Martin is a 1978 psychological horror film written and directed by George A. Romero. While Romero is best known for his Dead movies (of which the first, Night of the Living Dead, I wrote up an analysis), Martin was his avowed favourite.
Martin Mathias (John Amplas) is a vampire…or is he? He lacks the fangs, using razor blades to cut the wounds from which he drinks the blood. Sunlight bothers his eyes a little, and neither crucifixes nor garlic have any effect on him.
Still, he insists that he needs to drink blood; he also maintains that he’s eighty-four years old, though he looks like a teen, or at the oldest, a man in his mid-to-late twenties (i.e., Amplas’s age at the time of shooting the film). Finally, his “cousin”?/great-uncle, Tateh Cuda (Lincoln Maazel), following the superstitions of the family, is as convinced that Martin is a vampire as he is.
So, is he a vampire, or a madman driven to such extreme thinking by an emotionally abusive family, itself driven to madness by religious superstition? I’m convinced of the latter…in fact, Romero himself, in the commentary on my DVD of the film, attested to the latter interpretation.
So the film should be seen as a sardonic, modern take on the vampire genre. Indeed, Romero films are known for their critical social commentary, and there’s plenty of such satirizing in this movie.
Here are some quotes:
“Things only seem to be magic. There is no real magic. There’s no real magic, ever.” –Martin
“Do you believe God’s whole world runs by the laws of the few sciences we have been able to discover? Oh, no, Christina, there is more. But people are satisfied. They know so much, they think they know all. And that makes it easy for Nosferatu. That makes it easy for all the devils.” –Cuda
“When I see people together, they don’t talk. Not really. They don’t say what they mean.” –Martin, to Radio Talk Show Host
“In real life, in real life you can’t get people to do what you want them to do.” –Martin, to Radio Talk Show Host
“I don’t suppose it’s sacrilege to say the wine at St Vincent’s is putrid.” –Father Howard
“I can’t have kids. I can never have kids. I have something wrong inside. I don’t know, what do you think? Is that good for me, bad for me? No opinion? That’s why you’re so nice to have around, Martin. You don’t have opinions.” –Mrs. Santini
“People always go away so they can forget where they were.” –Martin
Mrs. Santini: Boy, do I wish what you had was catching.
Martin: Some people think it is catching. In the movies it’s catching.
Radio Talk Show Host: Live for yourself! Whatever it takes to get through the night. Right, Count?
Martin: Are you making fun of me?
“You may come and go, but you will not take people from the city. If I hear of it, a single time, I will destroy you without salvation.” –Cuda
I am drawn to this film for two reasons: first, my original name is Martin; second, I know the feeling of being driven to near-madness by a family of emotional abusers, so I can identify with Martin, in spite of the awful things he does, especially to his female victims.
As far as horror films go, Martin is a rather eccentric one. The whole story has more of a sad tone to it than a chilling one. There’s an overwhelming feeling of alienation and social isolation, as Martin lives in a dull, small town in the house of a dysfunctional family.
He has been subjected to gaslighting his whole life with this nonsense that he’s a vampire; and he has internalized the belief to the point that he has a craving for blood. Black-and-white sequences in the film are generally supposed to represent memories from his remote past, back when this ‘octogenarian’ was young, presumably back in the 1910s.
There are two problems with the idea that these sequences are real memories. First, there’s the first of them, at the beginning of the movie, when he’s about to attack his first victim, a pretty brunette on a train. The black-and-white part shows her, not a woman from a distant memory; and she welcomes him with open arms, as if he were a desired lover, instead of the “Freak, rapist asshole” he really is. It isn’t a memory; it’s wish-fulfillment, as is the case of a black-and-white sequence later on (i.e, just before the scene with the second rape victim, the woman cheating on her husband), in which another pretty girl calls out “Martin,” as if she wants him, rather than being terrified of him; again, this must be wish-fulfillment. These two sequences at least suggest that all of them are mere fantasies.
