George A. Romero’s “Martin” is a modern-day vampire fable from 1977 set amid the shabby streets and steep decline of the industrial town of Braddock, Pennsylvania. Like Romero’s previous film “Season of the Witch”, “Martin” is another brooding examination of social isolation and despair in decaying surroundings and is by far the director’s most disturbing, but also deeply moving, look at the failings and frailties of human nature. Shot on 16mm with the small-scale homespun film-making methods inimitable to Romero during those very early years of his career, it still has a fair claim to being the best film George A. Romero has ever made.
Martin Madahas (John Amplas), makes a train journey from Ohio to live with his older cousin Tada Cuda (Lincoln Maazel) and his Grand Daughter Christina (Christine Forrest) in Pennsylvania. On the train he attacks a woman traveller in one of the compartments and, after a frantic struggle, injects her with a sleeping drug. He then rapes the unconscious victim before slashing her wrists with a razor blade and drinking blood from her gushing veins! Martin clears the scene of fingerprints leaving the impression that the woman has committed suicide.
The adolescent killer is met at the station by his austere, white-suited cousin and taken back to the unassuming house where he and his grand daughter both live. The flamboyantly puritanical Cousin Cuda makes it clear that he knows that Martin is "Nosferatu" and that he intends to save his soul before destroying him. The house is covered with garlic and crucifixes and Cuda has rigged up a bell to ring whenever the door to Martin's room is opened, to alert him to the boy's comings and goings. Cuda warns Martin that if he goes near Christina or preys on anyone in the town, he will not hesitate to kill him! Martin mocks the old man's superstition - ripping down the garlic from the walls and cheerfully pressing a crucifix to his own skin to demonstrate that "there is no real magic".
The next morning Martin meets Cuda's granddaughter Christina who sympathises with him because, like him, she has had to lived with the consequences of the family's religious ravings and its remonstrations against the so-called "family curse" her whole life. Christina feels trapped in her crumbling home town and longs to escape the oppressive atmosphere of Cuda's old house.
Cuda runs a small grocery store and Martin is employed to make deliveries to customers' houses; this affords the boy the opportunity to carry out yet more of his attacks, although he has to be extra careful lest he arouses the suspicion of his ever vigilant cousin. When Martin meets a lonely alcoholic housewife, he begins a faltering but tender sexual relationship with her -- but the clash between his newly aroused feelings for the woman and his continued need for blood has catastrophic consequences for everyone...
While Romero's most successful horror films have been grounded in the material world, with their non-supernatural horrors presented in an immediate documentary style, "Martin" is Romero's attempt to deal with the mythic terrors of the human soul while still retaining flourishes of the Gothic style set against the deadbeat realities of a dying community.. In fact, it could almost have been a direct response to William Friedkin's adaptation of William Peter Blatty's "The Exorcist" - which had been released a few years earlier, leading to a serious revival of interest in the occult. Fredkien's genius had been to present us with something that, in this modern, secular world, should be unbelievable - but in a very direct realist style, tapping into atavistic fears and bringing them to the surface so successfully that the sense of evil as a malevolent force depicted in the film was palpable to the most hard-headed of viewers. Blatty is a conservative Catholic who sees the problems of the modern world as manifestations of a supernatural form of evil ."The Exorcist" is like a juggernaut of certainty in the existence of the Devils and evil spirits and his intention in writing the original book was to bring this world-view to a "modern" audience and to make them believe in it with equal certainty. It should come as no surprise to learn that the film was approved by the Vatican.
In "Martin", Romero, a Catholic-raised secularist who's film-making had always emphasised the uncertainties and contradictions of the human experience, took on the subject of evil and it's true nature, examining the clash between the kind of medieval world-view portrayed in "The Exorcist" and the modern psychological one. The result is possibly his most sophisticated, multi-layered film. The two character's at the centre of the film are Martin and his older cousin Tada Cuda; Cuda inhabits a world where evil is a real, supernatural force and devils and vampires really exist, while Martin -- although he has convinced himself that he needs to drink human blood, and commits murder in order to enable himself to do so - appears not to possess any supernatural powers at all: Cuda's crucifixes and cloves of garlic have no discernable effect on the boy, and a Catholic exorcism conspicuously fails to expel Martin's affliction. Indeed, Martin takes great delight in exploiting his cousin's superstitions, even, at one point, dressing up as Dracula (complete with false fangs and a cape) and reducing the old man to a quivering wreck.
