Reality doesn't bear much resemblance to fantasy. The picture of a luscious, ready and waiting victim Martin has in his mind before he bursts into a train car to claim his inaugural kill of the film is very different from the strong defiant woman attending to her end of the day hygiene routine that he has to wrestle into submission with the aid of a hypodermic needle. And so is George A. Romero's take on vampirism, which is far from the horny super-powered bloodsuckers populating most on-screen depictions of the ultimate mythological manifestation of vanity.
Romero has stated that Martin is his favourite achievement as a writer/director and it's easy to see why. Taking a hard, rational look at the clichés of the vampire myth, Romero constructs a thoughtful character drama that ties themes of alienation and repressed longing to the delusional fear mongering of superstition.
Part of the film's multifaceted charm is that it can read as a grounded horror story or a straight drama about the roles people adopt to extended their confidence and the fictions they create to explain aberrant urges. Martin claims to be eighty-four years old and swears that his highly religious, elderly granduncle, Cuda (who dresses like Colonel Sanders gearing up for a holy crusade), is really his cousin. What Martin is in no way confused about is the fact that he drinks blood, and there's nothing supernatural about it.
"There isn't any magic, it's just a sickness" he states when Cuda, who swears his nephew is Nosferatu, hangs garlic from his door and clutches a cross to repel his clearly disturbed, but oddly calm, relative. To emphasise his point, Martin takes a chomp out of a raw garlic head and rubs the cross on his face. What the religious man sees as hereditary demonic possession mirrors the ritualistic habits of a serial killer.
While he's in pursuit of each new victim, Martin relives his first kill. The apparent setting of these black and white flashbacks can be construed as evidence of the awkward loner's unearthly longevity, but in following the film's frequent nods to subterfuge and the shaping power of stories, its clear that the image of villagers with torches hunting him out while he desperately washes the blood from his face is an exaggeration born of the personal myth he tells himself to justify his dark cravings.
Unable to connect with another human being, Martin feels compelled to orchestrate elaborate intimacy rituals, knocking his prey out with drugs and then cuddling them naked before opening his chosen meat puppet's vein for a plasma snack. Just no "sexy stuff" as Martin calls it when he confides in a local late night talk show, becoming a minor celebrity to listeners in the process. For that, he wants an "awake person," minus the blood. He gets his chance when a dissatisfied housewife hires Martin to "mow her lawn" but like everything in this uncompromising tale, reality is always more complicated.
Once again, Romero was way ahead of the curve in humanizing the fantastic. The way in which Martin approaches stalking his victims and sharing his habits with a disbelieving audience sets a precedent for future "how to act like a movie killer" flick, Behind the Mask. With clean, consistent direction and editing, a sinister but classy score, strong performances of multi-dimensional characters and a sense that every scene is vital to the greater thematic implications of the story, Martin is Romero's masterpiece and remains one of the most intelligent American vampire movies ever made.
Martin screens at 6:30pm on November 1st, 2012 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of the George A. Romero retrospective. On October 31st, 2012 at 7pm, there's also an "In Conversation" session at the TIFF Bell Lightbox with the legendary director himself. (Dabara Films)