Martin Mathias moves from Indianapolis to live with his elderly cousin Tateh Cuda and Cuda’s granddaughter Christina in Braddock, a decaying suburb of Pittsburgh. A quiet, reclusive, socially awkward and sexually dysfunctional young man, Martin is also hiding a terrible secret: he’s also a serial rapist and murderer who believes himself to be an 84-year-old vampire. This belief is shared by Cuda, who reluctantly took Martin in on the orders of the family elders, on one condition: while his ultimate goal is to save Martin’s soul before killing him, Cuda will destroy him “without salvation” if he takes any victims from Braddock.
Romero has cited Martin as his personal favorite amongst his own films, and as much as I love Romero’s body of work as a whole (particularly Dawn Of The Dead), I’d be hard-pressed to disagree. It’s certainly one of his most intense, effective and personal projects.
The keystone of Martin’s greatness is the characterization and performances of its lead actors. Like Lucky McKee’s May, it relies on generating sympathy for a protagonist who performs despicable acts by portraying him as anxious, shy and introverted–not in an exaggerated or comical way, but in a realistic way that many audience members will relate to. (In a personal sense, I can tell you that Martin exactly nails what it’s like to be socially anxious and overlooked: I see a lot of myself in the title character. Except for the rape and murder bits, obviously.) John Amplas is perfect in the role. While his sullen line-readings are spot-on, Amplas’s physical performance provides a sharper view of the character than words alone ever could. He’s certainly handsome, but the story his body language tells is at odds with his good looks; his moody stare, perpetual scowl and overall physical demeanor (he’s definitely skinny but often seems to take up less space than he actually should) are as crucial as dialogue when it comes to telling Martin’s story. Amplas embodies the old saw that “it’s the quiet ones you have to watch out for.” I don’t think there’s much room to argue that this is one of the finest performances ever delivered in a horror movie. (Sadly, it’s his only starring role to date–although he had a hand in most of Romero’s productions from here until The Dark Half.)
Another amazing performance comes from Lincoln Maazel as Cuda. The character’s nature is contradictory–he’s a loving if traditional family man and an upstanding member of his community, but he’s also the stern, patriarchal and occasionally cruel head of a distinctly dysfunctional household. He’s a man with the best of intentions, unshakable in his faith and the righteousness of his cause, acting ruthlessly in the defense of his family (and his family name). As with Amplas, Maazel tells his character’s story through body language as much as through dialogue, contrasting with Martin with his proud, haughty and defiant demeanor. (An early scene in which Martin follows Cuda home from a train station speaks volumes about the differences between the characters: the white-suited Cuda strides confidently through the streets with a cane and perfect posture, while Martin consistently lags two or so feet behind, limping from the weight of his luggage.) The line-readings are occasionally a bit over-the-top, something that probably derives from Maazel’s experience as a stage actor (this is the only film role for Maazel, who died a few years ago at the age of 106), but it’s nothing that distracts from the credibility of the performance.
While there are a few dud performances amongst the extras, most of the supporting performances are solid as well, particularly Elayne Nadeau as a lonely, dissatisfied housewife who takes Martin as a lover (with disastrous results); her characterization is a more effective treatment of Bored ’70s Housewife themes than the entirety of Romero’s Season Of The Witch. Christine Forrest (Romero’s then-girlfriend, then wife, now ex-wife, as Christina) and Tom Savini (as Arthur, Christina’s neglectful boyfriend), and Mike Gornick (a longtime Romero collaborator as DP, here playing an unseen talk-show host to whom Martin tells his story) are also fantastic.
In terms of screenwriting and direction, Romero is at the top of his game here. Vampiric shenanigans take up a surprisingly small amount of the story, which mostly focuses on how Martin and Cuda interact with their shared environment. Braddock comes alive as a victim of the economic downturn associated with the Carter era. Cuda’s old-fashioned values clash with the aftermath of the social upheaval of the late ’60s and early to mid-’70s, and the black and white “flashback” sequences are lush, evocative and beautiful. Savini also did the makeup and effects, and while Martin is hardly the gorefest you might expect from the director, the few effects sequences are well executed, striking and memorable, culminating in the film’s devastating conclusion. The only problem with the direction is that the action sequences are a bit awkward, but that’s part for the course for pre-Dawn Romero.
The plot element that often gets the most attention–that it’s never made clear whether Martin really is a vampire or simply a deluded but physically and spiritually unremarkable human being–isn’t as important as its reputation suggests, but it’s a permutation of one of the film’s central themes: that even the nicest, most respectable, most “normal” citizens (and family) might be hiding awful secrets…and that not only is it not possible to know our fellow men and women completely, many times we don’t even know ourselves as well as we’d like to believe we do. I’ve always been attracted to that theme in narrative, and this film is one of my favorite examples.
Martin is regarded as a classic, if only in our small community of fans, and it thoroughly deserves that reputation. Across all the elements of filmmaking, its strengths are many and its flaws are few, and overall it’s one of the greatest vampire films ever made. Seminal stuff, highly recommended.
My rating: 10 of 10.
99 minutes. Directed by George Romero. Starring John Amplas, Lincoln Maazel, Christine Forrest, Elayne Nadeau, Sarah Venable, Tom Savini, Fran Middleton, Al Levitsky.