Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #306
Number of Views: Three
Release Date: July 7, 1978
Sub-Genre: Vampire/Cult Film
Country of Origin: United States
Running Time: 95 minutes, 165 minutes (original cut)
Director: George A. Romero
Producer: Richard P. Rubinstein
Screenplay: George A. Romero
Special Effects: Tom Savini
Cinematography: Michael Gornick
Score: Donald Rubinstein, Goblin (Italian version)
Editing: George A. Romero
Studio: Laurel Entertainment Inc.
Distributor: Libra Films International, Anchor Bay Entertainment (DVD)
Stars: John Amplas, Lincoln Maazel, Christine Forrest, Elyane Nadeau, Tom Savini, Sara Venable, Francine Middleton, Roger Caine, George A. Romero, James Roy, J. Clifford Forrest Jr.
Suggested Audio Candy
 Donald Rubinstein “The Calling”
 Soft Cell “Martin”
George A. Romero is undoubtedly one of the very best horror film-makers of our time. The term zombie, whilst not exclusive to or even inspired by him, has become largely his intellectual property and, decades after he made them relevant, it is Romero whose blessing is called for when making a zombie movie. His long-running dead saga is still considered the template to be measured against and the first three entries into his series have stood the test of time largely because of their rich social commentary. Night, Dawn and Day are the epitome of perfection and it would be easy to assume that they are his most significant works. However, just before gifting us Dawn of The Dead and with bankruptcy looming large, he gave us his own personal darling Martin. I’m thankful that he did.
Martin is essentially a vampire movie although unlike any other you may have previously seen. It single-handedly augmented a trend, later elaborated on through The Hunger and The Addiction, for films whereby vampirism is more metaphorical than historically accurate. Instead of portraying its count as a sexually overpowering force against nature, his film focuses on a protagonist bearing none of his Nosferatic forefathers’ dominance. Garlic and crucifixes are ineffectual in his tale; Romero scoffs at tradition and stumps on ambiguity by allowing his addressee to come to their own conclusion as to whether or not Martin is actually a vampire at all. His character debunks folklore openly despite claiming that he is 84 years old and possessing some worrying characteristics such as a penchant for blood.
His gentle demeanor belies that of a blood sucker and, as one character informs him when referring to him as an alley cat of sorts, there is something almost feline about him. Cautious, concentrated, and always committed to his immediate surroundings; he can be initially standoffish but warms to a little harmless petting over time. However, rub his fur the wrong way, and he will likely flee with a bushy tail. As a hunter he is by no means decisive and this is demonstrated via a mesmerizing opening scene aboard a train bound for Pittsburgh where he struggles to overcome his cornered prey. There is an innocence about him but, at the same time, an arrogance that suggests a lifetime of experience in his chosen field. It’s a delicate balancing act but one which a twenty-eight year-old John Amplas manages quite remarkably and utterly conclusively.
I first watched Martin at ten years old and his performance resonated with me even then. In my opinion, there have been few turns in cinematic history so exquisitely understated and fewer still as pitch perfect as his. With searching eyes, rose-bud lips and floppy locks which hang like dainty drapes about his baby face; he has all the tools to convince us as to his authenticity. What is more compelling is the way in which he utilizes said tools. Being a man of few words, it’s his face which chronicles for the most part. The part was originally intended to include such narration but Romero declined to implement this approach upon realization that the actor was already so expressive without the need for verbal signposting. For any director this would be a wet dream and the fact that Amplas returned for parts in Knightriders, Creepshow, Dawn of The Dead and, in a larger capacity, Day of The Dead, suggests just how moved his director was by his portrayal. He’s not alone.
‘’There is no magic – it’s a disease’’
The whole film and its success rests squarely on his young shoulders and he accepts this burden in much the same way as Martin welcomes his own perpetual anguish. Outside of the tormented young man, Romero provides us his gatekeeper, the seemingly deluded Cuda (Lincoln Maazel), who is convinced that his bloodline is cursed and prepared to snuff Martin out at any given moment the very second he falls out of formation. Female characters, in particular Christina (Romero’s spouse Christine Forrest) and bored housewife Mrs Santini (Elyane Nadeau), are critical to proceedings and Martin’s relationship with the latter is potent as it shows his reluctance to capitulate to his primal urges. There is a repression to his actions which suggests impotence, while latent necrophilia informs that he prefers to traverse the sexual mine field without the distraction of pulse.
As he toys with the idea of uncorking his pent-up frustration we are transported to another time via black and white flashbacks to a lifetime ago when he embraced his birthright. As these play out in his own mind, we are still not entirely convinced as to whether or not he is, in fact, a vampire at all. This is always intentional on Romero’s part as his film embraces the romanticism of vampiric folklore without purely bowing to convention. He intended the entire film to be shot in black and white but was urged against it; a decision which is entirely justified in my mind as the washed-out palette of inner city fabric is deliciously offset by the rare emergence of deep 1970’s red. Blood tantalizes him and, considering we are his passengers throughout, it does so to us also. There is only ever under ninety seconds of bloodletting to be gleaned from Martin, even in that misplaced 165 minute cut, but it punctuates the silence all the more effectively as a result.
The suburban playground is representative of the death of youth. It’s a bleak and morose wasteland for neutered teenagers not afforded with an identity, hopes or dreams; and feels constrictive at all times. Being the proverbial alley cat affords him the ambiguity required to explore his nocturnal lusting without society blinking an eye even when folk start showing up on the sides of milk cartons with alarming regularity. One such ensnared soul is Christina, whose dysfunctional relationship with Arthur (Tom Savini) is one merely of convenience and remains trapped by the traditional values of older townsfolk like Cuda. She becomes intrigued by Martin’s single-minded independence and increasingly embittered against her grandfather for the ignorant views which restrain her. It’s another affiliation played beautifully and validates his decision to be a little different.
Martin is a tale most tragic and, in this respect, is faithful to its own heritage. We are hypnotized by Amplas and afforded the chance to quench with him each time he nourishes but then a stake is rammed through our rib cages just as we grow accustomed to his idiosyncrasies and the candelabra ultimately dims in the most heart-aching of fashions. At nearing four decades matured, it won’t appeal to many and will likely be considered too long in the tooth to all but the most refined tastes. I would debate that, despite evidently aging, it is the timeless performance of Amplas which holds us captive. How a young man cutting his teeth for the first time achieved such a feat is still beyond me almost forty years down the tracks. The knowledge that he now teaches as Associate Professor of performing arts at Point Park University, ironically in downtown Pittsburgh, enables Keeper to sleep at night although, due to his commanding turn as Martin, I still do so with one eye open.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10
Grue Factor: 3/5
For The Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: Upstart Savini was still learning his trade in 1977 and his association with Romero was still in its infancy. Here any bloodshed is fleeting and never lingered upon, much in the same way that nudity is necessitated but never exploitative. It is measured, just as Martin’s hunger is little more than a means to an end, we are never permitted to drink freely. It’s the longing which resonates most but, when the red stuff is siphoned, it flows most exquisitely.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
© Copyright: Rivers of Grue™ Shadow Spark Publishing™