George A. Romero’s ‘Martin’ is a criminally underrated and under-seen film that takes a unique approach to the sub-genre of Vampire films. Focused on character, story, and with themes of desire, beliefs, and psychosis, ‘Martin’ offers a more cerebral and grounded take to Vampirism.
Martin (John Amplas) is a shy and disturbed young man who travels to Pittsburgh to live with his much older cousin, Cuda (Lincoln Maazel), following the deaths of his parents. However, it is not a happy reunion between the two as both of them suffer from a mental illness which has plagued the family for generations – a shared psychotic disorder of sorts – and it’s believed that there is a family curse that has made Martin a vampire!
Now, of course Martin doesn’t actually have any supernatural abilities; he doesn’t grow fangs, garlic and crucifix’s have no effect on him, and sunlight only bothers his eyes slightly – and yet Martin is convinced that he’s 84 years old and is compelled to consume human blood, which he acquires with pretty disturbing methods. Throughout the film Martin justifies his actions by calling into a radio talk show under the alias “The Count”, where he calls bullshit on Vampire movies for not getting the facts right. Martin was raised and conditioned by the superstitious beliefs and delusions so much that they have consumed his perception of reality.
Despite the harsh treatment and belittlement from Cuda, there is seemingly a glimmer of hope for Martin as the shy outcast to society finds acceptance and support from two women who have recently entered his life: Cuda’s fed-up granddaughter, Christina (Christine Forrest), who rejects the belief of a family curse and pleads with her grandfather to stop with his antagonistic treatment towards Martin; and Mrs. Santini (Elyane Nadeau), a lonely housewife starved for affection who takes notice of the shy young man, hoping to satisfy her own needs, and in turn she gives him the affection and intimate personal contact that he very much needed. Martin now belongs due to these personal relationships that he has formed, and his sexual relationship with Mrs. Santini creates an internal conflict that puts him at odds with his impulses.
This beacon of light for Martin is short-lived however, as Christina leaves the state with her boyfriend Arthur (Tom Savini) following a heated exchange with her grandfather, and Mrs. Santini loses the battle with her own demons, leaving Martin’s fate solely with Cuda, leading to a shocking ending that certainly left my jaw on the floor upon first viewing.
The acting may not be award worthy, but it is solid all around: John Amplas is convincing as the shy and troubled Martin; Lincoln Maazel is convincing as the superstitiously paranoid Cuda, who, like Martin, is consumed by his beliefs, albeit on the opposite end of the spectrum as the Van Helsing to Martin’s Dracula; Christine Forrest is convincing as the only rational and sane member of the family, Christina, who has to witness the mental deterioration of two people whom she cares for; and lastly, Elyane Nadeau is convincing as Mrs. Santini, a woman whose loneliness and sadness gets the best of her. These four performances feel real and sincere, and help elevate the themes of untreated mental illness that affects each of them in different ways.
The best thing about this movie, however, is how Writer/Director George A. Romero brilliantly showcases Martin’s perspective by intercutting between the reality of Martin’s actions and the fantasy that Martin imagines as he commits his heinous crimes with stylized black and white sequences that are shot and choreographed in a way that reflects the classic Universal Monsters films from the 30’s and 40’s. This storytelling choice adds a great visual layer that allows us to get a glimpse into Martin’s psyche, and it adds a level of entertainment to this bleak and tragic tale.
George A. Romero’s ‘Martin’ is a well written, well directed, and well-acted film that’s a unique and compelling character study that may make modern audiences uncomfortable, but it’s worth a watch and should be celebrated as one of Romero’s best.
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