Martin (1976)

Martin first published by Movie Gazette

Boarding a train, a young man (John Amplas) notices a woman travelling alone overnight to New York. Later, after he has secretly prepared a syringe in the bathroom, he sneaks into the woman’s sleeper compartment, injects her with sedatives while politely informing her ‘I just want you to sleep, please’, climbs naked into her bed after she has stopped struggling – and opens her wrist with a razor and drinks her blood before meticulously rearranging the room to make her death look like a suicide.

As this opening scene of Martin unfolds, from moment to moment our idea of who Martin is keeps changing – from anonymous teenager to drug addict to rapist to deranged killer. When he reaches Pittsburgh, however, we learn that his uncle Cuda (Lincoln Maazel) has another label for him – ‘Nosferatu‘, a vampire afflicted with an ancient family curse from the old country – even though Cuda’s garlic, crucifixes and exorcism prove to have no effect on him. Cuda’s Americanised granddaughter Christina, on the other hand, insists that Martin is just unbalanced, driven to madness by family superstition.

Martin himself is convinced of his own vampirism, claiming, despite all appearances, to be 84 years old, and continuing to perpetrate his strangely sexual murders. Except that by the time Martin is over, you will be left unsure of who exactly Martin is, or whether he has actually killed anybody at all. George A. Romero, best known for his zombie trilogy Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead, has created a highly original variant on the traditional vampire film. Not so much a horror film as a tragedy of alienation, Martin presents a man gravely isolated by a repressive family environment, painful shyness and fear of ‘sexy stuff’ – and along the way it portrays a deadend neighbourhood, rife with unemployment, crime and social decay, where the local church has burnt down and there is enough blood-letting going on anyway without Martin’s interventions.

Amplas puts in a remarkably intense performance as Martin, transforming this otherworldly, uncommunicative character into someone both believable and sympathetic, if never quite understood. Christina is played by Romero’s wife Christine Forrest, her boyfriend Arthur by Tom Savini (the most famous horror make-up artist of the seventies and eighties), and a new local priest by Romero himself. The film’s low-budget look just adds to the sombre tone, and, despite the grand guignol ending, there is otherwise considerable restraint on the gore (at least by Romero’s standards) in this elegy for a society which requires old myths to explain its new monsters.

strap: George A. Romero’s feature is a subtle drama of urban decay and social isolation merely masquerading as a vampire film, with a mesmerising central performance.

© Anton Bitel