"There isn't any magic. It's just a sickness..."
After the death of his immediate relatives, Martin Mathias (John Amplas) moves into the Pittsburgh home of his aged and strict Catholic cousin, Cuda (Lincoln Maazel), who considers Martin a "nosferatu," the latest bearer of a family curse, and seeks to redeem Martin's soul before destroying him. Cuda is about as "old country" as one can get in late-20th century America and he handles Martin as a true believer would deal with the threat of a known vampire, making sure his home is outfitted with crucifixes, garlic, and other standard deterrents. But Martin is anything but a standard example of a textbook vampire, in that he has no trouble with sunlight and none of the usual anti-vampire items work when wielded against him, with Martin dismissing them and clearly declaring that there is no such thing as magic. And instead of engaging in the vampiric act in the manner that we have all become accustomed to via movies, Martin stalks his female prey, gets them alone and shoots them up with a strong sedative, strips them and himself naked, has his way with their unconscious bodies and finishes the act by opening their veins with a utility razor to sup upon their blood. In short, Martin is a shy serial rapist whose hypodermic needles and razor blades provide the penetration that he cannot otherwise achieve due to his lack of the familiar traditional fangs, and his rape of unconscious women can be read as being akin to necrophilia. As Martin tellingly puts it, he's self-admittedly "much too shy to do the sexy stuff with someone who's awake."
Martin (John Amplas), playing to Cuda's superstitious beliefs.
Martin's existence is punctuated by recurring black and white visions of his self-perception in the role of a romantic vampire straight out of a clichéd gothic horror flick, but the sordid reality of his crimes puts the lie to his delusions. But are they delusions? Though he appears to be a young man of perhaps 20, family records state that Martin was born in 1892, making him a solid 84 at the time when the story takes place, and his alleged advanced age makes his social and sexual awkwardness that much more pathetic. Desperate for a connection and understanding, Martin regularly calls in to an all-night radio talk show as the anonymous "Count," outlining his needs and modus operandi for his nocturnal misdeeds, becoming a listener favorite. But as the dysfunction in Cuda's household escalates, Martin clumsily has his first consensual sexual encounter in the wake of a particularly sloppy home invasion, and that entanglement with Mrs. Santini (Elaine Nadeau), a kind woman who has problems of her own, leads to a double-tragedy...
Bearing the same indie/DIY feel that gave his epochal NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) its memorable feel and power, MARTIN is by far writer/director George A Romero's darkest and most tragic effort. Steeped in a signature Pittsburgh industrial bleakness — I've been to Pittsburgh and it felt like being in a Romero movie — the film is grounded in a recognizable mundanity that makes the story's events all too believable. We've all known someone as awkward and "creepy" as Martin, and his sorry version of sexuality is simultaneously loathsome and pitiful. Whatever side on the debate over his supposed vampirism one falls on, Martin is an individual who is clearly in need of years of deep and thorough psychiatric treatment, and one cannot help but feel great pity for him. (His vile rapey and exsanguinatory behavior notwithstanding.)
Not at all a "fun" entry in the genre, what one gets with MARTIN is the most melancholy of character studies rather than an outright thrilling shocker, but it's the low-key, slow burn approach that gives the film its punch, and once seen it sticks in the viewer's memory like a wooden stake through the heart. Hardcore vampire traditionalists may turn up their noses at its eschewing and mocking of just about every undead suckface trope, but it remains a noteworthy divergence from the expected. RECOMMENDED.
Poster from the theatrical release.
An amusingly lurid variant theatrical poster.
From my collection.