Halloween movies month: Martin

>> Sunday, October 12, 2008

Another movie I watched again last weekend was George Romero's vampire (sort-of) tale, Martin, which was filmed in 1976 but is usually listed as a 1977 or '78 movie, depending on who you ask.

This was the second time I had a chance to look at the film even though I own the DVD: it was on sale a few months ago and I enjoy Romero's work. My first impression was mixed. The good news is that Martin is a helluva lot better on its second viewing. The bad news is that it's still a somewhat muddled film, hurt by uneven acting and the fact that Romero's reach exceeds his grasp throughout the movie. (This isn't unusual for an indie filmmaker working with a low-budget, of course--but that doesn't make it any less of a problem.)

The titular character in Martin (played by John Amplas) is a seemingly young serial rapist-murderer who might be an 84-year-old vampire or merely an extremely disturbed teenager. Martin comes to live with an elderly cousin in Pennsylvania (played by Lincoln Maazel), an old man from the old country who might be a perceptive Van Helsing-ish type or, more likely, is simply a delusional and superstitious old crank. Martin is either cleverly or frustratingly ambiguous about this sort of thing, and while the place of old beliefs in a modern age is probably the central question of the film, it also ends up being shockingly and disappointingly incidental to the actual plot of the film.

Romero's a gifted filmmaker, mind you: Night Of The Living Dead remains, in my personal opinion, one of the most brutally effective horror movies ever made. Night is a masterful example of turning weaknesses to strengths (the low-budget look of Night gives it an in-your-face vérité). And Romero is a smart screenwriter: Night's sequels include some sharp political and cultural observations (e.g. the famous satirical look at American consumerism in Dawn Of The Dead). One has to wonder, then, if Martin's failure to make sense of its own ambiguous premise is the result of its budget or whether its a result of Romero fumbling for whatever he was trying to say.

There are artistic decisions in Martin, too, where you can see what Romero was maybe trying to do but it's not clear he succeeded. During Martin's psychotic breaks, he has what are either flashbacks or delusions which are shown in black and white. There's nothing technically wrong with this--I think you can make a case that Romero should shoot everything in black-and-white, he's damn good at it--but to be honest, it seems sort of clumsy and cute. And then there's the way Martin always hears a woman calling his name whenever he's feeling the urge to rape and kill: it's an understandable decision to reveal the state of Martin's psyche this way, but technically it really doesn't work--it just doesn't sound good.

The other day, writing about Ridley Scott's Alien, I mentioned that I wanted to write about the film's sound design but the entry was already too long. I suppose it's something that can be mentioned now, by way of a somewhat unfair comparison. There's an anxious undercurrent throughout the soundtrack of Alien, all these thumps and hisses and exhalations and pulsing, and there's this cute trick where almost every time the monster is about to appear we start hearing this slow, deliberate heartbeat (and the one time it doesn't happen, late in the film, it's as if the filmmakers knew everyone would be on to the trick by that point). The heartbeat would be too cute a trick, in fact, if it weren't done so subtly that you almost didn't know it was there, and if they didn't start it so long before the alien makes its appearance in a scene and if they didn't let it bridge scene changes after the alien vanishes again, letting it quietly merge into the throb of the Nostromo's machinery much as the monster itself vanishes into the ship's bowels. Martin doesn't have anything like this subtlety--and of course it's an unfair comparison, comparing a movie that had shitloads of money for sound and has had the sound remastered and digitally remastered at great expense several times over the past three decades. But (and remember, I do hold Romero in fairly high regard), I'm also not real sure anyone involved in the sound of Martin ever put that much thought into the sound, then or since. One suspects, given the way it's done, that it was enough to have a woman on the soundtrack saying, "Martin," and to drench her voice in reverb because that's traditional movie shorthand for "voice in his head." Martin may not have had a lot of money budgeted for sound, but even leaving off the reverb might have been, well, less cheesy. It's a little thing, I know, but a lot of times these are the little things that separate a really good or great movie from an okay movie or a bad one at any budget point you care to pick.

Romero says Martin is his favorite of the movies he's made, and I can understand why. It's a scrappy, different, ambitious little movie, and if it doesn't quite work it's not for want of trying. And it surely has sentimental value for him: Martin is the first time Romero was able to work with longtime collaborator and friend Tom Savini and costars Christine Forrest, who became Christine Romero in 1981 and remains Romero's wife and frequent creative partner for nearly thirty years. And it's not a bad little film.

It just isn't an especially great one, either.

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