George A. Romero will always be associated with zombies. However many seem to forget he also made non-zombie films. Those titles tend to get overlooked and I think it’s time to show them some love. The film I will be talking about for this entry deals with another creature from horror, vampires. Yes George Romero made a vampire movie….sort of. “Martin” is a rather unique entry in the vampire genre. It’s a great character study that strips away the supernatural elements of vampires and grounds the creatures in reality.
John Amplas plays the title character, Martin Mathias. He says he is an 84-year old vampire. However he does not have fangs, he can walk in sunlight, garlic does not affect him and neither do crosses. Rather than sucking the blood out of his victims he injects them with a sleeping serum, and when they are asleep cuts them with a razor blade.
After his father dies he is forced to move to Pittsburg to live with his cousin Tateh Cudah (Lincoln Maazel), an old school catholic. Cudah treats Martin like he is Dracula and constantly refers to him as Nosferatu. According to Cudah there is a curse on the family and Martin is one of the cursed ones. Martin however claims his condition is not caused by magic or any sort of curse.
If you notice in the opening paragraph I describe “Martin” as “sort of” a vampire film. There are two reasons for this. First, if you read the plot description you notice the character of Martin has no traits that are associated with the vampires we have come to know. Romero’s “vampire” is basically a human being. Second, Romero doesn’t explicit come out and say it is a vampire film. One can watch the film and view the character of Martin as a new type of vampire. That is a valid way to read and interpret the film However one can also view Martin as a serial killer who is influenced by vampire movies. Or Martin can be seen as the victim of a messed up family environment. Romero designed the film for the audience to interpret however they desire.
To properly enjoy “Martin” you have to keep in mind the kind of film it is and how the story is told. If you only know Romero from his zombie films and go into “Martin” expecting one of those, you will be disappointed. It’s a character study rather than a traditional three-act narrative, as such the pacing and structure is different. The film can be slow at times and there are a lot of quiet moments that just serve to add nuance to the character. Even though this is a “vampire” film the kills are limited. In fact there are only three times Martin kills someone. Even though Tom Savini does the makeup, and appears in the film, this not a Savini gorefest. “Martin” is a quiet, subtle film where the horror comes from exploring this character and seeing just how messed up he is.
A character study can only work if the actor playing the character being studied performs the material well, and John Amplas does it beautifully. He plays the character as socially awkward, almost child-like and manages to make him sympathetic, despite the terrible things he does. You get the feeling that he doesn’t want to do this but there are forces beyond his control, and Amplas perfectly shows that struggle. The other cast members are just as fantastic. Lincoln Mazzael is having a blast as Tateh Cudah and Christine Forrest is great as Cudah’s granddaughter Christine, who tries to help “Martin” and show him some sort of sympathy and love.
“Martin” is a very interesting film in the history of horror films. I see it as an interim film between the end of gothic horror and the beginnings of a more realistic type of horror. “Martin” came out in 1976. Gothic horror, such as Dracula, experienced a comeback with the Hammer horror films, which were popular from 1959-1974. After that they started falling out of style. Also in 1974 “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” was released, and that really influenced horror in the following years with it’s realistic, documentary look. Four years later in 1978 “Halloween” would come out and that marked the start of the slasher boom, which is of course another kind of realistic horror.
Romero brought something truly different to the vampire film and to my knowledge there hasn’t been another title quite like “Martin.” A unique vision that I think more horror fans need to seek out is worth checking out. The pacing and the way the story is structured might not appeal to everyone. Those who do see it though are in for a special treat.