Martin (1977)

He could be the boy next door…

Writer: George A. Romero
Director: George A. Romero

Martin is arguably George A. Romero’s greatest film. It’s usually classified as a vampire horror movie or slasher film. It’s actually much subtler, more ambiguous and deeper than that.

Martin (John Amplas) is a lonely, awkward, sexually frustrated young man. According to his family he is also a vampire – nosferatu.

Martin comes from a superstitious, religious family with its roots in some unnamed European home country. Family legends say there is a curse of vampirism and Martin is the latest example of the family shame. According to them he isn’t a teenager: he’s an 84 year old blood-sucking monster.

What does Martin think of this? He agrees. He believes himself to be a vampire; he simply doesn’t believe in all the “magic” that supposedly goes with it. He doesn’t have fangs or sleep in a coffin – but he does kill people and drink their blood.

The film begins with Martin travelling to visit his elderly cousin Tata Cuda (Lincoln Maazel). Cuda promises Martin that he will first save his soul then destroy him. Throw into the mix Cuda’s daughter Christina (Christine Forrest) and you have the setting for plenty of conflict and sexual tension. The dying town which is sucking the life from its people adds yet another layer of symbolism.

Thus begins a clash of wills between the two cultures: Tata hangs garlic over the doors, Martin rips it down and eats it raw. Tata tells Christina not to talk to Martin, she befriends him.

On a technical level both Romero’s script and direction are solid and effective without being flamboyant. The film was shot on a shoestring and is a definite case of “less is more”. It also benefits from an excellent ending that is dramatically satisfying and not overly drawn out. Traditional vampire motifs appear mainly as gorgeous black and white “flashbacks” – whether these are truly Martin’s memory of his early vampire life or whether they are simply a figment of his deranged imagination is left uncertain.

In particular there is one superb set piece pastiche of the standard vampire movie that is both funny and chilling in its portrayal of madness. And the madness isn’t just Martin’s.

What makes the film truly special is the work of John Amplas as Martin. He makes the character believable in every way. He is at once both a typical surly teenager and something genuinely frightening. He’s also a victim of human prejudice and stupidity. It’s difficult not to have sympathy for him.

In some ways this is a simple film about teenage rebellion and clash of old and new cultures – there are shades of A Clockwork Orange (1971). However it’s more than that. Martin isn’t just going through a rebellious phase, he’s a blood-drinking killer. But why? Is he really a vampire, born evil? Or have the family’s ancient superstitions created a self-fulfilling prophecy and warped a sensitive young man?

It’s common today to blame all our problems on “bad people”, whether they be individuals or groups. It’s less common to ask how much responsibility we as a society should take for them turning bad. When we alienate and demonise certain segments of society, do we turn them into aliens and demons?

There is no question that Martin is an evil serial killer. The question is: who made him that way?