I spent New Year's Eve, as I often do, at the home of the lovely ms_siobhan and planet_andy. Upon my arrival, chief cocktail-maker-in-residence planet_andy fixed me a Vampire, while ms_siobhan stuffed some innocent field mushrooms with a mixture of leek, onions, breadcrumbs and stilton. She was nervous about how this would turn out, but she needn't have been - it was delicious, as was the dessert of torn-up panettone, cherries soaked in kirsch, and brandy cream which followed. It was all very festive, and washed down very nicely with port served in shot glasses shaped like two back-to-back skulls - a sort of Gothic version of Janus, the evening's presiding deity.
Once we had eaten, we got down to the serious business of watching vintage horror films, timing the evening to perfection so that we could fit in one before midnight and one afterwards. We began with George A. Romero's Martin, which is essentially a vampire film, but works as a deconstruction of the genre, and in my view does that really really well. The central conceit is that we never know whether the main character, Martin, is a 'real' vampire or not. He thinks he is, and so does the elderly cousin, Tateh Cuda, with whom he goes to stay in a depressed American industrial town. But he doesn't match up to the classic movie-vampire template. He claims to be 84 years old (rather than the 20-something he appears), that the sun bothers his eyes sometimes, and that he gets 'shaky' about once a month and needs to drink blood to abate it. But none of the traditional vampire repellents (garlic, crosses, etc.) affect him, he can walk around quite happily by day, he can't hypnotise people, he doesn't have super-human strength and he doesn't have fangs. Instead, he has to drug his victims using syringes full of narcotics before he can slit their wrists with a razor-blade and drink their blood.
Establishing all of this allows Romero to go to all sorts of interesting places. One fairly straightforward one, as I've already said, is the deconstruction of vampire story conventions. They've always been popular, but the 1960s and '70s had seen an absolute explosion in vampire films (with Hammer leading the charge, of course), so they must have seemed very ripe for pulling to pieces by the time this one was made. Within the film, Martin's blood-drinking activities are shot with brutal realism, contrasting starkly with the romantic / sexual overtones of most near-contemporary vampire films. Before they happen, we see his victims going about their daily business: catching trains, doing the shopping, sleeping rough or whatever it is. These are not the highly-fictionalised period travellers or ladies in diaphanous nighties of Hammer's films, but very real, ordinary people just like us. And the attacks themselves almost never go smoothly, so that Martin's victims have ample time to undergo the horrible experience of finding a stranger in their train compartment or house, begging him not to hurt them, finding themselves stabbed with a syringe of some unknown substance which takes a while to work, trying to fight Martin off or call for help and finally slipping into unconsciousness despite their own desperate attempts to remain awake. No punches are pulled about the way he then goes on to slit their veins, drink their blood or (if they are female) sexually abuse them as well.
In stark contrast to all this stand a series of fantasy and / or flashback sequences, which unlike the rest of the film are shot in grainy black and white. The first one is fairly clearly signalled as a fantasy, since it shows a woman whose train compartment Martin is about to burst into welcoming him knowingly and seductively - a vision which is then shattered by the 'real' attack, in which he instead catches her emerging oblivious from the bathroom with a face-mask on, and she greets him with a terrified scream. But after this, we only ever see what appear to be flashbacks to some earlier event in Martin's life. Here, he chases though a large Gothic-looking house after a young girl who keeps calling his name, catches up with her in a bedroom where she welcomes him with open arms, and then finds himself in a bathroom surrounded by religious types with candles, pitchforks and crosses who have come to read an exorcism rite over him. We never know whether any of this really happened or not - although I think the fact that the first scene we see shot in the same style (the woman on the train) is very definitely a fantasy is a pretty strong steer towards 'not'. But the black-and-white scenes definitely do ask us to think about the difference between traditional Gothic fantasy vampire stories, whose conventions they follow, and the rest of the film, which eschews and scorns the same conventions.
Meanwhile, there is a lot of stuff in the dialogue too about vampire mythology vs. reality, which is played out especially by contrasting Martin with his elderly cousin, Tateh Cuda. Cuda believes utterly in the traditional mythology of the vampire, telling Martin that he intends first to save his soul, and then to destroy him. He calls Martin 'nosferatu', waves crosses at him, puts garlic up in the house and calls an elderly priest in to exorcise him. Unable to talk to Cuda about his real experiences, Martin instead becomes a regular caller to a local night-time radio chat-show, where he says a lot about how the 'reality' of his condition differs from the movies - but is in his turn treated as a 'celebrity figure' by the audience, who begin to build their own myths around him. He also taunts Tateh Cuda by dressing up in a cheap fancy dress vampire costume and leaping out at him in the dark, only to burst into laughter, spit out his fake fangs and point out that it's only a costume and that there isn't any real magic.