But when these trappings surrounding the belief in supernatural evil are removed, is there anything left of those beliefs? Or must we face up to the possibility that behaviour such as Martin's is simply the extreme end of a profoundly disturbed but very human pathology?
In the modern world Vampirism (or haemosexuality) is indeed a recognised, though rare, psychiatric condition - and often appears alongside necrophilia and necrophagia (the pleasure derived from eating parts of dead bodies); the relationship between Martin and his cousin is reminiscent of a psychological state called a folie à deux -- in which a delusion spreads from one person to another when two people become isolated from the wider community. From a modern point of view then, Martin - who has been brought up to believe he has inherited the vampire curse - clearly seems to be a very disturbed individual (his dreams are full of imagery derived from every vampire movie cliché ever made) and his cousin's world-view, mainly a response to the collapsing certainties of his crumbling community. The steel industry that supports the town is decaying and crime and unemployment and poverty are rising. It's natural to look for a stable foundation to cling to in times of crisis and Cuda has the certainties of his faith to fulfil that function.
This is Romero's response to the demon-haunted world conjured up in "The Exorcist". But as much as he recognises the pathology and harmfulness of a literal belief in "monsters" as external entities, Romero also recognises how intimately entwined in human psychology they are and, as a result, how persuasive such beliefs can be.
The film cleverly manages to portray this double world-view to the viewer by inter-cutting black-and-white sequences into the film, that might be judged to represent Martin's deranged dreams, or could just as easily be interpreted as his memories if we chose literally to believe that Martin is an eighty-four year old vampire! The scenes are full of imagery we are used to seeing in vampire movies (torch carrying mobs and gothic mansions etc.) and so carry an air of unreality with them; but they are edited into scenes in such a way as to suggest they could be memories since they often seem to echo what is happening in the main narrative. This ambiguity seeks to make the viewer taste something of Cuda's world-view without necessarily accepting it wholesale. Do Martin's visions represent a reality we have lost touch with, or a harmful illusion we are being invited to share? Romero knows his audience will be likely to share some of Cuda's view of the world and makes sure the character is given rhetoric that will most-likely sound persuasive to large sections of the audience: "Do you really think the world is composed of the few sciences man has been able to master?…But people know so much, they think they know all. That makes it easy for Nosferatu. That makes it easy for all the devils."
At one point in the film, Romero appears in a cameo role as a liberal Catholic priest who comes to visit Cuda. When the old man asks him if he believes in devils, Romero's young priest can barely contain his mirth and simply evades discussion of the subject out of embarrassment (Romero's script sneaks in a reference to "The Exorcist" during this scene). The scene emphasis how powerless modern psychological understandings of "evil" are in fulfilling basic emotional needs for some people, no matter how accurate they might be, while also proposing that the medieval world-view is just a way of evading the unpleasant aspects of human nature by externalising them as monsters and devils. Romero spells it out in the liner notes from the booklet that come with this latest Arrow DVD edition:
"Have we conjured up creatures and given them mystical properties so as not to admit that they are actually of our own race? Do we make them extraordinary out of guilt for what we instinctively recall of our primitive past? Do we need a mythical whipping boy to punish brutally for our primitive past?"
The film once again conveys Romero's view of human nature as being composed of contradictory needs and irreconcilable differences, but aside from all the dry, philosophical punditry, it has also to be mentioned that "Martin" is one of Romero's most unnerving horror films -- full of some very shocking imagery. Martin's attacks are very disturbing to watch especially a scene where he terrorises a woman and her lover in the woman's house. The documentary style and the harshness of these scenes foreshadows "Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer" by many years. It is all the more astonishing that the character of Martin ultimately seems quite sympathetic despite his horrifying crimes. This is because, despite going all out at various points to make the vampires and devils of Cuda's world seem like a reality, we are also forced to see Martin as a lonely, lost human-being and relate to his position as such. The film's brutal climax (it will leave you gasping, I promise!) presents us with a question: do we deal with people like Martin with a stake through the heart and a handful of superstitions? Or do we try to understand them as human beings, and, perhaps, thereby understand the monsters inside us all?
