Saturday, January 26, 2013

#149: Martin (George A. Romero, 1976)

Martin arrived smack in the middle of George A. Romero's creatively fertile first two decades as a filmmaker and remains the director's favorite of his own films. Though low-budget, Martin is a vibrantly personal work, free of some of the compromises Romero has been forced to make on other projects. Romero wrote, directed, edited, and acted in Martin, and cast and crew included close friends and frequent collaborators, including his then-wife Christine Forrest and the always reliable and awesome Tom Savini. I've seen Martin four times, and each time I find more to love. Both structurally innovative and emotionally moving, Martin is a refreshingly honest portrayal of loneliness that avoids sentiment, self-pity, and cliché.
Though Martin can be classified as a vampire movie, its atmosphere, style, and tone push it closer toward the company of Romero's little-seen, underrated character-based dramas There's Always Vanilla and Season of the Witch rather than the more overt horror of the zombie films, The Crazies, and Creepshow. (This is no put-down of any of those films. I admire them all, and Dawn of the Dead is my favorite horror film ever.) For a guy most famous for a series of films about undead flesh eaters (to be unfairly reductive), his work on Vanilla, Witch, and Martin reveals a surprising kinship with early '70s American and Canadian independent dramas like Barbara Loden's Wanda and Donald Shebib's Goin' Down the Road, as well as a less manic, more melancholic cousin of the New York independents John Cassavetes, Lionel Rogosin, Morris Engel, Shirley Clarke, and the Scorsese of Who's That Knocking at My Door. As a lover of both horror films and the genre-free early North American independents, this delights me. Martin, then, is a bridge connecting all phases of Romero's career, a defining work that deserves to be as well known as Night of the Living Dead and its sequels.
Martin begins with a frightening scene on a train. Martin (John Amplas) sneaks into the sleeper car of an attractive fellow passenger he's spotted earlier in the day. She fights back valiantly, but Martin drugs her with a hypodermic needle, and removes her clothes and his. He embraces and kisses her, but instead of rape, he slits her wrist and drinks her blood. (Even this woman, who plays a victim, is given more dimension, personality, and strength than most women in horror films of that era, or any other. Romero's women are always just as interesting as his male characters and never defined by gender stereotypes, even in a film as concerned with sex as this one.) This opening scene is a daring gamble, since Martin is a tragic, sympathetic character. Romero clearly loves this man and wants the audience to feel, if not that same intensity of feeling, then at least some human commonality, so beginning with this moment is a risky but ultimately successful move.
Martin soon arrives in an economically struggling Pittsburgh neighborhood, where he is received by his elderly cousin Cuda (Lincoln Maazel, who died in 2009 at the age of 106). Cuda, from "the old country," has agreed to receive Martin in his home so he can save his soul and then destroy his earthly body. Cuda and Martin both believe Martin is a vampire, one of eight in their family bloodline and one of three still roaming the earth. Interestingly, Cuda believes in the traditional stereotypes of vampire myth, using garlic and crosses in an attempt to contain Martin, while Martin finds the old man's belief in these myths ridiculous even as he himself thinks he's an 85-year-old bloodsucker. Cuda's granddaughter Christina (Christine Forrest) also lives in the home and sees all this for what it is: mental illness, family myth, and harmful superstition. Martin is cripplingly shy and lonely, yearning for female companionship and human connection while convinced he's a vampire who must drink blood to survive.
Martin slowly begins to connect with others: becoming a regular caller to a night-time talk radio show where he is unwittingly used by the DJ for comic relief and ratings but where he is able to open up anonymously about who he thinks he is, developing a friendship with Christina, beginning a tender but tragic sexual relationship with a depressed, neglected housewife, Mrs. Santini (Elyane Nadeau). That last relationship becomes the film's most important one. These two damaged lonely people connect without judgment but are unable to help each other in the end.
Martin is a sad film, its subject being loneliness, manifested by alienation, suicide, murder, family disintegration, economic collapse, and the difficulty of human connection and communication. It's never dreary, though. Moments of humor, particularly Romero himself playing a self-deprecating priest with an appetite for cigars and wine, are expertly and naturally placed to lighten the mood and reveal hidden truths about the characters. The pace is brisk when it needs to be and deliberate and considered when required. The acting is occasionally sweetly awkward, but more often honest and natural, with even the awkward line readings more affecting than some slick piece of Hollywood professionalism that never makes us uncomfortable but never tells us anything about ourselves either. And, no, I'm not forgetting this is a horror blog. The film's horror elements are frightening and suspenseful, but also contain that emotional core that makes this movie something special. To put it in a more recent context, if Martin was on Maury Povich, the paternity test would reveal that Martin is the father of Larry Fessenden's Habit and not the father of Blade or 30 Days of Night or The Lost Boys.
I am a huge fan of George A. Romero and can find things to love in even his most flawed films, like Bruiser. However, I'm not being a mere partisan when I say George A. Romero's Martin is a beautiful, complex, and wonderful film with a vital central performance by John Amplas, an emotionally honest supporting cast, a subtly powerful score by composer Donald Rubinstein, and a strong sense of place. This is a real, personal film with a beating heart that willed itself into existence by humans, not committees, corporations, or celebrity vanity.

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