By PHIL NOBILE JR
The mid 1970s. In an urban, blue collar neighborhood, a young man finds himself at odds with his Catholic family’s attempts to impose its rigid, oppressive lifestyle onto his own. Seeking escape, the youth goes out at night where he can act on his desires and truly be himself. Women are a complete mystery to him, and he goes through them as disposable pleasures. Eventually, he’s forced to re-evaluate his place in life when he falls for an older woman.
It’s an amusing set of similarities that exist between SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER and George A Romero’s MARTIN, but the films also share a cynical, deeper probing of the constrictive nature of family and the poisonous core of empty faith.
But where SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER invites us to find the humanity in a racist, misogynist cheeseball, MARTIN asks us to empathize with a protagonist who, the film tells us, might be an 84 year-old vampire, but in all likelihood is a 19 year-old serial rapist and murderer. Troublesome waters, but well worth navigating.
We meet Martin (John Amplas) on a train bound for Pittsburgh. He eyes an attractive woman boarding the train during a stop in New York. Later, he picks the lock to her cabin and flings the door open. The film immediately transitions to black & white as we enter Martin’s fantasy world. The woman is waiting for him on the bed arms extended, as haunting, romantic music swells.
Of course, none of this is actually happening. Back in the real world the cabin seems empty, and the unceremonious flush of a toilet tells us Martin’s quarry is in the shitter. She opens the door as Martin crouches behind it. Her hair is in a towel and her face is covered in cold cream - hardly the idealized, willing victim of Martin’s fantasy. She sees him just before he pounces, hypodermic needle in hand. After injecting her, what ensues is still not Martin’s romantic fantasy, but rather a clumsy, messy struggle, punctuated by profanity and a discordant, jazzy score. Through the images, action and music, Romero telegraphs the collision course on which he’s set fantasy and reality in his film.
Once she’s subdued (but, interestingly and distressingly, still somewhat conscious), Martin quietly rapes the woman before opening her vein with a razor blade and drinking her blood. Her eyes, fluttering, watch the entire thing with a hazy confusion. He kisses her passionately, his bloody face smearing her own. He turns his attention back to the vein and in the next shot, she’s dead. There’s a casual, horrible banality to it. In its opening moments, Martin boldly announces itself as a very different kind of vampire film.
But Martin is less interested in digging into or deconstructing the vampire myth than it is in exploring the stagnant well of religion, and of Catholicism in particular. It stands next to the aforementioned SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, and to varying degrees films like THE EXORCIST and MEAN STREETS as part of an incidental movement in 70s cinema to question the hoary, empty and sometimes dangerous phenomenon of blind faith.
That loyalty to ritual and tradition is embodied in Tateh Cuda (Lincoln Maazel), Martin’s cousin who meets him at the train station. Dressed immaculately in white and speaking in a thick accent (Greek? Lithuanian? Cuda references “the old country” but is never specific), Cuda presents himself as a “good Catholic” who believes Martin to be his 84 year-old cousin cursed with vampirism, “the family shame.” Cuda escorts Martin to his home in the blighted city of Braddock, a former steel town seemingly sucked dry. Echoing the plague-ridden village of Nosferatu, our titular vampire arrives to find the shadow of death over the entire town and everyone in it. The shops, the streets, the church are all sparsely littered with sleepwalking bodies- truly the living dead. Even the zealot Cuda seems pretty resigned in his initial interactions with Martin. “First I will save your soul. Then I will destroy you. I will show you your room.” Cuda subscribes to a belief system that has preordained our lives from beginning to end, his words seem to be suggest. No sense getting worked up about it.
Again and again, the film ties vampirism to antiquated religion. And much like any other religion, even the believers can’t seem to agree on what exactly it is. Shortly after unpacking, Martin reacts angrily to Cuda’s addressing him as “nosferatu.” Martin chases him through the house, ripping a string of garlic from Cuda’s door. As Cuda retreats to his bedroom, he’s backed into a corner, and as a last resort reaches into a drawer and pulls out...a glow-in-the-dark plastic crucifix. Martin bites into the garlic and presses the cheap cross against his cheek. “You see? It isn’t magic.” Yet a few scenes later Martin tells his cousin he’s 84 years old. So Martin really believes he’s a vampire; he just doesn’t have the same beliefs about vampirism that Cuda does. We learn that like any other religious fanatic, Martin cherry picks his belief system to justify his own actions, but gets upset and emotional when other people’s interpretations intrude on his version.
