Sunday, October 24, 2010

Wendigo Meets MARTIN (1977)

My friend Wendigo has a simple explanation for why he hasn't seen George A. Romero's vampire movie in the 33 years since its release: it hasn't been shown on television. He did go looking for it at the video store way back when, but the shop didn't have a Betamax copy. After that, he moved on to other things, perhaps deterred from pursuing it more aggressively by its reputation as a non-traditional, non-supernatural vampire movie. The Albany Public Library has had Martin for a while, but I'd forgotten that Wendigo had never seen it, or else I would have rented it for him earlier. He has a more eclectic appetite for vampire movies nowadays, so he was game this weekend.

Martin Matthias (John Amplas) looks twentysomething but claims to be 84 years old. He's supposed to be one of the unfortunate members of his extended family who inherited the curse of the nosferatu. The Matthias clan keeps their vampiric members alive as a kind of badge of shame, passing them from relative to relative over time -- perhaps to keep a low profile on their failure to age. This is what Martin believes, and what elders like his latest keeper, Cuda (Lincoln Maazel) have told him, but some younger relations are understandably skeptical, and Romero never gives us objective proof of whether Martin is as old as he thinks or is actually dependent upon blood to survive. Martin's own viewpoint is peculiar. He presumably accepts the premise of the curse and believes himself unnaturally youthful, but those points aside, he insists that there's no "magic" involved. Holy symbols and other traditional defenses against the vampire have no power over him. Nor has he the powers of the traditional vampire, apart from purported immortality. Most famously, lacking fangs he must slice veins open with razor blades or other handy sharp tools in order to get at the blood he craves. To make it easier for himself he puts victims out with a hypodermic before cutting them or -- as seems to be the usual case -- raping them. He plots his attacks quite thoroughly, stalking his victims and scouting their homes over several days before striking, though no amount of preparation can rule out the occasional inconvenient surprise.

Illusion, delusion and reality in Martin. You figure out which is which.

Domiciled in Braddock PA, where Cuda runs a grocery store, Martin is warned not to kill within the community, so he takes the train to Pittsburgh to hunt. At the same time, he befriends a cougarish local woman to whom he delivers groceries and becomes an underground media personality of a sort by calling an all-night radio talk show and describing his life and activities. Wendigo suggests that the radio calls are counterparts for serial killers like Zodiac or Son of Sam writing to the newspapers. Fortunately for Martin, Cuda doesn't listen when "the Count" is on the air. The imperious old man is determined to exorcise the curse (even though this has failed in the past, if Martin's flashbacks can be believed), and summons an elderly priest to do the job.

George A. Romero's Exorcist, with Lincoln Maazel as backup.

Martin is only disgusted by the ritual, and pays Cuda back by getting into a Halloween vampire getup to scare him that night, but on some level the exorcism seems to work. He's able to approach the cougar, Abbie, and enjoy sex unassisted by narcotics or razors, though the experience does little to alleviate Abbie's own depression. But while Martin's sexual hang-ups might be resolved, the blood compulsion endures, and he's gone without long enough to be "shaky," less careful and more likely to be caught the next time he hunts....

Wendigo doesn't believe in the Matthias curse. He thinks that Martin has just been warped by a dysfunctional upbringing in a twisted family environment. His techniques and attitudes are those of the serial killer, but the family lore and a cinematically inspired fantasy life (illustrated by black and white inserts and quasi-flashbacks) shape him into a modern-day vampire. Wendigo is satisfied that anyone who feels a compulsion to drink blood can be called a vampire. He's also satisfied with Martin as a superior vampire film from Romero's most creative period. Romero was a master of making do with little and taking advantage of local color. Location is important to this film; Braddock is a dying community, its industries dying, its church burnt, its residents stagnant -- the ideal setting for Cuda's archaic fantasies and Martin's disillusioned commentaries, which listeners take as a running joke. There's nothing to do there but mark time until you die; the only alternatives are escape or suicide. Perhaps ironically, other people's failures to adapt, change or escape seal Martin's fate. In a classic Romero finish, Martin has a lucky escape from a botched hunt, only to meet a reckoning for something he didn't do. Yet regardless of his fate, he becomes a kind of local legend, a fitting one for soulless modern society circa 1976, when the film was shot. In the end, Martin is as bleak a portrait of society as Romero's more overtly satirical zombie films, with less room to escape through laughter.

Illusion and reality again, sexual fantasy department.

Another virtue of cheap local filmmaking, in Wendigo's opinion, is the casting of unknowns like Amplas. He could watch Martin without pre-conceived notions of characters based on actors' histories, and he was impressed by the ensemble overall -- we didn't recognize a clean-shaven Romero as a wine-loving priest until the credits rolled. The women were realistically unglamorous, yet attractive emotionally, and Lincoln Maazel as Cuda was a hoot from beginning to end. Technically, Romero gets a little over-indulgent with a fog machine at one point, and Tom Savini himself admits that the blood employed in the gore scenes looks like melted crayons, but the final shock effect was nicely and convincingly brutal. Wendigo thinks the use of black and white for Martin's fantasy/flashback scenes was a wise choice and a nod to the classic horror tradition. Donald Rubinstein's grungy score fits this grungy movie like a scratchy glove.

For my part, I thought Martin has some very effective suspense scenes, anticipating future films like Scream in stressing the difficulties killers have subduing victims. If the story has a weakness for me, it's Romero's failure to dramatize Martin's dependence on blood. We never see him suffer or sicken from doing without, but that may have been Romero's way of saying it was entirely in Martin's head. Wendigo agrees with this criticism somewhat, but we also agree that this fault isn't fatal for the film. Wendigo actually gives this film his best recommendation; he plans to buy a copy for his personal vampire-film collection.

Martin himself explains it all for us in the theatrical trailer, uploaded to YouTube by albadeimorti.


Troy Olson said...

Glad Wendigo liked this one. It's also one of my favorites (as you saw in my WitD review). He seemed to hit on all of the important points of the film, so I don't have much to add but to agree that the visual choices that Romero uses here are pretty much all perfect -- I love the look of this film and how it relates to the depressing and melancholy mood that underlies the film.

venoms5 said...

Great review, Sam. I haven't seen this one in years. I have the DVD, but it's yet another still not opened yet, lol.