Second, there are technical issues affecting the believability of the other black-and-white sequences. For example, the ornate interior design of certain homes suggests a time at least close to the Victorian era, hence my conclusion that they’re meant to be memories of about sixty years before the time of the film; yet we tend to see 1970s hairstyles. Also, during an old exorcism scene, the priest’s Latin occasionally seems ungrammatical: “in nomine patris, et filii, spiritus et sancti“? I don’t consider these to be technical oversights on Romero’s part; the horror master deserves higher regard than that, even with the limited budget he had when shooting. I don’t think this would have been his favourite film if these ‘errors’ had been unintended. Instead, the errors are Martin’s, in the limits of his imagination.
I’m convinced that these ‘memories’ are just a madman’s delusions, his dissociating.
As inexcusable as is Martin’s sedating of women and taking advantage of them while they’re unconscious, though, the real villain of this movie is Cuda. The old man’s scapegoating of the boy as one having “the family shame,” as one being the ‘identified patient,’ is emotional abuse of the worst kind.
Cuda, first seen in his white suit, a costume of fake innocence, represents the narcissist who, identifying with the holiness of the Church, fancies himself a good Catholic. His condemning, threatening attitude towards Martin is a projection of his own inner evil onto the boy, and through projective identification, Martin introjects and assumes that evil, then tries to rid himself of it by putting it into his female victims, then internalizing their goodness through feeding on their blood.
Cuda would rather call Martin “Nosferatu” than by his real name; he thus denies the reality of Martin’s human existence, and replaces it with one he’d rather project onto the boy. He says he’ll save Martin’s soul, but after that, he’ll still “destroy” the boy, saying so with a smirk; the sadist clearly enjoys threatening and tormenting Martin.
Consider the two men’s names to see how Romero subverts and inverts the vampire genre. Martin Mathias has the names of two Christian saints, while Tateh Cuda’s first and last names respectively seem like a near anagram of teeth and a pun on the last two syllables of Dracula. In fact, ‘Tateh Cuda,’ said quickly with the ts gently tapped with the tongue, almost sounds like a garbled version of Dracula, spoken with a thick European accent. By their very names, sinner and saint have swapped roles.
Martin’s meekness suggests the good, almost saintly man he could have been, had he not been so brutally psychologically abused by his family. Indeed, one may wonder if he has murdered his immediate family in Indianapolis, in a desperate attempt to stop them from tormenting him; is he on the lam to Pittsburgh, then to Braddock (and does Cuda know this)? Instead of being an innocent boy, though, he’s a rapist.
Martin defies Cuda’s superstitious nonsense again and again, even making fun of it by dressing up in a Dracula costume (with fake teeth) one spooky night outside, when Cuda’s been walking about alone, looking for him. Martin (<<<!) Luther once said that, laughing at the Devil, one can defeat him through God. So when costumed Martin is laughing at trembling Cuda–the old man shaking his useless crucifix at the boy, hitting him with his cane, and calling him the Devil–we know who the real Devil is.
This projective and introjective identification that Martin and Cuda–and the superstitious members of their family, by extension–undergo, this swapping of the roles of sinner and saint, is the essence of the tragedy that is this story, the tragic effects of the abuse of religion in the service of narcissists like Cuda. Cuda demonizes Martin because this is the only way the old fool can feel like a righteous man.
Even more tragically, Martin must pass the abusiveness he’s been subjected to onto others, the projective and introjective trading of identities, for this is the only exorcism that seems effective for him. He is too shy to do “the sexy stuff” with conscious women, so he injects a sedative into them (using phallic syringes) to project his shy passivity into them. Then, after having his way with them (e.g., the woman on the train), he feeds on their blood so he can internalize their goodness.
His slicing open of their skin with razor blades to gain access to their blood, a projection of his inner hostility into them, then feeding on their blood, an introjection of their goodness, is like a grisly version of Wilfred Bion‘s concept of the container and contained. Normally, a mother contains her distressed baby’s fears, anxieties, and hostilities; she does so in a kind, loving, empathic state that Bion called reverie, which involves absorbing the baby’s distressed state, transforming this negative energy into a positive form, then sending this positive form back to the baby so it can feel at peace. Martin, having come from such an abusive family, never properly received this reverie as an infant, so now he tries to simulate it through these women-as-mother-substitutes, their passive unconsciousness being symbolic of this reverie.
