Our review of Martin (Lions Gate Release), published December 3rd, 2004, is also available.
He could be the boy next door…
George Romero is responsible for a couple of my all-time favorite horror films, namely Night of the Living Dead and its sequel Dawn of the Dead. Between these two classics, he made a lesser-known twist on the vampire story called Martin. An expressionist tale of ambiguity and angst, this mysterious tale has an appeal that transcends its humble, low-budget roots. It retains the classic Romero style of graphic, real life documentation, but ventures even farther afield of traditional horror than his other films. Among fans in the know, this film has achieved cult classic status, and I understand why. Anchor Bay presents us with the film on DVD, with mixed results.
I'd never seen Martin before viewing this disc so had no expectations except from having seen Romero's other work. I was surprised by the abrupt opening to the film, which had neither the rather innocent beginning of Night of the Living Dead nor the frantic changes of its sequel. Instead you see what appears to be an innocent young man who enters the train cabin of a woman, drugs, rapes, and kills her, drinking and bathing in her blood. The crime is surprisingly gentle for such a brutal act, and he leaves the scene arranged to appear as a suicide. After cleaning up the cabin, he leaves and calmly exits the train at the next stop…in daylight. No fangs, no magic powers, none of the trappings of a traditional vampire tale.
That is the most impressive and unique part of the film; the ambiguity concerning Martin. Is he a vampire, or a sadistic psychotic killer, or both? He is seemingly a young, sensitive man, but both he and his uncle, whom he has come to visit, believe he is an 84-year-old vampire. If you are hoping for the answers to these questions, the film does not answer them. Both possibilities seem equally plausible as the film presents it. If you choose to believe he is a vampire, then you also will believe that the myths surrounding this creature are only that. Crosses, garlic, the usual accouterments make their appearances, but Martin makes it clear that these have no effect on him. He is seemingly mortal (if perhaps nearly ageless) with all the frailties and freedoms it offers. He is also apparently suffering from an affliction of vampirism, the overwhelming urge to drink blood, much akin to a drug addiction, which is also hinted at by his use of injecting drugs into his victims before he drinks from them. Questions are left to be decided by the viewer, as even the flashback scenes showing Martin many years ago look like a homage to classic horror films, which may just be hallucinations.
One thing is not in doubt. Martin's elderly uncle Cuda, a small grocery owner, believes Martin is a vampire, and believes it is an inherited trait that has occurred in no less than 3 in their family tree. Martin has sought him out as a means to find a cure for his malady, and the uncle is trying to help through mystical and superstitious means. Also in the house is Christine, Cuda's granddaughter, who does not believe in any of it, merely thinking Martin mentally ill. Therefore even the characters ask both sides of the question, without answers. Romero seems sympathetic with Martin, yet remains non-judgmental, while unflinchingly showing the violence he is capable of. Ambiguity in study again.
Filmed in a crumbling, often empty suburb of Pittsburgh, the elements of decay provide a grim backdrop for the film's outdoor scenes. Romero uses long unbroken shots, silent passages, deadpan narration, and flashback scenes in black and white to illustrate his tale with an unhurried sense of graphic surrealism. Reality gives way to surreality, but without the clumsy efforts seen in some recent films such as The Beach. I found the film almost avant-garde, yet very watchable and interesting. Subsequent viewings reveal things not seen the first time, which is not something normally associated with the horror genre.
Before Dawn of the Dead Romero had to work on a shoestring. This was a "five lights" production filmed on 16mm reversal stock because they couldn't afford better. Filmed entirely on locations, they used anything and anyone at hand. The extras were all part of the crew or relatives, or just people in the town grabbed for the scene. The cops and police car shown in the film are the town's real cops who contributed their time and efforts in return for a spot in the film. Makeup was done by whoever was on hand, and there was no hairdresser. The actors were friends, relatives, or unknowns except in other Romero films. I admire those who can make a good film despite these obstacles.
I was very happy Anchor Bay included a commentary track on this disc. Director/writer George Romero, along with lead actor John Amplas (Knightriders, Day of the Dead) and effects man/co-star Tom Savini (Dawn of the Dead) provide lighthearted insight into the making of the film, while providing plenty of anecdotes about the shooting and each other. They seemed genuinely happy to be together and about the film itself, though all bemoaned the fact that an original three-hour cut of the film had been stolen. For that reason there was no opportunity to include any deleted scenes or make a director's cut. It is an easy to listen to track as it is not overly technical but does include insight into how the film was made. There is also a surprisingly good trailer for the film narrated by Martin who explains his unique needs. A two-page booklet of production notes completes the extra content.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I do have a few beefs with the film. Performances vary from actor to actor and even from within the same character from scene to scene. Brilliant scenes give way to woodenly read lines, and vice versa. I also thought that the editing was too lax in some areas, with too long given to minutiae such as walking from one train to another without any exposition, lines, or reason. Overall I enjoyed the film very much, but I think a few minutes could have been cut and improved pacing, and I wish that all the scenes had shown the quality of acting shown during the best ones.
I didn't say anything about the picture and sound, because there are some small problems here too. The picture is full frame, which is how it was originally framed and the preferred version of Romero over the 1.85:1 matted one some may have seen. I don't mind that, but the picture quality suffers mainly from the cheap film that had to be used to make the picture. Colors and highlights are all right, but the film has very murky shadow detail and the film print itself had defects requiring much use of noise reduction, which results in added artifacts and an overly soft image at times. The picture wasn't nearly as grainy as I thought it would be considering the film stock, but perhaps the noise reduction succeeded on that front. The artifacts consist of occasional ringing and ghosting. Blacks and fleshtones are fine, and overall the film is very watchable, especially keeping in mind this was a 16mm print that is 24 years old.
The sound does fare better than the picture, being a quite decent 2-channel mono track. The noise floor is low, dialogue is clear, and the creepy, sometimes emotional score has a great deal of clarity as well. There is one place I noticed which had a synch problem with the voice but that came from the original film rather than the authoring of the disc.
Certainly I would have liked even more extras than the commentary track and trailer, but without that long cut of the film it might be impossible. I must also complain about the complete lack of captioning or subtitles for the hearing impaired, which should be a part of every disc.
For a unique, interesting twist on the horror genre and vampire films, give Martin a rental or purchase. I think its well worth your time to see, and the commentary track adds real value to the disc. The film isn't typical and the picture quality isn't the best so some may wish to rent before committing to a purchase.
I'm sure Anchor Bay did the best they could with the source elements for Martin and came through with a good commentary track as well, so they are absolved of any blame. George Romero remains one of the pioneering directors in the horror genre and high in my respect. I hear Knightriders is also coming out (or perhaps already is) on DVD and I look forward to an expansion of my Romero collection.
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