After his first commercial movie in 1968 Romero tried several times to recapture the magic of Night of the Living Dead, and each time was a resounding failure. Between 1971 and 1973 he made a film a year and not only did none of them match Night but in this period he made what could be considered to be the worst movies of his career.
It was in 1977 that he returned with a vengeance and created one of the most enduring modern takes on a classic movie creature. Gone were the pyrotechnics of The Crazies and the uneven, though admittedly effective, mood of Jack’s Wife as Romero returned full circle to the streets on which he spent his youth in a tale of urban alienation.
The movie is not about heroes and villains, as the state of the characters morality seems in question at any given point during the story. As with many of Romero’s films Martin’s great strength is in its characters and their complex relationships with each other.
Though called a vampire tale there are no vampiric trappings in Martin, indeed it is difficult to call the title character a vampire without immediately questioning the statement. He believes himself to be one as does his cousin; a much older man whose religious devotion may have toppled him over sanity’s edge. Though no physical evidence of Martin’s curse can be seen, for all intents and purposes Martin is just a man, albeit one who routinely kills victims to drink their blood for reasons of an unbalanced mind.
The only evidence the film presents is the grainy monochromatic waking dreams that haunt Martin. They are set in some far off time and place. Torch carrying villagers hunt him as gossamer clad maidens beckon him to their beds. These waking dreams may well be memories from his vampiric youth, but they could as easily be the juvenile fantasies of an alienated youth with pretensions of poetry.
The whole structure of Martin seems devoted to these dual acts of questioning and the need to search for faith, and as such the film asks question after question without ever even hinting at any answer. The character of Martin is in many ways an everyman and through him we encounter many of the same confusion and alienation that many an artist has faced through the years.
Whether Martin is in fact a vampire or not is not as relevant as the obvious fact that he is considered different by his contemporaries, as it’s this that pushes his back and forth between accepting the community or rebelling against it.
Martin does not belong and he is alienated by many of the characters he encounters, despite this his self belief never wavers. Martin believes himself to be a vampire, but before that he believes himself to be a man first. He is derisive of his cousin’s belief in the magic and takes much bitter humour out of playing to the fact.
As such Martin could be considered the first in another trilogy of films from Romero, a trilogy that does not concern itself deeply with plot or story but is far more interested in the notion of belonging and self belief.
Romero’s later movies Knightriders (1981) and Bruiser (2000) take these same notions further, exploring them is similar ways to that of “Martin” and so could be considered a thematic trilogy that many fans (and the director himself) believes to be his finest work.
Martin consists of the groundwork’s for this trilogy, and almost seems a second go after the similarly themed Jack’s Wife failed some years before. The movie introduces us to a character whose identity is fragmented, perhaps through his long life or perhaps through madness, and this difference in him may be the cause of his alienation, or the reverse may equally be true.
As was mentioned previously that Martin’s purpose is not to answer questions, but to present them and present them it does. It creates multiple possibilities and routes through Martin’s and through him our own lives where cause and effect have little to do with the facts and more to do with how the facts are interpreted.
Martin’s intelligence is one of the few things that is beyond question, he studies and attempts to understand those around him. Instead of just merely ridiculing his cousins belief in magic Martin learns the art of illusion and through this performs a magic of his own. His character itself is an illusion; his outward appearance is that of a quiet, perhaps even slightly backward teenage boy who is ruled by his social awkwardness. In reality he is a predator whose social intelligence far outweighs his victims. He knows who to approach and how to best take advantage of his appearance to others, and even if his victims realize their mistake they find themselves no match for his abilities.
Despite all this Martin is not a malicious creature and he is as much a victim as his prey. Whether driven by a curse or madness he has little control over his needs, and even when he pursues his prey no pleasure is taken from the kill itself. Victims are sedated and though this may seem a cowardly act Martin uses sedatives as a kindness as much for him victims as he does for himself.
From a moral standpoint Martin is one of life’s failures; his obvious abilities have been turned inward to serve his sickness, or addiction depending on your view. Even if Martin is a vampire and has lived a long lifetime it does nothing to alleviate his failure at life, in fact it strengthens the notion as at no point did he use his intelligence to build something of real worth.
In almost every way Martin sits more comfortably alongside movies like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer or Maniac than it does any vampire film. Rarely has a film in this subgenre so spurned the trapping so completely as to turn itself into a film about a serial killer rather than some gothic creature of the night. Even given Martins gothic styling, which at times is as heavy as any Hammer film, we never see the film as one about some supernatural creature. Martin always remains a man in spite of his cousin’s rites and ritual. Simultaneously spirituality does always seem at the forefront, though it is humanist in nature even when represented by the priest (played by Romero himself) that pays the family a visit at one point. The film examines belief and faith but purely from the people who express it and never from the notion of some disembodied spirit; unless this is a spirit that exists on the radio waves that is; but more on that a little later.
