In honor of one of my favorite actor's birthday, the inimitable John Amplas, I am re-posting an article I wrote about George Romero's best film, MARTIN. Originally published in issue #22 of Screem magazine, it was a real joy getting to share it with the man himself a couple of years ago. (With much thanks to my friend & fellow film writer Greg Goodsell for encouraging me to do so!) Anyways, enjoy!
Some people believe that monsters are born, not made-that there are those who are literally a “bad seed” that grows up to be a rapist, dictator, or murderer. Of course, if life was that black and white, then there would be no need for the horror genre. The reasons we’re attracted to horror are multifaceted, but the basic reason is that it is a safe way for us to explore our fears and the darker side of human nature. When it comes down to it, monsters are most certainly made, not born. Mary Shelley knew that when she wrote Frankenstein and George Romero knew that when he made his underrated masterpiece, Martin.
Martin is that rare film where each star in the sky aligned around 1977 and everyone involved brought their A-game. Intelligent, emotional, and haunting, there has never been a movie like Martin. The movie centers around a young man named Martin (John Amplas), whose boyish appearance may or may not mask an age-old vampire. Whether or not his vampirism is supernatural or an aspect of a deeper pathology is really not the main point, though it is one I will get to here in a bit. The real disease is the familial sins that Martin is ultimately the martyr for, along with all of his victims. While it is a vastly different film, Martin’s theme of the innocent paying for family dysfunction brings to mind is Walerian Borowczyk’s La Bete (1975), where the main family’s son literally dies from his ancestor’s cursed deeds. The innocent always pays for the guilty’s sins.
Horror cinema up to that point had not seen anything quite the likes of Martin. The closest heir is would have to be Hitchcock’s groundbreaking film, Psycho (1960). Both feature boyish leads who are powerless to their darker urges, often fueled by psycho-sexual impulses and unhealthy rearing. Norman Bates kills due to his potentially incestuous upbringing from his mother and Martin kills because he was raised to think he carries the family “curse” of vampirism. Norman and Martin are two characters that are captivating and at times, even sympathetic, putting the audience in the uncomfortable position of having to identify with a killer.
Both films also feature some amazing and emotionally impactive musical scores. The Bernard Herrmann score for Psycho is now legendary, but the Donald Rubinstein soundtrack for Martin is just as good. The sign of a perfect film score is when you cannot envision the film without it and this is most definitely the case with these two films.
Martin was even supposed to be entirely in black & white in its original 3-hour form. (Sadly that print has become lost to the ether.) Certainly, neither film would be half as powerful without possessing actors as innately talented and physically striking as Anthony Perkins and John Amplas.
But what Psycho hinted at, Martin bravely delves right in and simmers. Vampire or no, Martin is our protagonist and is an amazingly complex, sympathetic, and ultimately sad character. We’re never really told about his parentage, but he ends up with his batty and uber-cantankerous uncle Tata Cuda, played to the hilt by the memorable Lincoln Maazel. Cuda is immediately accusing Martin of being a “nosferatu” and reacting extremely hostile to him, to the extent of rigging up a crude alarm on Martin’s bedroom door to keep tabs on his comings and goings. He even hires a priest to perform an old school Catholic exorcism on the boy, which will hit too close to home for anyone who has to grow up with religious fundamentalism.
Part of Romero’s genius is how he approaches Martin’s “vampirism.” While there has been a debate for years over whether or not Martin is a true supernatural vampire or a victim of mental illness, most of the signs point to the latter. Romero himself said as much in the featurette on the Lion’s Gate DVD, Making Martin: A Recounting. A good chunk of the confusion is fueled by the black & white flashbacks/visions that Martin has, especially when stalking his victims. If anything, these scenes serve a dual purpose.
The first purpose being to put us into the head space of Martin and how he is romanticizing his life and his deeds. He is never shown to be truly cruel and is often surprisingly gentle with his prey (Well, as gentle as one can be when murdering and drinking blood). The real world is ugly and full of people that are often rude and ignorant. Being placed in the industrial and rotting landscape of urban Pennsylvania doesn’t help matters. One could say that he is flashing back to his past life. But more than likely, it’s a coping mechanism for the intense unhappiness in his life. Even when religious folks and angry villagers are terrorizing him, it all plays out like a classic, 1930’s horror film.
All of this ties into the second purpose of the flashbacks. They are a brilliant device to play on what the viewer is expecting with a “vampire” film, all the while giving them the hard reality that the closest, proven thing we have to the creatures of the night have more in common with someone like Ted Bundy than they do with Dr. Alucard. After all, vampires are the mythical world’s serial killers.
Heavily dysfunctional families usually have patterns of unhealthy behavior that can cycle back a couple of generations. So it’s no surprise that a lot of real life killers had extremely unhealthy upbringings. Martin was brought up with the notion that he was this bloodthirsty supernatural killer while never being treated like an actual human being.
On the flip side, his cousin Christina (Christine Forrest), one of the very few people who are actually kind to Martin, grew up in the same family and turned out healthy. Which is very true to life. Plenty of us grow up with dysfunction and yet manage to turn out to be fine. Yet, if someone is especially sensitive, naturally prone to mental instability, and abused enough, you’ll get your vampire. Just don’t necessarily expect him or her to be some romantic, poet shirt-wearing hipster.
One of the things that makes Martin such a frightening killer is the intelligence and agility he displays while going after his victims. The garage scene is especially hard to forget. There is nothing scarier than a smart killer and he is definitely no exception. Alternately, it does make his situation all the more sad, because if he had been nurtured by a sane family, who knows what potential may have been reached.
Finding any horror film, now or then, that is intelligent enough to incorporate the shades of gray instead of the typical black/white moral pantheon, can be a rare thing. But this film would not be half as powerful without the lynchpin performance of John Amplas. He is to this film what Kinski was to Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972). Romero could not have found a more perfect actor than Amplas, who is able to convey a myriad of emotions with his face alone.
Physically, he is Martin. At times he looks amazingly boyish, complete with awkward gait and downcast eyes. Yet he is able to simultaneously project a world-weariness that lends itself well to someone who either thinks he is a vampire or actually is a vampire. His combination of striking looks and subtle emoting results in making Martin one of the best roles in film. In a just world, guys like Amplas, Romero, Rubinstein, and Tom Savini, who did the effects along with playing Christina’s mook boyfriend, would be winning Oscars left and right. Which is just further proof of the country club mentality that is Hollywood.
It should also be noted that this is a good-looking film, courtesy of cinematographer Michael Gornick. The framing, the choice of camera angles, all of it is tight and plays up everything that needs to be played up. Tension is created during the stalk and kill scenes, though some of the most haunting scenes are the ones of Martin walking around the city at night. The sense of loneliness is damn near tangible, making the movie all the more effective and powerful.
Martin is one of the greatest horror films ever made. Not because of the blood, but because it shows the damage that can be done when one’s family, biology, and mental state fails them. This movie is a masterpiece of nuance, emotion, and the deep fissures in the human condition.