NetFlix Review #10: Martin

God bless George A. Romero. As I slog my way through the project I'm currently working on it was a joy to watch this flick by a true horror maestro and see him balance good scares and sexy thrills with his usual flare for social commentary. Here we have Martin, a troubled young boy who may or may not be a vampire. He doesn't have the fangs or the supernatural ability, he can walk out in the sunlight, he seems pretty normal. Except that every now and then he gets a little twitchy, and when he gets a little twitchy he likes to go out and drug pretty young women, then cut them open with a razor and drink their blood. Martin, as I'm sure you could imagine, is quite a handful, so he is sent off to Pittsburgh (which really should be renamed Romerosburgh) where his uncle will house him and attempt to save his soul, and then kill him.

The basic gist of the movie is that there are three different realities being subscribed to. Uncle Cuda, played with gusto by Lincoln Maazel, is old school old world. He believes that Martin is full-on Nosferatu, from a family curse that shows up every few generations to turn one of them into a bloodsucking child of the night. He covers the house in garlic and crosses and brings priests over to try and cast out the evil spirits living within Martin. Then there's Martin himself, who believes that all his uncle's superstitious mumbo jumbo is ridiculous, but still gives his age as 84 and calls up a local disc jockey to complain how vampire movies get him all wrong. And finally there's Uncle Cuda's daughter, Christina, who doesn't believe any of this nonsense.

Romero has a really rich set up here, and mines it as best he can. The film, made in 1977, does a great job of exploring generational tensions and the shifts in religious beliefs happening in the 70s without ever getting to overtly preachy or didactic. The film also has a great sense of place and time, which comes from a director working so closely with a town the way Romero has with Pittsburgh. Everything feels dingy and real, from the train station Martin arrives at for the film's beginning to Uncle Cuda's cluttered home and shop to the fields just outside of town where Martin takes an awkward yet successful date. One of Romero's strengths, in my mind, has always been taking something fantastic and making it feel creepily mundane and real. I remember when I first saw Night of the Living Dead. That opening scene with Barbra and her brother in the graveyard is so chilling and creepy to me because when the first zombie shows up, he kind of just looks like a drunk. He doesn't run up and attack, he just sort of ambles clumsily over, and as a viewer I sat there thinking, "No way. No way is that the zombie. What the hell is going on? IS that a zombie? OH MY GOD, IT'S A ZOMBIE." I enjoy a lot of the new zombie flicks, and I don't think there's one right or wrong answer in the Fast Zombies versus Slow Zombies debate, as both have their different spook factors and etc. etc. But one of the big plusses to the Romero zombies is that they really do look like us on a bad day. Their eyes don't glow red, they don't bare their teeth and howl and run at you with attack faces. They look sad, drunk and down. If you ran across a 28 Days Later zombie, you'd know that thing was bad news and you'd start running. Romero zombies would just look like another homeless person on the subway, until of course they bite you, and that's effin scary.

But those are zombies, and we're talking about vampires now. OR ARE WE? Romero plays fast and loose with reality here, and he does it in fantastic ways. As much as Martin whines to the disc jockey about how movies get vampires wrong, and yet in the absolutely hilarious "flashbacks" we see to his "youth," everything looks like the most overwrought of old school vampire flicks. They're shot in black and white, and even though Martin claims to be 84 years old in 1977, which would make him a teenager around the turn of the century, everything in the flashbacks look Victorian. Except, you know, the modern sinks in the bathroom and such, which COULD be low-budget filmmaking, or could be Romero having a laugh. There's also Martin's approach to picking and attacking his victims. He chooses beautiful women, and then drugs them with a needle. Afterwords he strips them naked, and whether he simply lays with them or actually has sex with them Romero leaves ambiguous. However, what happens next is not ambiguous. Martin takes a razor, opens a vein and drinks.

Romero does a great deconstruction of the vampire mythos. First of all, he casts John Amplas as Martin. He's skinny and awkward, with hair that always falls into his eyes and a young yet hangdog face, he's not your typical vampire, but he might be your typical kid who would spend too much time at Hot Topic wanting to be a vampire. Then there's his dysfunctional relationship with women. When he talks to the disc jockey he complains that he just doesn't seem to understand "the sexy stuff," and no girl has ever seemed too interested in him, which is why he has to drug them. However, when we see his "flashbacks" we see a beautiful young woman calling for him. Martin is that typical surly teenager who broods and mopes and then cannot understand why no one falls in love with his brooding, mopey nature. He thinks its romantic, but everyone else just finds it frustrating. Except a certain unhappy housewife who Martin makes deliveries to for his uncle. Again, Romero brilliantly contrasts Martin's poseur-despair with the housewife's actual urban angst. Martin believes that they're kindred souls and cannot understand why she still seems unhappy even after they've made love. The movie undermines the romantic vision of the vampire and examines what a person who actually sneaks into girls' rooms at night to seduce and destroy would really be like. The answer: pretty creepy.

Unfortunately, one of Romero's greatest strengths is also his greatest weakness. He's great because he's so DIY and low-budget, but there are also times where you can really feel that low budget creeping up on you. The place where this really hurts the movie is with the comedy. Ideally, this movie is a laugh riot, and Romero knows this. He's populated the movie with site gags and wacky shenanigans, but for all the great set-ups, there aren't that many actual laughs in the movie. I know what I'm seeing is funny, but its not moving me to laugh, and I'm a pretty easy laugher. There are so many scenes where I feel like I could describe them to you and they'd be hilarious, but they just aren't on-screen. Martin dressing up as a stereotypical vampire to plague his uncle, the deadpan "exorcism" scene which Martin disappointedly walks away from, the incredibly well-conceived chase scene in which Martin finds one more victim than he expects and the whole thing becomes a sort of Keystone Cops/slamming doors chase scene throughout a house while the slow-acting poison takes its time working on its victims. Romero ran into the same problem, I felt, with his most recent film, Diary of the Dead. Conceptually the movie is brilliant, but the execution is kind of horrendous. I'll give Romero credit, even though he's been pigeon-holed, not just as a horror guy but nowadays as an explicitly zombie horror guy, he's tried to reinvent himself and investigate something new and current with each film. However, regarding Martin I will say that very rarely would I ever profer a movie up for a remake, but in the right hands Martin could easily be redone to be a gut-busting dark comedy.

But the movie itself, my brilliant remake dreams aside, is pretty great. Good ideas, fun storytelling and Romero rocking it as only he can. Speaking of which, fun trivia notes! Romero actually acts here, playing the first priest to visit chez Cuda. Romero's wife plays Uncle Cuda's daughter, the sympathetic and ever-suffering Christina, and her boyfriend is Romero staple and horror legend Tom Savini! So if you're a fan of horror, or Romero in particular, check it out. It's a fun flick.

Here's a question to possibly start some discussion in the comments section: Do you think that Romero may just not have the film skill set to make the comedy work, or do you think comedy is implicitly more difficult than horror, or most other film elements? I'm thinking about Steven Spielberg, a master of cinema, who claimed after 1941 that he'd never do another comedy again. He's certainly got moments of humor in all of his movies, but he's vowed to never return to the genre straight-up again. A similar thing occurred with Martin Scorsese and After Hours. The closest Coppola ever got to a comedy were Jack and Peggy Sue Got Married, both of which I kind of hate. In fact, the only of the big modern American film geniuses I can think of to successfully pull of a comedy was Stanly Kubrick with Dr. Strangelove. I'm sure I'm forgetting someone or some film, or someone's going to come here and ask me why Mel Brooks or the Zucker Brothers or Mike Nichols aren't modern American film geniuses, but you see what I'm getting at, right?