Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Movies: “Whatever it takes to get through the night. Right, Count?”

George Romero has gone on record saying that his underappreciated 1977 vampire flick Martin is his personal favorite of all his films. Considering the fact that his justly famous Night of the Living Dead stands as an ur-text for just about every zombie flick made since and is universally considered a modern horror landmark, Romero’s love for this relatively unsung flick is initially surprising. At least, it is until you see the film. Martin is one of the most engrossing and innovative vampire flicks ever made and it ranks easily as Romero’s most thoughtful and emotionally involving film.

Martin begins with our title character, a pale and awkward man in his late teens or early twenties, taking a train from Pittsburgh to the town of Raleigh, Pennsylvania. As the train rolls through the endless, anonymous landscape of suburban blight, a legacy of the financial downturns of the late 1970s that can still be found on long stretches of the Eastern Corridor’s right of way, Martin notices a young woman traveling alone. That night, as most of the passengers retire to their berths or sleeping compartments, Martin attacks the nameless young woman. He breaks into her sleeping compartment, injects her with a heavy-duty sedative, undresses her, possibly rapes her, before, finally, opening up her forearm with a razor blade and lapping up her blood. Then, calmly, methodically, he cleans himself up, positions the body, and scatters sleeping pills around the sink in her compartment lavatory to make it look like a suicide. Martin leaves her cabin and returns to his seat. He takes out a small paperback about stage magic and reads distractedly.

This is our introduction to Martin.

We learn later that Martin is on the train because he is being sent to a small town far from Pittsburgh. There he will stay with his uncle, Tada Cuda, an old Eastern European who has taken charge of Martin in order to, as Tada tells Martin, “save your soul and then destroy you.” Martin’s family line, according to Cuda, is cursed. Every generation or so, one of the family becomes nosferatu. Martin, according to Cuda, is just such a creature. But it isn’t that simple. For a vampire, Martin’s a pretty lame specimen. Sunlight bothers his eyes, but it doesn’t kill him. He’s not particularly fond of garlic, but that’s a matter of personal preference. He’s got no aversion to crosses and even attends church with his uncle. He can’t hypnotize ladies (he’s kind of afraid of girls) or turn into a bat. He doesn’t even have fangs. Even Cuda, who clearly expected something more majestically sinister, seems a bit under-whelmed by this supposed creature of the night.

Cuda’s granddaughter, a thoroughly Americanized young woman (played by Romero’s wife) thinks that Martin is just a poor, mixed-up kid who has been driven crazy by his family’s twisted Old World superstitions. In her opinion, Martin is the unwitting actor in a grotesque psychodrama sustained by the family. He needs therapy, not an exorcism. Although, if that’s true, why does Martin maintain he’s more than 80 years old – despite the fact that he’s clearly younger than his uncle’s granddaughter? And what’s with the flashes Martin has to scenes of him killing a young woman in what appears to be 1920s Europe? Are these head trips the movie-fueled delusions of an insane wannabe vampire or is Martin remembering the early days of his unnaturally prolonged life?

Martin is Romero’s most meditative film and its wounded and haunted central protagonist is Romero’s most carefully constructed character. In many ways, the surreal mix of the mundane decay of small town Pennsylvania, the dark struggles of Martin, and the guilt-ridden actions of his family make if almost Kafka-esque. It has this uniquely American take on what I feel is a very European sort of dreadful absurdity. If Samsa had awoken to find himself a vampire instead of a giant insect, the Metamorphosis would have resembled this film. I say the film is uniquely American, however, in that it strips away the mist shrouded gentility of the fussy European Gothic aesthetic, even going so far as to lightly lampoon that lush sensibility. Despite the leisurely pace of much of the film, Romero knows his audience and delivers several exciting and tense set pieces, mostly gathered around Martin’s efforts to secure blood. Without the powers of your standard cinema vampire, getting blood is a major undertaking.

As an aside, I suspect gorehounds will find Martin a serious disappointment. The body count is tiny and the blood, what there is of it, is that cherry red latex paint stuff that seemed to be go-to blood stand-in for ‘70s horror flicks.

The film has its flaws. Romero’s filmmaking consistently falls short of his creative ambitions and his intellectual aspirations. He understands the complexity of the characters and the uncanny beauty of their decaying landscape, but too often his set ups are uninspired. I can’t help but wonder if, as a young indie guerilla-style filmmaker, Romero found such success that he never bothered to advance his art. Even as his budgets and scope have increased, he continues to rely on a remarkably small vocabulary of basic shots and set-ups. This leads to the other amateurish aspect of the film: a sort of naïve belief in the power of the camera to render things interesting. Part of the meditative pacing comes from Romero’s unfortunate tendency to just linger on a scene or shot long after it has been drained of significance. This could be a long and silent shot of people walking to their car or an over-long moment of Martin watching empty train tracks. The line between introspection and self-indulgence is a thin one and Martin wobbles across it more than once.

The creativity and intelligence of the film, however, far outshine the films few short comings. Martin is not my favorite Romero flick (that’s still Dawn of the Dead) but it is genuine masterwork from an accomplished legend of the genre and I recommend it to anybody interested in thoughtful, moody horror. Using the revamped and improved Named Summits of Georgia Movie Ranking System, I’m giving Martin an unqualified Hickory Knob.

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