Admittedly, I’m not a fan of vampire films (okay, Let Me In was tight), but one staple of every October horror list for me is George A. Romero’s often-overlooked 1978 film, Martin; the film that the director himself credits as being his favorite of his movies. At this point in Romero’s career, he’d already churned out Night of the Living Dead (the film that launched a thousand imitators), The Crazies (the remake does not hold up) and Season of the Witch (solid, but fairly forgettable). Later that year, Romero would go on to release Dawn of the Dead, another near-perfect entry in the “Dead” series.
Enough background, let’s talk Martin. This is a super low budget entry into the lexicon of horror movies, and it withstands the test of time. I read that the budget hovered somewhere between $80,000-$100,000, but was reported as $250,000 in order to be taken seriously as an indie film. In typical fashion, Romero put a lot of friends/family in the cast and crew, which adds to the loose, slightly unfinished feel of the film. It’s rife with audio jump cuts, and visual transitions that seem to disorient the viewer. This could be for effect, or could just be a result of an $80,000 budget, with friends and family manning the controls.
This movie is unsettling. It begins with claustrophobic shots of a young man who believes himself to be a vampire. Let’s call him Martin, for the sake of argument. He sedates, murders and sleeps with a woman on the train on his way into the Pittsburgh area to live with his cousins Tateh Cuda and Christina. Oh, right… and everyone in Pittsburgh says the name Tateh Cuda as if it’s a traditional Pittsburgh name. Weird detail, but I dig it. There’s a strong family history of vampirism, which leads Cuda to believe Martin is a real-life vampire, and hangs religious talismans/garlic all over the house.
Martin is the strong silent type who lives sleight of hand, blood, and long walks through Braddock, PA. He begins to open up to his cousin Christina (who delivers maybe my favorite performance in the film), until she skips town with Tom Savini (his first collaboration, but certainly not his last, with George Romero). Martin has these very vivid flashbacks, or delusions, in black-and-white. They often involve a woman holding a candelabra, singing his name with a ton of reverb and delay on it, followed by Martin being chased by an angry mob holding pitchforks. This all makes it tough to discern if Martin really is a vampire, or if he’s just been fed the lore of the “family curse” long enough to believe it.
One other thing this movie really does right is the score. It’s mostly scored with a Fender Rhodes piano, and some woodwind instruments. Or at least that’s what it sounds like to me. The instrumentation gives it a nice “boy next door” kind of feel… maybe something Romero picked up from working with Fred Rogers. I’d also like to take a second to shout out of the Director of Photography. There are some seriously beautiful shots in this film. Even scenes as simple as shadows on the wall behind a main character mimicking their actions, or a tight shot following closely behind Martin as he crosses the street seem to stand out… and again, just provide a general tone of the film.
Back to the plot for a second. Martin is super cat-like, and light on his feet. He thinks quickly in a bunch of situations; namely, a situation where he preys on a woman whose husband happens to be out of town, and stalks her through this 1960s-ass house. This scene provides creativity, tension and chaos, all tempered and balanced really nicely, in one of the most memorable sequences in the entire film. It’s again interspersed with more of the black-and-white, flashback scenes that make the movie so memorable.
Martin strikes up a friendship with a woman in town, and eventually gets into some of what he calls “the sexy stuff.” He talks about this with the local radio jockey, and becomes an instant hit as “the Count.” He also starts to get shaky toward the end of the film, having not preyed on anyone in town lately, and he ends up in a drug den shootout between the cops and some degenerates. It’s cool, though. He totally walks away unscathed. There’s another really fun, light-hearted scene of Martin pretending to be a traditional, baroque vampire and mocking Tateh Cuda. This is not popular with his cousin, and just adds more fuel to the fire for Cuda to not want to keep Martin around.
So as you can tell, I think this movie is so great for a variety of reasons. In keeping with Romero’s super-abrupt ending style evident in Night of the Living Dead, Martin gets off’ed by Cuda for a simple misunderstanding with a stake through the heart. He’s buried in the flower bed outside with a crucifix on top, while callers harass the radio host for more info on the whereabouts of the Count.
I’ve heard mention of this film getting the “remake” treatment, but luckily (much like Logan’s Run), it has not come to fruition. I think it would be really hard to capture the innocent nature of this film, the tone, or any of the social commentary that Romero was able to get right with Martin. I’ve also heard that since Romero’s passing, his family has unearthed a ton of unfinished scripts of his. This makes me a little skeptical since, as I understand it, Romero was not super thrilled with his own work toward the end of his career, and having been such a visionary, I find it hard to believe most directors could carry out his screenplays with any kind of success. For this same reason, I’d be curious to see Romero’s original 160 minute cut of Martin, in order to get more of the classic showdown between Martin vs. Cuda.
This is one of my favorite horror movies of all time. I’d searched for it for years, with little to no success. As of now, it’s still not available for streaming anywhere, except a link on YouTube, so I bit the bullet and bought a slightly abused copy of the VHS on eBay a couple years back and was instantly hooked. If you can afford it, the DVD copy goes for something like $80 on Amazon Prime. And honestly, it’s worth it.