[Authored by Neal Romanek, a writer of penny dreadfuls and cinematograph amusements. He fled the US for London in 2006. Site: Neal Romanek.com Twitter: @rabbitandcrow]
My first exposure to George A Romero’s “Martin” (1977) came via an event at the Academy Of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences. George had been selected to give a George Pal Lecture, the Academy’s special night in which a cinematic luminary is invited to give an address on the state of fantasy/sci-fi/horror. I don’t remember a lot about that evening – I do remember being introduced to George Romero – and Adrienne Barbeau – by Bill Moseley (Bill was brother Johnnie in the 1990 “Night Of The Living Dead” remake), and I also remember George Romero saying, in his address, how much he’d been influenced by the Powell & Pressburger’s “Tales Of Hoffmann” and that he repeatedly rented out a 16mm copy of the film when he was a kid in NYC – except sometimes it wasn’t available because it was being rented by another local kid named Martin Scorsese.
But the one thing I vividly recall from the evening was a clip George showed from a movie called “Martin”, a movie completely unknown to me. It was the scene in which the title character – the vampire Martin – stalks a married female victim in her home and must deal with her and the unexpected arrival of her lover.
My mind was blown.
We see the traditional vampiric poses so often, they barely have any symbolic impact anymore, much less emotional or visceral impact. Onscreen, feeding on human blood has the same impact as a death by gunshot – a storytelling trope which ticks an intellectual “shocking” box in our minds without communicating any real impact or real human experience.
Martin feeds by first injecting his victims with a hypodermic, then once the victim is unconscious, opens them up with a razor blade to feed on the blood. The procedure is performed with the skill and adrenaline agitation of a hunting forest predator – with nothing romantic or sublime about it. It is at once both mechanical and savage, idiotic and fiendish.
The chaos, the madness, of the clip shown that night was breathtaking. The maniac bloodsucker darting around the house, wielding a hypo, alternately evading and wrestling the woman’s half-naked lover in a farce from Hell. It was absurd, and very, very real – and very frightening.
There are few movies I can think to compare “Martin” with. It’s as if Harmony Korine had made a vampire movie produced by David Cronenberg. Romero goes to every conceivable length to make his extraordinary vampire creation as banal and mundane as possible. He’s an unromantic 84 years old. He dresses like someone with Asperger’s. He is a generally unappealing and creepy *person*, forget all his vampire characteristics. He lives in a miserably ordinary house with a miserably ordinary family. His vampirism seems quite normal, while the hocus pocus of religion or concepts of Good and Evil seem like the outlandish superstitions.
“Martin” has that riveting knife-edge freshness and immediacy that has been virtually dead in filmmaking for 20 years. Watching it, you have the unnerving sense that the storyteller is not playing by your rules, that you’ve ventured into an arena entirely unpredictable and your safety may not be the highest storyteller’s highest priority. The 70’s cinema – hands down the best decade for horror – completely embraced these twists and turns and breathtaking shocks, the things that can burn a film into your mind for a lifetime. “Martin”, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, “Halloween”, “The Exorcist” – on and on and on – aren’t masterpieces just because of their spooky subject matter. The very way they are told, their rhythms, structures, and turning points are calculated to give the audience a transformative experience. They are not about giving the audience what it wants, but giving it what it needs.
In today’s motion picture vampires we see beautiful merchandise, beautifully packaged and factory sealed for freshness. But there is little that is truly shocking and transcendent. Rather than the bloodsucker being a pernicious monstrosity with a story that, if studied, might make us wise, we prefer evil with a candy face, easily digestible horrors, monsters as harmless as we fantasise we are.
Martin, though a killer and a monster, is the one character who consistently tells the truth in Romero’s film. Give us back our truth telling vampires.