IMDB Description: A young man, who believes himself to be a vampire, goes to live with his elderly and hostile cousin in a small Pennsylvania town where he tries to redeem his blood-craving urges.
Why I Took it Off the List
Halloween is here, so it’s the perfect time to cross an overlooked horror I have been meaning to watch for years off of my list. Plus, after the introduction of a nightly coronavirus curfew here in Spain, it’s not like there is much else to do!
Although the outdated production values and antiquated acting methods on display in many older horror flicks can sometimes put me off during the rest of the year, there are few things more comforting for me in late October than sitting down and discovering a classic of the genre for the first time.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Martin.
Legendary horror director Geroge A. Romero is mostly remembered for his superlative zombie classics, most notably Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978), and not so much for this alternative take on the vampire story.
Nevertheless, it has garnered a reputation as a somewhat underrated cult classic that was far ahead of its time, and I do love an artsy vampire flick, so I had been eager to check it out for a long time.
Spoilers? Mild spoilers for the very first part of the film, but I won’t go into too much detail about Martin after that.
Review of Martin
Right from the start, it’s clear that Martin is taking a very different look at a vampire story than the typical Hammer horror and Hollywood Dracula movies that saturated cinemas in the 1970s.
In its rather grounded, and psychologically realistic approach, Martin definitely feels way ahead of its time, and it’s easy to see why it didn’t perform well upon release and has been somewhat forgotten in the decades since.
The opening scene sets the tone perfectly, as we are introduced to the seemingly timid, seemingly teenage Martin as he boards a night train and settles down into his seat for the night…only to promptly get up, take out a kit containing a syringe, and proceed to sneak into a female passenger’s cabin and attack her.
This first attack scene is messy, prolonged, and uncomfortable: the fact that Martin uses a slow-working sedative on his victims only adds to the struggle and chaos, as it will again later in the film in another tense and troubling sequence.
Expertly Balances Realism with Evocative Fantasy
Things only get more surreal as Martin arrives at his destination, an evocatively rundown neighborhood in Pittsburg, where is greeted by his elderly cousin, a strict, religious man whose first words to Martin upon entering his home are basically “I’m first going to save your soul, then I’m going to destroy you”.
See, his cousin is convinced that the unassuming Martin is an ancient, mythical vampire, the result of a curse said to have afflicted his family for generations, and he intends to keep a close eye on him. He calls him ‘Nosferatu’ and shoves crucifixes and garlic in his face, despite letting him work in his general store and insisting to customers that his family ‘know how to behave’.
The cousin’s frustrated daughter, who lives in the same house, doesn’t believe the vampire hoo-doo but acknowledges that Martin is socially stunted and probably needs to go to a psychiatrist. Her father disagrees: the only thing that Martin needs is a stake through the heart.
What’s most fascinating about the film is how it explores how this treatment of Martin by his family as the ‘evil other’ right from the start has probably directly led to his psychopathy: he reveals to a character that he is ‘too shy for sexy stuff’ and, in strikingly shot black-and-white fantasy sequences, imagines himself as a classic gothic vampire, running from a mob with their flaming torches.
This psychological realism is admirably expressed throughout the film, and Martin is treated more as a tragic figure who sees himself as a doomed outsider, challenging our perception of the ‘vampire’ as a supernatural monster and presenting it more of the product of a cruel and repressive society.
Surprisingly Darkly Funny in Parts
Deep social and psychological musings aside, Martin is occasionally a very funny film too, especially in the scenes/offscreen conversations Martin strikes up with a radio talk show host in an effort to reach out and try to be understood, only for the disc-jockey to mockingly refer to him as ‘The Count’ and refuse to take his dark confessions seriously.
There’s also a fantastic scene set in a playground where Martin playfully gives his cousin a taste of his own medicine, which feels like it directly inspired a couple of sequences in the fantastic A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), which I reviewed earlier in the year.
While Martin is undoubtedly dated in many aspects, including the somewhat stilted acting and the blunt 70’s editing techniques, it still packs an entertaining and thoughtful punch.
Final Score: 9/10
Worth Checking Out?
Yes, Martin is a thoughtful, disturbing, thought-provoking, and often funny vampire film that stills feels fresh despite having come out in the same year as the original Star Wars (1977).
Written and Directed by George A. Romero
Hope you all have a Happy (socially-distanced!) Halloween! See you in November for my next review!