Martin (Geroge Romero, 1977)
[originally posted 5Nov2001]
George Romero’s debut film, Night of the Living Dead, is a Hollywood legend, a movie that over thirty years of release has grossed over a hundred thousand times its cost and turned into a bona fide wordwide phenomenon. Romero was widely hailed (when not being described as Satan incarnate or scaring folks so badly they introduced the MPAA ratings system) as America’s next big thing, the filmmaker who would change the face of Hollywood—now that they realized he existed.
Then came a string of films for which “unwatchable” is the kindest possible term—two (There’s Always Vanilla and Jack’s Wife) stock seventies melodramas so bad that they faded into obscurity in about ten minutes apiece, and one (The Crazies) attempt to return to the horror genre that lacks, well, horror. For nine long years, it looked as if Romero were suffering through a neverending sophomore slump.
Then someone got a brilliant idea—why not combine Peyton Place-style melodrama and elements of horror? Hey, Cronenberg did it in 1975 with Shivers and got a half-decent audience response, right?
The result was Martin, Romero’s fifth film and the beginning of the career that should have started just after Night of the Living Dead was released. It was a long, long time after this before Romero released another bad movie (and some say he still hasn’t; all depends on your opinion of The Dark Half). Romero took the same approach with Martin that he did with Night of the Living Dead: cast a whole lot of unknowns, shoot on the cheapest possible film, make the movie as far outside the confines of Hollywood as possible. And it worked, and it worked tremendously.
Martin is the story of, depending on who you believe, either a conflicted teen who’s been brainwashed by his family or an eighty-plus-year-old vampire intent on terrorizing his family (in either case, it’s John Amplas in his screen debut). Martin has just moved to Pittsburgh from Indiana to live with his grandfather/cousin (again, depending on to whom you listen), Cuda (Lincoln Maazel, Lorin’s father, in his only screen appearance) and cousin/niece, etc., Christina (Christine Forrest). Upon arrival, Cuda makes no bones about his belief that Martin is a vampire and relegates him to the same outcast status enjoyed by Christina. Eventually, though, the family feeling of the neighborhood wins out, and Martin starts developing friendships, even a sexual relationship with a lonely housewife, Mrs. Santini (Elizabeth Nadeau). He also becomes a regular caller to a late night talk show under the moniker “The Count,” and he and the host try to work out some of the family neuroses that plague Martin throughout the movie.
What stands out about the film, aside from Romero’s direction and the naturalness of the actors (there’s a reason casting unknowns is a popular trend for independent directors), is the exceptional subtlety in the script. Martin is so befuddled by his family he really doesn’t know if he’s a vampire or not; neither do we. His relationships point to both social and sexual virginity, though we’re well aware that Martin is neither (the original cut of the film was X-rated; Romero was forced to cut a grand total of two seconds to achieve the R), and the way the various characters sympathetic to him allow Martin to start to flower as a person is touching—something unexpected, to say the least, in a horror film. For lack of a better word, the whole thing is quite nice, and would have been a minor, obscure coming-of-age flick if not for Martin’s alternately horrifying and humorous attempts to live up to his supposed birthright and his grandfather’s head popping up now and again and hissing “nosssssferaaaatuuuuuuuu!” at him.
A wonderful movie. While it didn’t live up to the changing-the-face-of-American-film thing, Romero had already done that with Night of the Living Dead; looked at by itself, Martin is a remarkable little movie, and one that deserves a wider audience. **** ½