“One person’s Trash is another person’s Treasure”, but with so much stuff out there how will you ever know which is which? Well, just follow the Raggedyman as he uses his extensive experience of watching practically anything that crosses his path to sieve through the old, the obscure, and the just plain odd so you don’t have to. Take his hand as he leads you through cult classics, underground favourites, forgotten wonders, and new discoveries to let you know if it’s celluloid Trash or hidden Treasure.
Because the Thursday Night Viewing Party people had requested a vampire movie, and I wanted to try out something that was off the beaten track, we ended up watching the 1978 George A. Romero film known both as Martin and, internationally, Wampyr. The first collaboration between the Master of Zombies and the Master of Gore, Tom Savini, Romero had described it as his personal favourite of all the films he made. Thus, I thought we would be in for a classic that, bar a bit of dust from being 40 years old, would go down quite well with people open to unexpected viewing experiences. I was rather wrong.
Things started badly with the opening scene, which is a protracted assault sequence on a train. We knew it was an 18 rated horror, so it was going to have some scenes that went beyond mild-peril, but, even then, it was a pretty “strong” cold opening. On the one hand, seeing a thin, 20-something man break into a woman’s sleeping cabin, injecting her with a sedative, and then trying to hold her down as the drug takes effect whilst telling her he won’t hurt her and how much he cares about her, can be viewed as a parody of the vampire myth. It is the mind-control seduction and false promise of “The Vampires Kiss” removed of all glamour and shot in a neutral and neither exploitative nor erotic manner. But, on the other hand, it’s a protracted and violent sexualised assault that turns into a murder as an establishing sequence. It does manage to evoke a reaction in the audience, which is what was intended, but that if that reaction is “No, this film isn’t for me” then the director only has themselves to blame. At least it establishes what to expect, so when the other assault sequences happen you are prepared for the same tones of realistic violence and downright unpleasantness.
From that opening we then have a lot of shots of Braddock, Pennsylvania, starting at the central station and then slowly, very slowly, heading to the rundown outskirts as the titular Martin (played by John Amplas) walks to his new home. Probably highly emotive and satirical for those watching it then who were into Braddockian development issues in the 70s, but nowhere near as universal as, for example, zombies trying to get into a shopping mall. We are then introduced to the other main characters: Tateh Cuda (Lincoln Maazel), Martin’s uncle who dislikes him intensely and wants to remove his vampiric curse, and Christina (Christine Forrest), Tateh’s daughter who doesn’t believe in Vampires.
The rest of the film is a combination of Martin going around and being a vampire, and Mike Leigh style 70s naturalistic drama. The vampire bits are interesting in their own way, as it’s never made clear if Martin is actually an 84-year-old supernatural creature or a young-adult lunatic. This is heightened by the intercutting of black-and-white footage of one of Martin’s earlier attacks, shot in a classic Hammer Horror romantic style and frequently mirroring what we see in the modern, colour world. Is it him remembering the past or imagining the present? Let the discussions commence!
The rest of it is just Martin bumbling around the modern world whilst feeling out of place, being emotionally shut off, and being surrounded by a lot of normal people, having normal conversations, and doing normal things. Which, let’s be honest, is pretty dull stuff in most people’s cases. Yes, it’s a great juxtaposition in concept, but the result is that no one is detailed enough for you to have an opinion of as all the actors do a, most likely intentional, great job of just being people who are there. There is a bit of a subplot about the local church, but even that fails to go anywhere as the priest is just a realistic priest with realistic concerns doing realistic priest things. This is why The Exorcist doesn’t have half the film taken up with Father Karras quietly writing that week’s sermon in his study.
Gorehounds will also be left feeling cold, even though Tom Savini’s makeup work is as amazing as always. When the blood does get spilt it’s done with his trademark care and attention to detail, but the intention here is also on being realistic and downbeat. Things do look as genuinely painful and unpleasant as you would expect, but it’s not spectacular other than in the very final moments of the film. (If you want a truly magnificent Romero-Savini experience, watch the 1990 version of Night of the Living Dead. One of the few truly great horror remakes).
In the Treasure column, there are multiple attempts at subverting and playing with the various vampire tropes, and the ambiguity of the supernatural elements are maintained through the entire film. These are not easy things to pull off, and that does demonstrate the skills of Romero as both a writer and as a director. You also have to give credit for the abundance of highly naturalistic performances throughout the film. Not one actor is flat, but they have been given characters who are intentionally beige.
The reason that it ends up being Trash is that things are so intentionally muted and unexciting that it ends up feeling plodding and the movie drags along even at its 95 minutes of run time. Everything is theoretically or intellectually interesting, very little is actually stirring other than the assaults. But because those are done in such a violent, drawn-out, and fatalistic manner they shift into being repulsive rather than engaging. It probably worked really well in the late 70s and was new and exciting in its own way. But time has not been kind to Martin, so for all but the most abstracting of viewer this is going to be better left buried.