In vampire films of the past, the mere label of the main villain as a vampire or a child of the night, almost justifies and forgives their actions. When Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee have to seduce in order to attain for their nightly fix of blood, the label of vampire forgives their action as a necessity just as if the person was a mere piece of meat. However, the vampire is more than just an amalgamation of a Stoker inspired blaggard. The powerful reading of vampirism as little more than rape is one that is rarely present in most of the popular films and it took an innovator of George A. Romero’s calibre to address it in his 1976 film Martin.
Martin of the film’s title is a socially awkward young man who appears to exhibit certain characteristics of a vampire. Unlike the traditional creature that can seduce women with his stare and not appear in the hours of daylight, he seems relatively ordinary in one sense. He is however a violent sociopath who drugs women in order to caress them and drink their blood. He is provocatively normal, not baring the slightest resemblance to the supernatural; a skinny quiet boy who is lazy, secretive and dangerously unhinged.
Romero is clever in his depiction of Martin. The character seems equally as unsure of his role and often insists that he isn’t a vampire in order to keep his superstitious cousin at bay. His inner monologue tells us that he has perfected the art of surviving, explaining away his use of drugging and undressing his victims while obviously showing the viewer how deep he is in total denial of his actions. Indeed, the story could easily be of a typical “weird America” killing that often includes the likes of Zodiac and Charles Manson[i].
The film deliberately shows us apparent flashbacks of Martin’s life in a previous age where actions appear to have been repeating themselves. Though shot in black and white[ii] these are simply misdirection as to Martin’s grasp on reality. These are the romanticised visions of Martin’s current actions, justifying to himself his appalling habits and the morality of his nature. One other element of these sections is the relationship between Martin and the typical vampire of the cinema. In his anonymous radio interviews, he states how the wrong the films have got it. However, this doesn’t seem to have stopped him reflecting his own actions through their gothic, romantic visions, which is presented in Martin’s black and white segments.
Martin exhibits characteristics of a primal nature; he appears to do what he does in order to survive. His own conscious has been convinced that in order to survive he needs to drink blood. For most of the film, his victims are women, hence the insinuation of a metaphor for rape. His one male victim appears to be more of a desperate act of revenge for making the attack on his sexual partner more work. Some way through the film, Martin becomes involved with a woman without the need to kill her. This perhaps signals the neurotic urges of Martin’s as an irrepressible impulse born from environmental factors out of his control rather than a lack of physical contact in his everyday life.
The area around him where the film is set is largely derelict. Tramps are found in toilets, businesses and buildings are crumbling; he seems quite a natural, if extreme, product of a society in decay. Not that this excuses his actions. One the contrary, this is a film about questioning the moral rigidity of vampirism as well as its role through its genesis in society. Romero stated that “If he is our own child; if he is our primal conscience, looking back at us from the centre of our souls, then Martin is truly a dangerous creature” hinting that his production is merely an embracing of the most basic and primal urges found deep within any society, decaying or otherwise.
This is indeed a scary thought. Not only has he been produced by a society, he has been there from the very beginning, most obviously in its most barbaric and violent days. The monster is ever present and society has even given it a name in order to morally justify and forgive its existence (a strong tie in to the Catholic Church); they have called it vampirism. The forced attentions on someone for their physicality and their blood, sanitised in the hope that the members of society, still yet to succumb to an apparent base desire, will fight it off with hate and rage before it has a chance to spread further.
Martin is an uncomfortable film, not merely for its very detailed scenes of blood lust and attack but for its questioning moral nature. Like James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) did in the birth of American Horror’s heyday, it ties the most appalling, brutal and violent acts with people; the monsters are born from a human strain and, in Romero’s words “are simply extensions or exaggerations of a certain strain present in all of us”. Classic vampire films provided the viewer with thrills and chills, highlighting the very obvious line between good and bad. Though Martin is very clear that its protagonist is committing bad deeds, its unnerving nature is born from questioning this moral line and suggesting that perhaps it is a far more permeable than society would like to think.