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The boy next door
A region 0 DVD review of MARTIN by Slarek
 
"Things only seem to be magic. There is no real magic. There's no real magic ever."
Martin to cousin Cuda

 

It is a little ironic, though at the same time perhaps typical of great independent cinema, that one of the most intelligent and revisionist vampire movies ever made may not be a vampire movie at all. It's a question that has hovered over the film ever since its release and is central to its narrative – is Martin Madahas an 84-year-old vampire or a mixed-up kid with psychotic tendencies? Either way, Martin is a genuinely great vampire movie, one that recognises and fully understands generic conventions and yet turns most of them completely on their head.

If you like to call yourself a horror fan then you'll already know Martin well. Even if you only have a part-time relationship with the genre then you should be aware of the work of its director, George Romero (whose middle initial, 'A' is as come-and-go as Francis Coppola's 'Ford'). Made shortly before he had what may be his most influential success of all with Dawn of the Dead, Martin was for some time Romero's most talked about but least seen film, the perfect condition for the birth of a cult, and one whose steady growth has been matched by an increased critical appreciation of the horror film as a vehicle for social commentary.

Very much a film of its changing times, Martin was the first vampire movie to completely shake off the genre's folklore origins and the shadow of novel that effectively shaped the first fifty years of vampire cinema. It recognised the shifting nature of both the horror audience and the fears of the society in which they live, a post-Charles Manson, post-Ed Gein era in which you could be killed for no reason by someone who lived on the same street as you. This is something recognised even in the film's title. Like Dracula, the most famous vampire tale of them all, the name of the vampire is the name of the film, but whereas 'Dracula' invokes a sense of the exotic, the mysterious and the foreign (appropriate for a time in which international travel was the province of the upper classes, and when everything foreign was regarded either with wonder or deep suspicion), Martin is deliberately ordinary, an everyday name that has no specific connotations other than its day-to-day familiarity.

The development of the vampire genre has seen the vampire itself shift steadily in locale and class, moving closer to home and descending in social rank as the years have passed. In Universal's Dracula the vampire was, as in Bram Stoker's novel, a nobleman from lands afar, a figure of wealth and supernatural power with three wives at his disposal. By the time Hammer delivered their spirited 1958 adaptation the vampire was a Count in name only, living more as a country lord in a monogamous (if abusive) relationship and only a lengthy horse ride from the town he eventually lays siege to. But Martin brought the vampire onto our doorstep and stripped him of nobility, an ordinary kid who lives in a spare room in his cousin's house. He has no bride, no girlfriend, and unlike the sexually potent vampire of lore and films past is actually afraid of women and sex. Martin is the boy next door, a reclusive and uncommunicative kid, the sort of loner that the CIA would probably peg as having terrorist potential. He's that shy boy who, if stories are to be believed, one day shocks the neighbourhood by doing something horrible and wildly out of character that, just for a few moments, makes him special. He is, of course, the product of his family and environment – all his life he has been told he is bad and now he believes it and acts accordingly, a self-fulfilling prophecy if you will. Well that's one reading...

In the film's notorious opening sequence, Romero confronts us head-on with the unpleasant reality of what a non-supernatural vampire killing actually entails, and in the process sets Martin up as the film's bad guy, its monster. Not that you'd realise it to look at him – gawky, shy and seemingly intimidated by everything around him, he's about as far from the traditional figure of the all-powerful vampire of movies and literature as you can imagine. But even as he boards the train on which the film's first murder will take place, he is selecting his victim. He may lack the supernatural power of Bela Lugosi's Dracula or the animal strength of Christopher Lee's Count, but he makes up for it in knowledge and experience – he knows how to incapacitate his victim with drugs, how to pick the lock of her sleeping compartment, and how to cover his tracks when the deed is done. And it's a nasty and bloody deed. His target is no willing victim seduced by his hypnotic power and good looks, she fights him all the way, physically and verbally until dragged into drug-induced unconsciousness. Even as she fades, Martin assures her that she'll be all right. She won't. Once she is out cold, Martin strips her and himself bare, pulls her on top of him, slashes her wrist with a razor and hungrily drinks her blood, then cleans himself up and coldly arranges the room to suggest that her death was suicide. This is the vampire brought down to earth, stripped of all of the trappings that distance most movie vampires from real life until all that is left is a calculating serial killer. In perhaps the most iconic image in modern vampire cinema, Martin is briefly framed at his victim's door with a syringe held ready in his mouth (the image will recur later). Here the needle replaces the fang – both are used to sedate and ultimately destroy the vampire's prey, but while the traditional elongated canine teeth link him to the wolf into which he is fabled to transform, the syringe has, for most, very unpleasant real world associations. Its clinical, surgical nature also directly reflects Martin's approach to his assaults, which are executed like black ops military stealth operations. Brilliantly constructed and edited (the use of rapidly cut huge close-ups is particularly impressive), this is nonetheless a deliberately confrontational and uncomfortable opening. How could any audience sympathise with such a boy?

