The title character ‘Martin,’ portrayed in a convincing manner by John Amplas, (Day of the Dead), in his film debut, has the appearance of someone no older than 20, but is actually an 84 year old vampire, or is he? That is the question at the center of writer and director George Romero’s effective film. Is Martin a vampire, or a teenager who can’t come to terms with the fact that he is a killer? Do the black and white flashbacks, intercut in a film that is primarily shot in color, represent events that took place during Martin’s life, or are they the product of his overactive imagination? Is the film a metaphor for the all consuming power of addiction? Romero never provides a definitive answer to those questions, but instead, allows viewers to formulate their own opinions during the film’s 95 minute runtime. (As an aside: The original cut of the film was approximately 165 minutes, but there are no known existing prints of the film at that length).
When the movie begins, Martin is boarding a train; he is on his way to go live with his cousins Cuda (Lincoln Maazel), and Christina (Christine Forrest). While on-board, the viewer first learns that Martin is the antithesis of normal. He attacks a woman (Fran Middleton) in her sleeping compartment; as she is struggling to break free from his grasp, he injects her with a syringe containing a sedative that doesn’t take long to render her unconscious. Afterward, he has his way with her, and drinks her blood, but not in the traditional vampire manner of using fangs. Instead, Martin cuts her with a razor blade. Before exiting the train compartment, he stages the woman’s death to look like a suicide, and is careful to clean up, so as not to leave fingerprints or other incriminating evidence of his presence. (As an aside: Christine Forrest was the wife of George Romero, with whom he had two children, a daughter Tina, and a son Andrew).
Martin arrives the next day in the town of Braddock, Pennsylvania, a place reeling from the effects of hard economic times. His cousin Cuda is waiting for him at the train station. Cuda doesn’t put up a facade of being a kindly, older gentleman. He is a religious man, who not only believes in the existence of the supernatural, but that his family lineage has contained a number of vampires throughout its existence; he believes Martin to be such a creature. In addition to giving Martin a set of rules that must be obeyed while living in his house, Cuda takes things several steps further by hanging bells above the door to Martin’s bedroom, so Cuda will know when Martin leaves his room. Furthermore, the house is filled with garlic and crucifixes, both of which Martin demonstrates to Cuda, have no effect on him. The bells are also unnecessary because, it is clear from the outset of the film that, Martin can walk without harm during the daytime. Christina, who is closer to Martin’s age, feels bad for him, and doesn’t believe for a second that he is a threat to her. She wants to leave Cuda’s house and move away from Braddock with her boyfriend, Arthur, a mechanic, played by Tom Savini (Dawn of the Dead), in his film debut. In addition to the role Savini played in “Martin,” he did the special effects, was the makeup artist, and also performed stunts. (As an aside: George Romero plays the part of Father Howard in the film).
Perhaps to keep as close an eye on him as possible, Cuda employs Martin as a delivery boy at his shop, and makes him attend church with the family on Sundays. While he is making his deliveries, Martin begins what at first is a tepid friendship with Mrs. Santini (Elyane Nadeau). She is an emotionally damaged character, who yearns to be wanted and loved, but she isn’t receiving that from her husband, who is frequently away on business, and whom she feels is cheating on her. At first, Martin is reluctant to let himself be truthful and vulnerable, but the more time he spends with her, the more the friendship begins to evolve, eventually transforming into an intimate relationship. For the first time, in what might be decades, Martin is happy, but his happiness is short lived when he finds his lover dead in the bathtub, having committed suicide. While he was with Mrs. Santini, Martin’s desire to feed had diminished, but now that he no longer has her in his life, what will he resort to? How long can Martin keep his demons at bay? Will the destructive voices inside of his head tell him that if he doesn’t feed, he will perish?
“Martin” premiered on May 10, 1978 in Washington, D.C. The thought provoking movie is more a character study and psychological horror film, and is not a gore fest. The overall film’s pacing is slow. There are scenes, however, for example when Martin breaks into a woman’s home, thinking she’s alone – only to discover her in bed with her lover – that are full of intensity and suspense. Another standout scene in the film is one that pays homage to the Universal horror movies from the 1930s and 1940s. Cinematographer Michael Gornick (Monsters) does an excellent job of capturing the bleakness of the impoverished neighborhood, and juxtaposing it with Martin’s unbalanced life. Donald Rubinstein (Knightriders) provides an interesting selection of music to accompany what is transpiring on screen. For viewers interested in watching a unique entry into the vampire genre, you will more than likely be satisfied by this early offering from Romero’s career.