George A. Romero is best known for his zombie movies. Apparently, though, his own favourite among his films is the less well known Martin. Having now watched it (for the first time) I can see why he’s so taken. It’s an exceptional work that’s bleak, sad, disturbing, and challenging.

John Amplas plays the eponymous Martin. When the film opens he’s on a train to Pittsburgh. He sees an attractive fellow passenger who has paid for an overnight cabin. He fantasises about her inviting him in and making love to him. The reality is that he rapes and murders her. The woman struggles to escape, but is drugged unconscious and Martin then drapes her arms over him as if she were reaching for him in passion. Eventually he slits her wrist and drinks from it.

That’s the first five minutes of the film. Already the viewer can see that Martin is a rapist, a murderer, and a deluded fantasist. The question though is whether that’s all he is or whether he’s also a vampire.

When the train pulls in, Martin is greeted by elderly relative Tada Cuda (Lincoln Maazel), in whose house he will be staying. The house is festooned with garlic and crucifixes, and Cuda explains to Martin that he will save him then destroy him but that if he feeds on the people of the city he will destroy him without saving him. Cuda also warns Martin not to speak to the other person who lives in the house, Martin’s cousin Christina (Christine Forrest). Cuda clearly believes Martin is a vampire, even addressing him as ‘nosferatu’. Christina’s view is that Martin is simply mentally ill and that Cuda is making it worse.

I’m obviously not going to rehearse the whole plot here. The above is merely the setup. The question that setup raises is whether Martin is a profoundly psychologically damaged teenager who is enabled in his fantasies by an ageing relative’s belief in them, or whether he is as he and Cuda believe: an 84-year-old who has kept young by drinking the blood of others.

There are hints in the film that Martin may be just what he says he is. Cuda refers to others in the family similarly afflicted; suggesting a genetic condition which Martin may have inherited. Cuda is keen that Christine does not have children in case she carries the condition silently within her. Cuda, though, is not reliable. He believes too in the old superstitions, in garlic and exorcism but as Martin says to him again and again there is no magic. If Martin is anything more than just a boy he is a natural phenomenon. If we can’t trust Cuda on the magic though, can we trust him when he claims that vampirism runs in the family?

As the film progresses, Martin forms a sort of quasi friendship with a bored and lonely housewife (played by Elyane Nadeau). He takes to phoning a local radio shock jock and talking about how one day he’d like to do “the sexy stuff” with someone who’s awake. And every now and then he gets hungry, drugs a protesting and terrified victim and murders them. He may or may not be a vampire, but he is a monster.

Pittsburgh here is a decaying industrial city. Nobody appears to have any prospects. Christine goes out with a philandering mechanic she doesn’t love in the hope that he may at least take her somewhere better. The housewife has nothing to look forward to other than the possibility of an affair with Martin, who has taken a job as a delivery clerk in Cuda’s grocery store. Martin’s fantasies (or perhaps memories) are shot in black and white and have him dressed in elegant 19th century clothes, chasing beautiful women in flowing nightdresses or chased in turn by torch-wielding mobs. His reality is dingy buildings, filthy streets, ugly murders and flights from the police.

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The horror scenes here are unusually effective; in part because they’re filmed in an almost documentary style with the camera staying on the struggling victim long after most films would have cut away or opted for a sudden gory resolution. There’s also a realism to it all which again makes it all the more unpleasant. Zombies don’t really exist and nor do vampires of course, but violent sociopaths with delusions do and that may be all that Martin is. There’s a squalor here that contrasts with the romance of Martin’s dreams or the complex architecture of Cuda’s beliefs.

The performances are solid. John Amplas is convincingly pathetic as Martin, at times evoking real pity showing again what exactly it is Martin does to people and how horrible it is. Lincoln Maazel is in fine form as Cuda, stubbornly sticking to his beliefs, despite the evident fact that Martin is unaffected by sunlight, crucifixes, priests or garlic (he even bites a clove at one point, to show Cuda there’s no magic).

Christine Forrest convinces as the cousin who wants to help Martin, but not enough to really go out of her way for him. Elyane Nadeau is persuasive as a housewife trapped in a loveless marriage and bored beyond endurance. These four central performances form the heart of the film, each a study in delusion or desperation.

Romero never did another film quite like Martin. That’s a great shame because it is very good. It’s rare for a horror film to actually make uncomfortable viewing, but at times Martin is just that. The ambiguity as to what Martin actually is denies the viewer any reassuring answers, and there’s a banal pointlessness to it all which again makes it in places a difficult watch. People die in fear and pain. Those who live don’t enjoy it much. If anything beyond psychopathy is going on it’s just some hereditary condition, and there’s no romance to that.

Martin is a defiantly unromantic film. It’s the antithesis of the vampire as glamorous creature of the night. Here, far from being a magnetic seducer, Martin has to drug women to sleep with them. When awake he can barely answer their questions. He’s no prince of the night; he’s just an inadequate who likes to kill women. Against that, whether he’s 84 or not is almost irrelevant.

The Arrow release comes as a two disc set. The first disc contains full-screen and widescreen versions of the film (I watched the widescreen). The second disc contains the European edit of the film, dubbed into Italian with English subtitles (one for the collector there, but it’s a nice to have for those collectors). There’s a solid documentary (running to around ten minutes) on the making of the film featuring interviews with Romero, Tom Savini (who did makeup and has a supporting role, I particularly enjoyed his comments on why the blood effects in the film aren’t very good) and others from the cast and crew. I found it both interesting and informative.

Other extras on the second disc are a 20-minute German language documentary on George A. Romero with English subtitles (it’s a very international set of extras); the US trailer; the original TV and radio spots; and a photo gallery.