Arrow Video’s 2-disc re-issue of “Martin” - now dubbed the ‘Immortal Edition’- comes with the usual glossy packaging supplements: four sleeve art options; a double sided poster, a collector’s booklet with notes by George Romero and six original poster art postcards. It’s a nice-looking release with the traditional Arrow artwork and a snazzy slipcase. The first of the two discs features the film in both matted anamorphic widescreen and academy ratio 4:3 versions. The standard version is the way to go. The widescreen version cuts far too much information out of the frame, especially Tom Savini’s effects work during the stick-in-the-neck sequence. There’s an unnecessary 5.1 audio option for those who may insist on such things but the ordinary stereo mix is much better; and you can watch either widescreen or full screen versions with the accompanying audio commentary by George Romero, Richard and Donald Rubinstein, Tom Savini and Michael Gornick. This is a very talkative track, with lots of anecdotes and stories remembered, which nicely conjures the family atmosphere of the original shoot. There is also a nine minute featurette which has interviews with George Romero, Tom Savini, Christine Romero, Michael Gornick and Donald Rubinstein and the owner of the house seen in the film, Angeline Buba.
Also on this disc we have the usual poster and stills gallery, TV and radio spots, and the original theatrical trailer. These will actually be of some interest to the viewer, since they both contain material that is not in the actual film: the trailer is built around a scene of John Amplas in character as Martin, sitting in a train compartment speaking to camera, with scenes from the film edited in. Interestingly, the black and white scenes from the film are here shown in colour. These scenes look almost Argentoesque since they are full of saturated reds and blues; they actually come over as being even more unreal than the black and white versions — since the colour is so much more vivid than the washed out look of the main film! The TV spot is similar, but this is built around a scene of John Amplas sitting on a stairway speaking to camera. The main extra is a hilariously po-faced German documentary examining Romero's career up to and including "Dawn Of The Dead". Confusingly, the documentary includes an interview with Romero that is overdubbed with a German voice-over which is then translated into subtitles! Something seems to have been lost in the double translation since the subtitles make little sense and, judging by what can actually be heard of Romero's original comments beneath the German overdub, bear little relation to what he was actually saying!
Over on the second disc we get an extremely collectable little oddity: the Italian cut of the film (with English subtitles), entitled “Wampyre” which, according to the press information sheet that came with the review copy, is thought to have been re-edited by Dario Argento! If that is the case, it’s not something he ought to be proud of. One of the beauties of the film is its structure and Romero’s instinct for editing, and the way this all combines with Donald Rubinstein’s exquisitely mournful score. The Italian cut replaces that score with a great piece of Goblin prog synth-rock from the '70s heyday of this cult Italian group, but it doesn't fit the mood of the film at all and plays more like it should have been a part of some glossy eighties poliziesco than this downbeat, character-based tale of urban vampirism. The opening train murder sequence has been moved to the middle of the film for no particular reason, and the film now starts instead with the Italian credits playing over a boring, crude freeze frame from the film; the over-wrought Italian dubbing attempts to turn the film into a typical piece of Italian exploitation horror, on a par with “Demons” or something of that ilk, and at least ten minutes of the movie have been cut out all together. This is a worth-while addition to the extras list simply for the pleasure of hearing the Goblin score (and it‘s a good one, too!) -- but it’s a travesty as an alternative cut of the movie.
Arrow Video have presented perhaps the ultimate edition of the movie on DVD here, combining all the extras from their previous releases and giving the viewer the chance to choose between various cuts and different viewing and audio options. Plus, like all Arrow releases these days, the packaging is very attractive indeed. For those who already own either of the previous Arrow discs, whether you choose to upgrade with this new version all comes down to how desperate you are to see the Italian cut; it’s impossible to recommend that version as a viewing alternative to the original, but the Goblin score is certainly a big draw.