Enter Tada Cuda. Immaculately dressed in white from head to toe like a stern faced Colonel Sanders, he is Martin's cousin, a member of the boy's extended family and the latest one to be charged with the task of watching over him. He meets Martin at the station and strides ahead of him to catch the next train while the boy shuffles behind. When Cuda looks at Martin he crosses himself. He's never met him before but has already made up his mind about him. Once at Cuda's house it's astonishing how quickly our allegiance shifts, as Martin the monster becomes Martin the put-upon, misunderstood, verbally bullied teenager and Cuda assumes the role of overbearing and unloving parent. He clings to the old beliefs, to the concept of the folklore vampire, decorating his the house with Christian artifacts and his own room with garlic and crosses as protection against this young 'Nosferatu', generic iconography that Martin debunks by kissing the cross and taking a bite from the garlic. "It's not magic," he tells Cuda. The old man is not so easily convinced. Then again, religiously obsessed parental figures rarely are.

From here on in Martin becomes the subject of increasing audience sympathy, a representation of lost youth in a decaying town populated by the intolerant old and couples whose relationships have fallen into stagnation, a community devoid of life. Even the church is in disrepair after a fire, its pews improvised from canteen chairs and an altar cobbled together from a broken television. The priest, on the other hand (wonderfully played by Romero himself), is new to the parish, is fond of his wine and cigars, and has trouble taking Cuda's old-style notions of evil seriously.

Martin's one ally is Cuda's twenty-something granddaughter Christina,* a fellow occupant of the house whom Cuda has forbidden Martin to speak to. She is an opposing force to Cuda in every respect – young, defiant and progressive, and convinced that Martin is the victim not of a vampire curse but of harmful family superstition and prejudice. It is she who opens the lines of communication to Martin, offering to share a phone line with him in spite of Cuda's protestations over this devil's device. It's an offer Martin eventually accepts, then uses it to call a local talk show to put its host right on vampire mythology, in the process becoming the show's most popular phone-in guest. That Martin is able to communicate more lucidly through an electronic device rather than face-to-face is not only representative of the disconnected youth of the mid to late 70s (whose collective rejection of social values of the time helped give birth to the Punk movement), but also anticipates today's mobile phone generation, for whom texting sometimes seems preferable to direct conversation.

Our engagement with Martin meets its greatest moral challenge in the film's centrepiece, a night-time break-in that goes wrong when he walks in on his victim – whom he has selected in part because her husband is away on business – in flagrente delicto with her lover. In the brilliantly staged sequence that follows, Martin's experience and level-headedness keeps him consistently one step ahead of the couple's attempts to both track him down and call for help, the house a dizzying maze of corridors, stairs and doorways that Martin is able to use against people who should know them better than him. We may have been shocked by the opening sequence, but we actually find ourselves rooting for Martin here, even though the purpose and potential outcome are the same.

