Many people who profess to be George Romero fans don’t even realise he has a career outside of the “Dead” films. Whilst his more modern work on the Dark Half et al is a little pedestrian he made a couple of films in the 70’s which are easily on a par with his “Dead” work. Martin falls into this category, as it is a typical Romero-esque take on the vampire legend.
The story is fairly simple. Martin (John Amplas) has moved to live with his Uncle Cuda (Maazel) as his father has died. Martin needs looking after as he has an unusual problem. He is a vampire, or at least his family believes he is a vampire. The only problem is he doesn’t exhibit any of the usual signs. He can eat garlic, crosses don’t bother him and you can see him in a mirror. However Martin does like to drink blood and he claims to be 84 despite his youthful looks. Therein lies the mystery, is he a vampire or not? During Martin’s stay he works in Cuda’s shop and delivers meat to Cuda’s customers including Mrs Santini (Elyane Nadeau) who he becomes romantically involved with. This interest seems to alter his perception and his vampirism. I won’t give away the ending but it is a fantastic piece of cinema.
The only other film I can think of that comes close to this concept is Vampire’s Kiss where Nicholas Cage believes he is a vampire and we never know if he is or not. However Vampire’s Kiss descended into farce occasionally whereas this film has the courage to play it straight throughout. Ultimately as with all Romero films this isn’t really a vampire film anymore than Night of the Living dead is a zombie film. The main point here is that Martin is an inexperienced young man who is also an outsider, In fact this film has more in common with Edward Scissorhands than it does any vampire film. Martin struggles to converse with people and his only outlet is his nighttime shenanigans. This alienation is compounded with his cult-hit status on a local radio chat show as the Count. He constantly hides behind his vampiric tendencies rather than face the world.
Visually the film is as good as anything Romero has produced. The opening ten minutes are spellbinding and easily one of the best and most tense openings I’ve seen in a horror film. The cuts between the colour shots for reality and black & white for the more dream-like sequences is stark and extremely effective. Originally Romero wanted the whole film in black and white but I feel he made the right choice here. Much is made of Romero’s fast cutting but here it is tempered with longer takes and shots that have a dreamy surreal quality about them. Overall the film has an unsettling atmosphere, which is created solely via Romero’s visual style. By the halfway stage I felt quite uncomfortable watching this and the tension was impressive.
The acting is pretty accomplished throughout. John Amplas as Martin is a revelation and stands head and shoulders above the rest. He doesn’t have much dialogue but his expressions say more than any words could convey. Lincoln Maazel as Cuda appears here in his only film role, which is curious as his performance here is pretty good. The rest of the cast are variable with only Tom Savini standing out as being quite wooden. A special mention must go here to Romero who plays the priest. He actually does a pretty good job here and his send up of the priesthood is delicious and one feels it is a personal dig by Romero.
The only flaw I can find here is with the films length, it feels rushed. Having listened to the commentary it doesn’t surprise me that the film was cut substantially. The original cut was 3 hours and whilst that was obviously too long I feel this cut is too tight. As a result the narrative flow is a little bit patchy and the pace is rushed in places where you feel they could take their time. In particular the 3rd act and conclusion suffer due to this. As the 3 hour cut is now “lost” we will have to make do with this mini masterpiece as it stands.
Overall this film is well worth searching out. It is easily on a par with Romero’s other works including Night and Dawn of the Dead. The social commentary is there and the unsettling feel of the film will remain with you long after the film has finished.
Being a minor cult horror film this is of course an Anchor Bay disc. This time it is one of their lower budget releases. This means a simple Alpha case with plain artwork and a single gatefold sheet chapter insert detailing the 22 chapter stops along with a short essay on the film, which is enlightening and informative. The menus are attractive and easy to navigate.
Before you all start complaining that Anchor Bay have produced a Pan & Scan disc it should be pointed out that Martin was meant to be shown in 1.37:1. The print is a remarkably clean one with few flaws. The picture is very contrasty with great black level and shadow detail. There is substantial film grain present but given the 16mm source this is to be expected and it gives the film a naturally gritty look. Unfortunately the transfer is a little lacking. Whilst it is sharp enough to show up the grain in the print it suffers from artefacting in places. This isn’t the usually blocky artefacting, but rather a sort of pixellation and shifting pattern, I think a higher bitrate and dual layer disc may well have helped here.
The soundtrack here is the very basic original mono track. It is in keeping with the film but understandably lacks dynamic range. Despite this I feel it suits the film down to the ground and I can’t fault the clarity or quality of the track.
Apart from a trailer the only extra is a commentary. This track has Romero, Savini and Amplas chatting away over the film. The chat is irreverent for the most part and not in keeping with the subject matter. If you want to understand the deeper meaning of the film or get some insight into the thoughts behind it then you won’t get it here. However the track is lively and amusing, the numerous anecdotes fly thick and fast and the participants poke fun at each other mercilessly. I would avoid listening to this immediately after watching the main feature as I feel it damages the impact of the film itself. I certainly waited a few days before giving it a try.
Any Romero fan who limits themselves to the “Dead” films is denying themselves a true gem here. The film is easily up there with some of his best work and deserves a wider audience. The disc itself is accomplished if unremarkable. The picture is decent despite the artefacting. The sound is a good solid track that complements the film and the extras are entertaining but could detract from the main feature. Fans of the more cerebral side of horror should waste no time and any self-respecting Romero fan should be checking this out.