatred for Martin we somehow become strangely sympathetic to a point, well maybe for a while at least. This alternative outlook places this work into a unique position in terms of other films dealing with the world of vampires. The fact is that like it or not Martin becomes a piece of horror cinema soul searching in large part, on occasion you even forget that this is about a vampire and indeed dips deeper into the whelms of social anxiety and the dysfunction of the family unit with their everyday social and communicative apathy that is often highlighted as a hidden but exquisitely dropped into the whole premise of what makes Martin that little more unique as a genre film and certainly offers us a greater starkness and realism to the social wares of character form and a visual commentary of a place like Pennsylvania, in particular the town of Braddock with its failing industrial backdrop presence which is heavily noted throughout the film. It also dictates a tougher endemic tone regarding the often stereotypical antics of its many occupants. Indeed at times it seems Romero is intent on showing the living organism of a town under the immense social and domestic pressures of change. As our confused character tries hard to adapt to his new surroundings and its social ramifications, Romero throughout makes sure we also become saturated in tandem by the interaction of the townsfolk and the living personality of many that make up the community of an often bleak and run down reality. Tom Savini’s character Arthur, boyfriend of Christina provides us with such an insight with a personal and intimate portrayal of a man who is unsettled and tired of what Braddock the place can no longer offer for a hard working man. The loss of the industries that once made it a thriving hub for those who grew up and worked in the mills of past industry now but a faded memory. Pretty strong social commentary for a horror film you may think, well no – not really! The melancholy tone of the film throughout is both important to understand and an integral component that highlights this disparity and abandonment of what was once an industrialised epicentre and the effect the closing of said mills had on its then population. It seems to even suggest that though Martin is struggling as an outsider and individual entity and is truly the monster amongst, he is clearly not alone in having personal and problematic issues with his own extreme personality, indeed the town in which he finds himself and the people within it and what remains for many of those that still live within this fading community patiently adds an important social equilibrium. This film is a social cornucopia when it comes to noting many of the issues of small town America at that particular time, a working class area dealing openly with what is daily monotony and the contrasting existence of those who are surround by the fading dreams and aspirations of the main characters in their day to day lives, including those who have a distant rudimentary presence or connection to this wider and varied community.
Martin attempts to conform, though he continually seems to struggle in settling into his new environment to the best of his capability, we note he initially tries hard to resist the trials of his new cohabitation, he doing so in order to hopefully control the continual provocation of Cuda and more so his own personal battle against his own personal bloodlust. With the new found support of Christina who’s allegiance become clearly defined, she often at pains to defend Martin from Cuda – as she begins to witness, his tyrannical behaviour. Despite this support however, Martin’s illness or vampiric necessity lead him to eventually plan a new attack!
We see Martin observe and study his next victim and also note an intelligent, premeditation and a meticulous dark side to Martin in his need to nourish his sickening lust, an association in all fairness he cannot escape, for it is his very nature? Martin is also in the process of finding an outlet for his thoughts and feelings as he becomes a regular caller on a local nighttime radio show and anonymously becomes a bit of a local celebrity, though it is clear that the shows producers and DJ whom nickname him “The Count” are simply using Martin’s personal conversations often for mischievous, mocking comedic effect. It is also during this time that a slow building relationship between Martin’s confused character and a bored housewife Mrs Santini – Elyane Nadeau starts to simmer and develop into a probable sexual liaison. Will the mature housewife become Martin’s saving grace, can she change the behaviour of her would be lover? Is the radio show giving Martin a platform to vanquish his inner demon or is all this to much, too late. Will it also answer the question as to whether Martin is indeed a real bona fide vampire or not?
The second planned attack by Martin is both fascinating and also quite an extraordinary point of wonderful direction and writing. The several event laden minutes that follow show how premeditated plans can be thrown into sudden disrepute, as a clumsy and dangerous chaos ensues as what Martin perceives as a formality suddenly becomes a case of using both his stealth and wit in order to evade personal calamity. When Martin breaks and enters what he believes is the home of a lone house wife – Sara Venable, who’s husband is away on business. Is it possible Martin as become brazen, after all he has done this many times before! On entering his quarries bedroom however, what he expects and what clearly becomes the case in point soon throws everything into turmoil. Present in the room with the woman is a man that is not her husband. Martin though taken aback in obvious surprise never panics and is very quick to work through the process of controlling this inconvenient disruption and the potential danger of this new additional concern. In this new element and tension Romero use of the home layout is pretty incredible and the room to room conflict becomes unrelenting at times. The battle between the protagonist and those caught up in this surreal moment; I would compare to being trapped in a maze and then pursued by a person of an unconditional terror who may thrive on the sheer mayhem of the moment. Many of the scenes become almost claustrophobic at times and as you watch the chaos unfold all you seem to feel is nothing other than impending doom for the unfaithful housewife and her secret lover. Panic overcomes the woman as she tries in considerable fear to come to terms with what is actually happening. Sadly for the man Martin’s cunning eventually helps him incapacitate the lover and from that point onward you know that Martin now controls the crime scene. Like the first attack there is nothing appealing as we watch Martin’s latest victim falters in her attempts to repel her attacker. Throughout this movie these terrifying struggles against our protagonist seem very inglorious which is special because it does not try to titillate or commend the act, what it does as it did in the opening scene is highlight the opportunism and devastation such victimisation leaves in its trail. It is in these actions of the protagonist and the reflex shock of the women he covets that makes these scenes so often unnerving, compelling and extremely scary, not for one moment does Romero glamourise the helplessness of the situation for the unfortunate victims chosen by Martin.