Perhaps the most telling relationship is the one Martin develops with Mrs. Santini, one of the customers to whom he makes grocery deliveries for Cuda. A depressed housewife whose relationship with her husband is no longer based on love or desire (he is only seen once, when he gruffly pulls his wife away while she is talking to Martin), her gentle come-ons are at once both a cry for affection and a lament for her own lost youth and wasted life.** In a complete reversal of the genre norm, here the potential victim attempts to seduce the vampire and he reacts initially by running away. When he does return his approach is both direct and awkward. "You want me here for sex, don't you," he asks her. This is the only time he refers to sex directly, on the radio phone-in alluding to it more self-consciously as "the sexy stuff." As their irregular liaisons continue, Martin's craving for blood abates, which subtextually casts his attacks in a masturbatory rather than forcefully sexual light, the secret nocturnal activities of a young boy that diminish once he gets his first taste of the real thing. What this inexperienced adolescent fails to realise is the nature and cause of Mrs. Santini's emotional pain, something that will later have dramatic and unexpected consequences for them both.

The uncertainty over whether Martin really is an 84-year-old vampire or a screwed-up kid with homicidal tendencies remains tantalisingly unresolved, the intermittent black-and-white inserts set in some undefined turn-of-the-century township functioning either as memories or fantasies, depending on your take on the story.*** Martin himself believes he is 84 years old but rejects Cuda's supernatural explanations, mocking his beliefs with a pantomime vampire costume and using a simple off-the-shelf magic trick to point out that, "there is no real magic." This rejection of the supernatural includes Cuda's strongly held religious faith and by association its standing within the genre, ineffectual against Martin's condition and irrelevant to a generation who have turned against the values of their elders and are looking for answers of their own, ones not steeped in dogma and superstition.

Martin takes the codes and conventions of the vampire genre and reworks them to revolutionary ends, with one eye on the past but the other fixed firmly on the society in which the film was made. In that respect it has to be seen as the first truly modern vampire film, a strikingly intelligent, inventive and socially relevant take on a genre that even in the 70s was still hanging onto the coat-tails of the Transylvanian Count whose story gave it birth. Martin contemporised the vampire tale, not by transporting Dracula to swinging 70s London but by exploring modern fears through modern eyes and confronting the audience, perhaps for the first time, with what it really means to be so afflicted. That it remains as fresh a work today is, ironically, in part due to its lack of mainstream success. When commercial cinema eventually re-embraced the vampire film in the 1980s, it had learned little from Romero's groundbreaking movie, the younger protagonists of The Lost Boys – dressed to look cool and pining for MTV – having more to do with audience demographic than a desire to explore the genuine fears of society or the traumas of youth. In this respect Martin is, even today, a genuinely unique work, a low budget gem of real depth and complexity that showcases Romero on phenomenal form, both as storyteller and filmmaker (the editing alone is astonishing), and built around an utterly convincing central performance by the young John Amplas and a support cast of largely natural non-professionals. There is simply no contest here – Martin is THE modern vampire film. End of story.

sound and vision

OK, let's get the aspect ratio issue out of the way first. Framed 16:9 and anamorphically enhanced, this is actually cropped down from a 4:3 16mm original. Romero fans will know that the director has expressed his firm preference for that original framing and if you look at both versions side-by-side it's easy to see why, with close-ups made claustrophobically uncomfortable and characters cut in half in a couple of wider shots, while in the case of one of Savini's make-up shots, the effect itself is pushed completely off screen. Have a look at the comparisons below with Anchor Bay's now sadly discontinued region 1 disc.

Arrow Films UK disc (left) and Anchor Bay US disc (right)

But even allowing for that (and I don't see why I should), the picture quality here still comes in a weak second best to both the Anchor Bay disc and the New Line re-issue from which this disc is sourced (which was also the wrong aspect ratio, of course), suggesting NTSC to PAL transfer issues, although there are is no motion blurring to back that up. Sharpness is less impressive than on the Anchor Bay disc, with grain far more visible (the picture has been enlarged to fill the widescreen frame, of course) and the colours less natural-looking. The picture is also somewhat darker, or perhaps I should say muddier – detail in shadow areas is particularly lacking. On the whole, a major disappointment.

There are two soundtracks available, Dolby stereo 2.0 and 5.1 surround. Music aside, both are largely mono, with the sound spread across the front speakers on the 2.0 track and confined largely to the centre on the 5.1. The sound quality is pretty much identical on both, clear with no noticeable problems.

extra features

This new release from Arrow films is marketed as a 2-Disc Special Edition and even comes in a cardboard sleeve to prove it. However...well, more on that when we get to disc 2.

