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It’s one of my favorite vampire movies. Fun fact! There’s no vampire in it. As I started writing about it, I remembered that it has an insane cousin that we’ll discuss on Thursday.
As we discussed in one of the first Cinemorph installments, George Romero burst onto the scene with the 1968 with the horror classic, Night Of The Living Dead. Striking while the iron was hot, he followed that up with… There’s Always Vanilla, a quiet study of relationships. Woo-hoo! The film tells the story of Chris, who, after being discharged from the army, drifts along for a year or two doing odd jobs before returning to Pittsburgh to work in the family business of manufacturing baby food. Only Chris doesn’t want to manufacture baby food, and ends up shacking up with Lynn, an older, more financially secure professional model. Lynn supports Chris both financially and emotionally. Until gets her pregnant, that is. That’s when Lynn realizes that Chris in not what one would call a safe, long-term bet. And I agree. Chris is a kind of a creep.
I have no knowledge of how well There’s Always Vanilla did, but Romero’s next film was a return to his supernatural roots called Season Of the Witch. A nifty little tale of a bored housewife who gets involved with witchcraft. Something of a modern, Pittsburgh-based take in Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife and well worth the watch, especially for Romero fans. Then came 1973’s euphorically nasty The Crazies, a 1974 sports documentary called, no kidding, O.J. Simpson, The Juice On The Loose, then the truly bizarre, um, “elder abuse thriller” The Amusement Park (more on that in the future) and then… finally…. in 1976… Martin.
Martin tells the story of… well, Martin. Martin is a young man in his late teens / early 20s who thinks he’s a vampire. In fact, he ‘s convinced he’s a vampire. Despite looking about 19, he insists that he’s in his 80s. The film is peppered with black and white scenes of Martin squaring off against angry villagers, et al, but we never learn if these are memories or fantasies. Such is the brilliance of Martin the movie.
Martin doesn’t sleep in a coffin, is not afraid of the cross and enjoys garlic. He doesn’t have fangs, can’t hypnotize women and doesn’t own a cape. As he says, “There’s no magic. Ever.”
What Martin does do is drink blood. Of course, it makes him sick, but hey! Psychosis is psychosis. To be dead honest, Martin is also a creep. A total fucking creep. In the film’s opening sequence, we find Martin on a train from Indianapolis to the Pittsburgh suburb of Braddock, PA. Martin is on his way to live with his elderly cousin. His attention is drawn to a young woman on the train, travelling alone. Later, he breaks into her private car and, after a long, difficult struggle, injects her with chloral hydrate. Eventually, she falls unconscious. That’s when Martin takes out a razor blade, slits her wrists and drinks her blood.
Sound difficult to watch? It is! Hat’s off to Romero for showing these scenes in such a glaringly realistic light. Martin’s clumsy attempt to subdue his victims are never artfully choreographed or cut to time. They drag on and on and on, occurring in uncomfortable real time. The woman on the train calls Martin, “a freak rapist asshole,” as he whines, “I just want you to go to sleep.”
Eventually she succumbs and Martin lets opened veins bathe his naked chest in blood. The following morning, we see him methodically wiping the blood from his face as his victim lay lifeless in her train car Murphy bed.
How do you feel about Martin now? But he’s the “hero.” What can I tell you? It was 1976, he same year as Taxi Driver, and this is how they did things back then.
Martin disembarks the train and is met by an elderly man dressed all in white. This is his cousin, Tateh Cuda (Lincoln Maazel), from “the old country.” Martin has been sent to stay with and work for his cousin, who is deeply religious, deeply superstitious, and speaks in broken English. Tateh Cuda and Martin are not a great match, but they do have one very important thing in common. They both believe that Martin is a vampire. Cudah refers to Martin only as “Nosferatu.”
Story wise, the inclusion of Tateh Cudah was a masterstroke. Martin and Tateh Cudah. Two people lost in fabricated realities who collide perfectly, if tragically.
Also living with Tateh Cuda is Martin’s younger cousin, Christina. Cuda warns Martin to not so much as speak to her. He also adds that if any local women turn up dead, “I will destroy you without salvation.”
Naturally, Martin and Christina become friends, bonded by their mutual dislike of the overbearing Tateh Cuda. While making deliveries for Cudah’s store, Martin meets another interesting young woman, Mrs Santini (played by Elyane Nadeau). Mrs Santini is young, beautiful, lonely, and married. She and her husband no longer connect with each other and he has been taking more and more business trips to avoid his discordant home life.
Having close relationships with two attractive women is great for Martin in terms fighting his proclivity towards isolation, but his vampiric impulses are growing stronger and stronger. Not wanting to hurt Christina or Mrs. Santini, he takes the train into Pittsburgh to hunt for victims. He happens upon another married woman who bears a passing resemblance to Mr. Santini. After staking out her home (no pun intended) he is delighted to see her husband is also leave for a trip. Martin returns later that night armed with his trusty chloral hydrate hypo, only he inadvertently walks in on the woman and her lover. He manages to inject them both before they realize what is happening, and then a darkly comic siege takes place with Martin trying desperately to wear down both people until the drugs kick in. Eventually they succumb, and Martin, perhaps uncomfortable with the woman’s resemblance to Mrs. Santini, slits the wrists of the woman’s and feeds off him instead.
Again, like the assault on the train, the attack takes place in clumsy, awkward, real time, and is deeply upsetting.
Torn by guilt, with no one to tell his real story true, Martin begins calling in regularly to a local call in radio show and starts confessing his crimes to the host. The audience thinks he is a joke, of course, and he becomes a popular regular caller, with the host referring to him as “The Count.” It serves as a therapy for Martin, even though, to the host, he’s just another way to fill the hour.
The film concludes with Martin, panicky and desperate to feed, taking the train back into Pittsburgh where he attacks a pair of homeless people and narrowly escapes being apprehended by the police. While he is away, Mrs. Santini, depressed over the broken state of her marriage, commits suicide by slitting her wrists.
When Tateh Cuda learns that one of Martin’s female delivery customers has been found dead with her wrists slit, he concludes that it is the work of his vampire cousin / delivery boy. He fulfills his promise and pounds a stake into Martin’s heart, burying him afterward in the unsanctified ground of his flowerbed.
Martin is a well-constructed, clever, brilliantly conceived story hampered only by the obviousness of its non-existent budget. While the film was advertised as having a $250,000 budget, it was, in reality, closer to $100,000. And it shows. Martin is a movie that could actually use a remake, if there was only a way to ensure it would get the loving care and attention it deserved. If there was someone out there who could do for Martin what Phillip Kaufman did with Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, what Matt Reeves did with Let The Right One In, I would be the first in line.
Now, take Martin and put him in the go-go, greedy, cocaine and shoulder-pad fueled world of New York in the mid 1980’s. Take him out of his own story and stick him into Bright Lights, Big City, and you have the head-scratchingly strange Nicolas Cage comedy Vampire’s Kiss.
See ya Thursday!
If you enjoy the Cinemorph, you may also want to give a listen to The Dana Gould Hour podcast(available on iTunes, Stitcher and all podcast platforms) and watch Hanging With Dr. Z on Youtube.