Town Without Pity

I just recently re-watched, George Romero's Martin.

It had been almost twenty years since last I saw this twisted tale of a lonely youth from a majorly dysfunctional family who believes that he is an 84 year old vampire. A lot was going on my in life back then, and while I recall enjoying the movie, I don't think I gave it much thought once the video tape was placed back in its holder and the television went dark.

Today, watching Martin from an entirely different perspective; it is clear to me that George A. Romero is much more than a one-trick-zombie of a filmmaker.

On the surface, Martin is an odd little horror film about a young man, who may, or may not, be an actual vampire (true, he lacks fangs - can not turn into a bat - walks in daylight - is unaffected by garlic and crosses); but once the viewer digs a bit deeper, he or she will discover a treasure trove of themes like the death of small cities, the generation gap, the women's movement (and how it seemed to stall in the mid-70's, leaving middle class women wondering "what's next?"), sexual desire, and religion.

Played by John Amplas, Martin is a somewhat fey young man who outwardly seems to be a social outcast with some possible mental health issues. Of course once we watch him stalk and kill a young woman by injecting her with a sedative and then slicing her arm with a razor so he can drink her blood, five minutes into the movie, we understand that he's one fucked up puppy.

For some reason, Martin has been sent from his home in Indiana to go stay with his (seemingly much older) cousin, Tada (Lincoln Maazel) in Braddock, Pennsylvania, a small city that seems to have had it's life blood drained years ago. Cousin Tada immediately lets Martin know, that he is not going to stand for any kind of vampire shenanigans. In fact when Martin gets to his cousin's house he finds garlic wreaths on bedroom doors, and crucifixes a-plenty awaiting him. However crazy Martin may be, he does know that garlic and crosses have no effect on him, and he proves this to his cousin by eating some of the garlic, and kissing the crucifix. Nonetheless, Cousin Tada is not swayed and calls him, "Nosferatu".

Luckily, Tada's daughter, Christina (played by the soon-to-be-real-life Mrs. Romero, Christine Forrest) shows honest sympathy for her second cousin, and tells him that he is a victim of the family's long history of mental illness. But Chris has problems of her own, stuck in a dead end relationship with Arthur, (make-up maestro, Tom Savini) It is only later on that we understand the reason Chris is staying with this ner-do-well is that he will eventually become her ticket out of the dying city of Braddock. (It must be noted that Forrest turns in one of the best performances in this movie - she is honestly a damn good actress, even if she reminds me of a younger version of the woman who plays Mrs. Foreman on That 70's Show).

As things progress, Tada puts Martin to work as a delivery boy for his small, but thriving, butcher shop. It is during his tenure that he meets Mrs. Santaini (Elyane Nadeau), a desperate housewife from Braddock's more affluent suburbs. Flush with money and creature comforts, Mrs. Santaini is a beautiful, sad creature who wastes no time coming on to Martin shortly after meeting him. It is clear that she has somehow met a kindred spirit in the doe eyed youth who barely speaks. Martin is reticent at first, fearful that his sexual urges may cause him to kill the woman he might in fact desire.

To quell his appetites, Martin starts calling a late-night radio talk show where he is known as "The Count". Here he has an outlet, and a sounding board where he can tell the truth about vampirism ... that "the magic" is not real, there are no coffins to sleep in, no harem of undead brides at his beck and call; there is only the compulsion to drink blood.

It is during one of these radio mid-night confessions that we discover that Martin's blood lust is tied up with his sexuality. He feels that if he could, just once, have sex with out killing, he might be "cured". It's an interesting premise, because to this viewer, it seemed that Martin's sexuality might be the issue, would that he have dabbled in homosexuality, would murder follow? Does this boyishly handsome little freak just need some mano-a-mano shag time to break him of his taste for plasma?

Be that as it may, there will be blood.

Martin, at his Cousin's instance, strays far from town to find victims, and most of them are women like Mrs. Santini. Unhappy, upper middle-class women who Martin methodically stalks until the time is right to strike.

Interestingly enough, whenever Martin goes out to feed, his mind travels to fantasy-like black and white visions of himself as a well dressed classic vampire who follows willing, and big breasted, maidens in flowing night gowns through candle lit Gothic castles. Sometimes he fancies that he is being chased by an angry mob with torches through fog shrouded cobblestone streets ... all a far cry from the rusted out hulk of Braddock and it's shuttered store fronts and abandoned factories.

Of course the reality is that Martin is drugging unsuspecting victims, slicing them open, lapping up their blood and leaving them for dead.

Meanwhile, Cousin Tada (can't get enough of that name) drags his charge along to church. And here we discover that Braddock's only Catholic church is merely a shell as most of it was destroyed in a fire. The congregants meet in a small room upstairs in the one section of the chapel that was not completely ruined. But the big news at the parish is the new young priest whose come to town, Father Howard (played by none other than the film's director). Later that same day, Tada invites the young priest to his house for a meal, and begins grilling him on matters of faith. Needless to say, the old man is outraged over the holy man's less than fundamental beliefs and realizes that he will be of no help in ridding his cousin of demons.

From here things go from bad to worse as an exorcism Tada sets up with an older priest goes horribly awry, Mrs. Santaini falls into a deep depression, Christina leaves home, and Martin realizes that his longing for blood is chronic.

What's a demon to do?

In that the film, Martin seems to be tackling so many questions at once, it can be a tad confusing. There are some scenes that could have been trimmed, and a few of the actors might have benefited from , well, maybe taking acting classes -- but heck, that's small potatoes as this movie is so damn entertaining, artistic and compelling.

One of my favorite scenes is this bizarre moment when Martin happens across a marching band in a parade, and joins in, high stepping with the high-school kids and smiling like a fool. It makes no sense whatsoever, and yet it works. Another brilliant moment occurs when Martin appears complete with fake fangs, a cape and white make-up and sets out to scare his cousin. The entire scene is shot silent, and it is wonderful!

All in all, Martin is a fantastic piece of independent film making that turns the vampire legend on it's ear and places the action away from the misty moors and in to a Town Without Pity during a time when everything seemed to be dying; the hopes of the 60s', the memories of an older generation, the beliefs of the faithful, the dreams of a younger generation ... all of it just seemed to be falling apart, rusting like an abandoned car in a junk yard or, maybe, just maybe, like the rotting mind of a beautiful young man who in reality is nothing more than a deranged psychopath.


Anonymous said...

Superb analysis. The gritty quality of this film, with its desolation permeating scenery and characters is fascinating and masterfully directed.

Pax Romano said...

Thank you, ILozZoc!