The Anchor Bay disc only had one extra, but it was a damned good one, a commentary by George Romero, Tom Savini and Martin himself, actor John Amplas. It was an insightful and enjoyable look back at the making of the film and became famous for the discussion of a three-hour cut that was stolen and never recovered, and even included a plea for its return, despite the years that have past since its theft. For this latest release a new commentary was recorded, minus John Amplas but with Romero and Savini, plus producer Richard Rubenstein, composer (and Richard's brother) Donald Rubenstein, and cinematographer Michael Gornick. Curiously, Savini's name is not listed with the others on the extras menu. Fortunately this proves as engaging and informative as the commentary on the Anchor Bay disc, and with new participants is different enough in content to be of real value even to those who have that DVD. The five are clearly old friends and there is a fair amount of joking with each other that is pretty funny at times, plus a nice selection of anecdotes amongst the technical details (the technician left outside swinging a light when everyone took a break, how much Stephen King hated the film of The Shining, etc.). Romero also believes that the house chase sequence I admire so much is just about the best scene he's ever done, and in the joshing says "Forget about it!" almost as much as Donnie Brasco. There's also a brief but interesting reflection on post-9/11 hysteria in America on which they all appear to be impressively united.

As for disc 2, well... OK, this has been one of my pet peeves for some time now, spreading a single DVD's worth of film and extras over 2 discs to better justify the Special Edition label, but this has to be a new record. If you were to lay all of the extras here end to end you'd have precisely 12 minutes 3 seconds of video material, 1 minute 2 seconds of audio and 17 small stills. Which is, frankly, taking the piss.

Making Martin: A Recounting (9:30) is an insubstantial featurette in which a very few of those involved in the making of the film look back at at a work Romero himself regards as his finest. Of interest is a brief trip back to some of the locations used, although we could have had a lot more on this, and just about everything else as it happens. Adding to the piss-take factor, this is in widescreen but not anamorphically enhanced – it's not as if space here was at a premium. Admittedly Arrow have licensed this from the Lion's Gate disc, where it was all on one DVD, but still...

There are 2 Radio Ads (0:26 and 0:56), which are of interest, but more so when linked to the Theatrical Trailer (2:33) which includes an address to camera from Martin that is not in film and possibly shot specifically as promotional material – it is his voice from this shot that is used in the radio ads.

The Stills and Poster Gallery consists of 17 promotional stills and posters, three of which are virtually identical. There is a lot more promotional artwork out there that should have been included. They are also way too small.

summary

I love the movie, I'm a lot less enthralled with the DVD. I can't hold Arrow responsible for the aspect ratio issue, as they appear to have licensed the whole product from Lion's Gate, who must thus take the blame for the cropping. But the picture quality is still shabby in comparison to the Anchor Bay disc, and aside from the commentary the extras here are paltry for a Special Edition. But the commentary IS good, and that may prove enough for hardened Romero fans (it was for me), though if you have the Anchor Bay disc then I'd suggest hanging on until the price drops a bit before shelling out for this one, perhaps in the summer sales. If you haven't, then I'd get searching, or hassle Anchor Bay for a re-issue. Frankly, I'm going to put my copy somewhere very safe.



* Played by Christine Forrest, whom Romero married four years later.

** In an almost throwaway moment, Mrs. Santini first tries to arouse Martin's interest (no pun intended) by asking him to pass her a book from her car's glove compartment, which, when opened, contains a Tampax box and a dildo (although you'll have to look fast to spot both), a suggestion completely lost on someone of Martin's inexperience in such matters.

*** Romero states on both the commentary and the accompanying featurette that he firmly believed that Martin was a psychotic kid rather than an 84-year-old vampire.

Martin

US 1977
91 mins
director
George A. Romero
starring
John Amplas
Lincoln Maazel
Christine Forrest
Elyane Nadeau
Tom Savini

DVD details
region 0
video
16:9 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
Dolby 5.1 surround
languages
English
subtitles
none
extras
Filmmakers' commentary
Retrospective featurette
Radio spots
Theatrical trailer
gallery
distributor
Arrow Films
release date
Out now
review posted
9 April 2006

related review
Martin 2-disc Collection's Edition

See all of Slarek's reviews