The films extraordinary approach and complexity (for something as basic as a horror movie) maintains a fully fledged resonance and sadness that keeps the many strands of story unravelling. From revelation, exorcism, confrontation and perceived betrayal, we are offered all this plus the added bonuses of a character who in his own terms suggest he is “getting shaky” as he reveals this ominous predicament to the radio show host he often contacts. Shortly after his transmitted confession of the soul, Martin’s concerns are proven to be correct. In a lacklustre and careless assault of two hobo’s by our otherwise precise and calculated protagonist. All that could go wrong soon becomes a reality and leads among other matters to a police versus gang shootout which occurs as a result of Martin’s indirect carelessness. The main element that brings the movie to its horror rapture comes as a result of Martin’s intensifying and blossoming affair with Mrs Santini or as Martin refers to this companionship in one of his radio commentaries actually doing the “sexy stuff” without the bloodletting. This however is a unique and unusual case between Martin and housewife Mrs Santini who we also begin to note, seems to be quite dramatically going through her own personal crisis, a matter that will eventually have direct association and consequence that has far reaching and disastrous consequences – something that becomes very unexpected. It is indeed this part of the tale that is the telling factor of this amazing production. If the finale of this film does not effect the emotion button, then I fear there maybe something amiss in your own personality. The emotional last quarter of this Romero classic is quite spellbinding and what is frequently missing from lesser such genre movies with regard to a significant twist in the tale. Not many have ever been as powerful and bitter sweet as the one Romero provides in Martin. It is comparable to Shakespearean in nature. That also includes many films outside the genre. Yes I am genuinely not trying to humour and I absolutely mean every word. Am I mad for making such a statement, quite possibly but the bards Romeo and Juliet must surely apply in this warped alternative horror-universe. With an epilogue that includes suicide, mistaken circumstance and ritual murder, Martin shakes the foundations of the genre to a conclusion that devastates with a cruel irony which leaves a tragic wreckage of life in both a factual devastation and in a perceived fictional transgression of ‘was he, was he not?’ what we assume of Martin and his probable vampirism. This haunting and often sad melancholy movie is not just George A. Romero at one of his finest points, if not his finest? but it also shows a statement of intent by a man at a point of writing genius and in providing us with Martin he gifts us a script that makes most other vampiric compositions look strangely formulaic in nature both proceeding it and even since its celluloid birth. We here at T.C.M.R. Are huge fans of Romero and his life long gifts to the horror movement including Martin. You will also find it impossible to find a genuine nicer famous personality as world renowned as this director who is often so wonderfully understated. He is one of the great masters of not just the horror genre but as Martin clearly shows is a man that often sprinkles his work with genuine social commentary regarding the nature and complexities of mankind in fictional extremities. He deals with quirky characterisation and in doing so gives us much more than just average horror convenience. This is a director that has often surpassed audience expectation and he has achieved this in his own inimitable way. There will never be another in the business the likes of George A. Romero. He is without any doubt to us here at T.C.M.R. the Godfather of horror and one of the greatest contributors to my personal movie viewing life as seen through my love of all things horror orientated. Martin is a true classic, John Amplas commands respect as the title character and we welcome Martin into The Cult Movie Review without hesitation welcome home this close personal vampire friend. E.D. Leach.
Addition: We here at T.C.M.R. are often very reluctant to plug a specific release regarding one of our film choices but with a unique one off like George A. Romero’s Martin we must break that convention in this case and suggest that if you want to see this Romero classic in all its glory and beyond then we are simply humbled by the Immortal Edition, Arrow video double dvd disc 2010 release. It is a truly wonderful and complete collectors item that as far to many extras to mention in this brief. We will just simply say you will never be found wanting. This edition also includes the extended running time version of Wampyr: the full Italian cut version which also includes the additional Goblin soundtrack. Pretty bloody brilliant we think. E.D. Leach.