Martin is a film about faith and the occasional failure in this faith. Each of its characters have failed or underachieved disastrously in their lives. It seems that this small area of Pittsburgh represents a holding pattern where its inhabitants fail to make any headway with their dreams; the character of Martin perhaps being the only exception.
From the outset Martin and his cousin strike a bizarre pact, as long as Martin’s victims does not include anyone of the area his cousin will offer him sanctuary; but if the pact is broken Martin will be destroyed. There are no clear reasons for this decision, we know that Martin has been entrusted to his cousin’s care and we are led to believe that this is an honoured obligation within the family; but why such a powerful and immortal creature should even be tolerated within such a pious family is never completely explained.
Perhaps Martin’s existence and his treatment by the family are an extension of the nature of sin and our progenies involvement in our own: Perhaps Martin’s cousin is sincere in his promise to try to save Martin’s soul; or perhaps the film is a litany of fragmented and sick beliefs that catapults the protagonists to its eerie end.
Martin’s own feelings regarding his life are told in broken moments to a late night talk-radio host, on whose show he becomes a minor celebrity. Calling himself “The Count” with typical bitter wit, Martin recounts his feelings but never his reasons. We discover another side to him as well as the two distinct variants we already know. Martin the killer is calculating and though he is not exactly cold, he is certainly controlled. Martin the boy is awkward and searching for his identity. The Count however seems none of these things, he is extroverted and rather eloquent in a simple boyish way, which lends the films tragic end a sense of poignancy; especially when one faceless radio caller mutters, “I have a friend I think might be the Count.”
Martin “the everyman” becomes every man and the audience is left with the eerie notion that their neighbours, family and friends may not be exactly how they appear.
This radio host is the closest we ever get to a god in the film, Martin’s nightly monologue something between a confession and a sermon, and the audience a congregation; the radio show as a humanist church. One imagines that in the movie universe’s future a Church of The Count could come rising from Martin’s disappearance, perhaps resulting in a wave of wannabe vampire culture, swapping stories about The Count. In this form Martin could have easily been the beginning of a series of films in much the same way as Night of the Living Dead. It would be interesting to plot the influence that Martin had on his radio followers, not to mention his cousin and family, after his disappearance, plotting how belief evolves into faith, and then into reality as more people join it.
Much could have been made of such a series of films, and in many ways it is a true shame that Romero never revisited Martins world; but it has to be said that Martin also remains unsullied by such an attempt, and perhaps better for it.
The filming style of Martin offers a great deal of weight with its stark almost documentary bleakness. Shooting with the same 16mm film as his previous efforts Romero keeps to what he knows with its academy (4:3) ratio and simple scene construction. Martin is a film that seems made of master shots, the close-ups and cut-ins kept to a minimal and only used in any quantity in the kill scenes or the waking dreams.
An analysis of Martin reveals that each side of the title character seems to have his own subtle change of style within the film. Martin the boy is shot in master shots with a great deal of emphasis on the world around him. Martin the killer is kept kinetic, the shots kept short and action created with skilful editing techniques. The Count is shot with both the character and the camera static in carefully subdued lighting and Martins waking dreams takes a similar style to its gothic limits. The result of this means that Martin varies in tone from stark and realistic to gothic, each turn a distinct comment on Martins own state of mind within the story.
On home format Martin has had many releases and it has become popular to matt the 4:3 framing down to 1.85:1 on quite a few of them. In fact on a recent Anchor Bay release Romero himself can be heard lamenting this on the commentary. This cropped framing destroys a deceptively well constructed image by over cropping to a point where characters faces seem odd and feel distorted. This is also how the Italian print of the movie, entitled “Wampir”, was released. This version, allegedly re-edited by Dario Argento, reorders the film significantly and replaces the Donald Rubinstein soundtrack with one by Argento favourites, Goblin.
Another version of the movie was produced but never released, and according to Romero no prints have survived. This original cut ran 165 minutes and was entirely in black and white. It is well documented that Romero’s own memory concerning his movies is notoriously incorrect; he has often in the past mistaken what footage he did and did not shoot for many of his films. So unfortunately we only have our imaginations to ponder what that extra hour of footage contained.
Finally something must be said about one of Martin’s most enduring additions. Donald Rubinstein’s excellent score, his first for a movie, becomes another character in the film. It lends a depth and anchors the film but it also seems unafraid to be heard in its own right; something that can be said for few soundtracks. Ranging from seedy jazz to gothic classical the soundtrack plays audio gymnastics but never seems out of place.
Martin shows Romero at his absolute best, each character is perfectly cast from a selection of non-actors including John Amplas, Romero’s casting agent, Christine Forrest, Romero’s wife, and Tom Savini, make-up artist supreme. Even Romero himself makes an appearance as a talkative local priest. The film writing is succinct and intense and the camera work is all we have come to expect from a recognized master of the genre.
It was another four years before Romero returned to this theme when in 1981 he made Knightriders. This was a movie that continued many of the themes began in Martin, it also contained the use of non-actors and once again utilized Donald Rubinstein as its composer.