The turning point of the movie is when he meets Mrs. Santini: another near anagram…of Satanic? She is, indeed, a temptress, though in Romero’s subverted sense of being bad in a good way. Up until his meeting of her, he is a total loner; he doesn’t want to socialize with neighbours, and he takes a while to warm up to Christina, who despises Cuda’s religious fanaticism and wants to help the boy.
Santini’s sexual advances, however, really open him up…after a brief, shy resistance to her. He actually makes love with her while she’s awake. He even goes, for a while, without blood, for we see what he has really needed: human connection, for which the blood has been a symbolic substitute. As his new lover, she gives him that reverie, that containing of his emotional turmoil and transforming it into love that’s then returned to him. In what we can only assume to be an unhappy marriage, she–by committing adultery with him–needs that human connection, too.
Her initiation of the sexual relationship–a needed sex role reversal, for this movie is all about role reversals: sinner and saint, good and evil, aggressive and passive, projection and introjection–shows shy Martin that he needn’t dominate women to be close with them. Santini has the potential to cure him of his ‘vampirism.’
Old habits die hard, though, and his thirst for blood is growing, so he attacks and feeds on some derelicts, then barely eludes the police; as we can see, his relationship with Santini isn’t enough to cure his or her alienation.
Indeed, alienation is everywhere in this lonely town, which “is finished.” Christina and her boyfriend, Arthur (Tom Savini, who also did the bloody effects), bicker on the telephone. Martin discusses his ‘vampirism’ with a local radio talk show host who, while grateful to Martin for getting a bunch of enthusiastic new listeners, makes fun of “The Count”; indeed, the only way Martin can be popular is if he’s also laughed at. One of Cuda’s customers, a grouchy old woman, growls at Martin, calling him “a lazy boy.”
Santini isn’t the only adulteress in the movie: the second woman we see Martin drug and rape is one whose affair he interrupts–the most tense scene in the whole movie, in my opinion. As he’s eyeing her outside a shopping area and planning how he’ll get her, a group of young men are catcalling her…though he is a sexual predator far more dangerous than they could ever be.
Cuda alienates almost everyone. Christina finds him so intolerable, she leaves home with Arthur. Cuda’s religious extremism even makes the local priest, Father Howard (played by Romero himself), feel awkward, for the old man finds him too ‘modern’ in his thinking to be a real Catholic.
Santini, a church-going Catholic, weeps after her sex with Martin. When she assures him she won’t get pregnant, she says something’s wrong with her, inside: she seems to mean more than just sterility. She adores his sweetness, wishing she could have some of it. Guilt over adultery is, presumably, her motive for suicide…by slashing her arms with a razor blade!
Cuda seems to know razors are Martin’s weapon of choice for feeding on victims, so he refuses to believe her death was a suicide. He hammers a phallic wooden stake into Martin’s chest. The ‘good Catholic’ is a murderer, having killed the boy for the one time he actually didn’t use his razors on someone. Tragic irony.
Just as Martin’s victims are unconscious when he rapes and feeds on them, so is he asleep when Cuda stands over him with the stake, a symbol–as are Martin’s razor blades, syringes and raping phallus–of a kind of negative version of Bion‘s ‘contained‘ element (see Bion, pages 97-99), which is projected into the negative ‘container‘ element (symbolized by the yoni, the holes that the blades and needles are stuck into, and Martin’s bloody chest wound). Cuda projects his evil into Martin, right up to his death, rationalizing the murder by imagining he’s preventing more murders, and punishing Martin for a killing he didn’t even commit. More tragic irony.
Martin tries to escape from Indianapolis, in a hope of forgetting where he’s been; but he can’t escape the emotional abuse of his family in the form of its real evil–Cuda. He, indeed, is destroyed without salvation.
As with other horror movies/books I’ve done analyses of, in this one there’s the conspicuous absence of God, or goodness. While Martin also, as I’ve argued, lacks devils, for there is no real magic, it doesn’t lack evil. As Father Howard noted, the wine in his church is putrid.