Cuda puts on a normal face for the outside world, telling his customers that his young cousin (and new employee) is nineteen years old, and dismissing their clucked tongues when they suggest it’s inappropriate that a young man live in the same house as Cuda’s young daughter Christine (Christine Forrest). “My family knows how to behave.” Cuda only lets his crazy side out to a trusted few. Martin shows his true self to even fewer, and it tends to result in their death. So he reaches out to a late night radio call-in show and begins having long phone conversations with the DJ. The calls become a de facto voice over for the film, allowing us to hear Martin’s inner dialogue mixed with a fair amount of mythbusting. Martin’s life as a vampire, he tells the radio audience, involves no coffins, no fear of crosses or sunlight, and he doesn’t turn into a bat. “Those movies are crazy!” His refutation of vampire lore takes on an odd tone- incredulousness mixed with betrayal. The movies don’t just lie to us about vampires; they lied to him. And the myth Martin is most distressed about is that you can’t make women do what you want in real life.
Martin’s workaround for this inconvenience involves a fair amount of leg work: reconnaissance, staking out a target’s home over a period of days, figuring out how to get inside the home, and waiting for the right moment to strike. Martin patiently waits for one victim’s husband to go away on business, but again messy reality gets in the way of his fantasy: when he flings open the woman’s bedroom door, syringe in hand, the sexually naive Martin is confused by the presence of the woman’s side piece. He improvises masterfully, though, his mind remembering (or fantasizing) a cat and mouse chase from his younger days.
As these brushes with capture - the woman’s home, wandering into a drug deal/police shootout after murdering a wino - fool us into thinking they’re the only real danger posed to Martin, Cuda and his religious fervor take on an air of buffoonery. Martin accompanies his cousin to church and the only thing that threatens to destroy him there is boredom. An attempted exorcism proves to be a rather limp exercise. When Cuda invites a young priest (Romero) over for dinner, the priest has to stifle a giggle when asked about demonic possession. When pressed on the issue, the priest nervously says “I don’t know what to believe about that.” It’s a damning moment in a throwaway line.
Martin’s antagonistic relationship with Cuda comes to be portrayed not so much as an epic battle of good vs evil, but as Martin straight trolling Cuda. He becomes an insolent punk, smirking at Cuda’s convictions and delighting in pissing him off. AfIn one scene Martin menaces Cuda in a mist-shrouded playground, dressed up in a dime-store vampire getup. When Cuda clutches his rosary for protection, Martin cackles at him. “It’s just a costume,” Martin says, spitting out a set of plastic fangs that might have come from the same factory as Cuda’s glow-in-the-dark crucifix. Cuda is reduced to a frightened old man, a misconception which primes us for the film’s bleak finale.
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Is Martin a vampire? People like to say the film doesn’t tell us; Romero likes to say “it doesn’t matter,” but the clues are there and any other answer than the obvious one serves no end other than cheap storytelling gimmickry. Martin is a delusional maniac, from a family of delusional maniacs, and they’re all far too human. The smoking gun that Martin’s “memories” are all in his mind is given right up front: when he busts into that first victim’s cabin, the black-and-white fantasy sequence transports him (and us) not into a distant memory, but into a fantasy of what’s about to happen. It’s just wishful thinking. Martin imagines the woman wants him, just as he imagines he’s an 84 year-old vampire. But as Martin says early on, there is no real magic, ever. It’s just a sickness.
PHIL NOBILE JR is a writer/director of non-fiction television projects, including the feature-length A&E documentary HALLOWEEN: THE INSIDE STORY (2010.) He is a contributing writer for Birth.Movies.Death and its sister print publication.