George Romero remains best known for single-handedly inventing the modern zombie genre, but this underrated, New Hollywood-era, teenage-angst movie with a serious twist saw him try his hand at a vampire film. Well, a vampire film of sorts shall we say, because we’re never entirely sure whether Martin (John Amplas), is indeed a blood-sucking pest or just a mentally-deranged young man whose subjectivity is vampirising the film’s. What’s fascinating about this ambiguity is how it positions this film among the newly self-conscious brand of ‘70s Hollywood cinema, made by a new generation of film-buff directors fully aware of the legacy of classical genre film, but equally wishing to bring it up to date. The opposition within young Martin stands in for the opposition between classical horror films and Romero’s necessary update – because much as some studio producers might like it, films and genres cannot keep regurgitating the same material ad nauseam, they must evolve as entertainment and as art.
What, besides ambiguity, makes Martin a more modern and less classical horror film? For a start, greater realism. Romero, like he did in Night of the Living Dead (1969), employs a documentary-style aesthetic, complete with handheld camera which back in 1977 was still synonymous with on-the-cuff immediacy, rather than the overused trope it is today. And Romero uses this aesthetic to plunge us right into the deep end. We begin the film with Martin’s attack on a young woman in a train carriage, complete with careful attention to detail again (a sedative-laden syringe and a razorblade are highlighted as part of Martin’s meticulous routine) for increased realism. This isn’t Bela Lugosi mystique, but a gritty what-if-vampires-were-real scenario.
His thirst for blood quenched, Martin and the train arrive in Pittsburgh, where he is due to move in with his uncle (Lincoln Maazel). This old Catholic curmudgeon clearly thinks something is fiendishly wrong with his nephew, if the garlic and crucifix, hung up outside the guest bedroom by way of a welcome, are anything to go by. But Romero doesn’t feed us any exposition until later into the film, so we watch on puzzled, intrigued and uncertain about the backstories of these two characters. This uneasy structure is reinforced by the fragmentary editing, already another sign that we’re no longer in the self-enclosed world of the classical cinema – things are literally seeping in from beyond the frame and from off-screen.
Case in point, the most remarkable of Romero’s artistic gambles in Martin, the black-and-white inserts of Martin in a more familiar representation of a 19th century vampire, gallivanting in period costume. They deliberately invoke mainstays of classic horror like Dracula or the angry village mob from James Whale’s Frankenstein. Are these flashbacks from his past, since after all, if he is indeed a vampire, he is supposedly over 80 years old? Are they an insight into his state of mind? Is this how he sees himself and the attacks he commits? Is it merely his self-image as vampire because it is the accustomed cinematic image of the vampire? It is as if the old and the new Hollywood, and the old and new horror genre, are in dialogue with each other through the interplay of these black-and-white shots typifying old horror films with the less conventional scenes making up the rest of the movie.
Interestingly, with his rigid dogmatism the uncle is the least sympathetic character, clearly the one Romero has the least time for, and even though Martin, whether deranged or vampire, is stealing blood and lives, Romero still forces us to empathise with him. This is a vampire character as troubled young man, almost a metaphor for the highs, lows and emotional turbulence of adolescence and young adulthood.