Yet of course at the same time the very mythology vs. reality dichotomy which the film is setting up around Martin is quite deliberately false anyway. We all know perfectly well as we watch it that vampires aren't real, so by deconstructing traditional vampire mythology even while claiming to tell the story of a 'real' vampire, the film becomes meta-referential, signalling its own identity as a narrative and forcing us to think about how films work and what 'reality' even means in this context anyway. That is powerful stuff, and I think is what has made me keep returning to the film on a regular basis ever since I first watched it as a teenager. In a way, it means that Martin can't exactly be called 'a very good vampire film', because the meta-referentiality takes it out of that category, turning it into a commentary on vampire films (and wider mythology) instead. But it is certainly a very good film - though one which other horror film fans seem to know of or talk about much less than I think it deserves.
It also uses Martin's condition, and his family's reaction to it, as a metaphor for family responses to various types of more prosaic misfits. Tateh Cuda speaks of vampirism as the 'shame of the family' and the 'family curse' - something which must be looked out for in new babies, hidden from outsiders and dealt with within the family, just as many families have traditionally dealt with mental illness, disabilities etc. in cultures where there was no other source of help available. Indeed, this is made more powerful by the fact that we never 'know' whether Martin is really a vampire or not. One obvious way of reading the story is to understand that he literally is mentally ill, and that it is only his own relatives' deluded belief that vampirism runs in the family which makes him believe that he is affected by it and needs to attack people and drink their blood on a regular basis.
Certainly, Martin is characterised as socially awkward, especially with new people, often taking ages before he says anything in response to their conversation, and displaying a disarming naivety and bluntness when he does finally speak. For some of the characters, this is a positive bonus, since he comes across as a sympathetic listener to whom they can pour out their own issues, and who offers the same sort of simple, unadorned truths in response as a child might. One character in particular, Mrs. Santini, a bored married woman to whom Martin delivers groceries from Tateh Cuda's shop, even grows fond of him and begins an affair with him - something which he finds strange at first, but which begins to change him as he responds to the human contact with her. Hovering over the whole film, but implicit in this trajectory in particular, is the tragic notion that Martin's problems have been largely or entirely created by his family's very fear that he would have problems, and that he could have led a happy and harmless life if he had simply been treated from the start like a normal human being rather than a freak.
Meanwhile, the film is also a very beautiful portrait of a depressed American industrial town in the late '70s. It is full of people trying to find their escape - Martin into his own version of vampirism, Tateh Cuda into rigid religious beliefs, Christina (Tateh Cuda's granddaughter) into the car of a boyfriend whom she doesn't like but is using as a way out, the local gangs into beer and drugs, bored housewives into affairs and Mrs. Santini ultimately into a bath and a packet of razor blades. We get a lot of shots of Martin walking around the town during the day, against backdrops of scrap merchants and suburban housing, or watching at night as the local motorcycle gang rev up their machines in the street behind Tateh Cuda's house. And the radio show which Martin phones in to gives us the voices of these people, eager for the excitement of a 'real life vampire' in their town.
I don't normally subscribe to the notion that knowing the plot of a film before you see it 'spoils' it, but for once the ending of this one is which is very much worth experiencing unspoiled if you can, because it carries a shock effect which works very well as a troubling climax to the whole set of questions that the film has been exploring about fantastical vampire mythology at one end of the reality spectrum and mental illness and family relations at the other. So stop reading now if you haven't seen this film and ever plan to. But if you've seen it, or don't think you're likely to, then we can talk about the ending, in which Tateh Cuda finds out that Mrs. Santini has committed suicide, assumes that in fact Martin attacked and killed her, and concludes that he cannot save Martin's soul after all. So one morning Martin awakes to find Tateh Cuda leaning over him with a wooden stake, and now it is his turn for some brutal killing. Martin dies, very horribly and graphically, as Cuda drives the stake into his heart, after which the closing credits roll over footage of Cuda burying the body in his back garden accompanied by a soundtrack of voices on the local radio show wondering what might have happened to 'The Count'.
And because all those questions throughout the film have been posed but never answered, again we don't really know what we're seeing here. A genuine vampire being destroyed? Or a person with mental illness, who could have been helped, finally and fatally succumbing to the delusions of his own family? What we do know is that although Tateh Cuda believes he is morally in the right and has God on his side, he is in fact very definitely wrong about Martin killing Mrs. Santini, and is also no better than Martin at his worst in according himself the right to take another person's life in a brutal and arbitrary fashion. The moral resolution of a traditional vampire film, in which Good and Evil are easily to distinguish and we can feel reassured that Good has triumphed over Evil, is utterly overturned, leaving us asking whether anything is ever that simple. Don't get me wrong - I love the traditional vampire stories too, as is blindingly obvious from my recent Dracula reviews! But I'm very glad that this film is there too, to deconstruct them and question their simple dichotomies.
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