Set in a rapidly crumbling steeltown suburb, the story focuses on shy, moody Martin (John Amplas), a teenager of East European descent who may or may not be a vampire. Though he possesses no fangs or supernatural powers and has no aversions to either crucifixes or garlic, Martin is nevertheless compelled to drug pretty young women, slash them with razor blades, and consume their blood. His motivations seem purely psychological — as revealed to a call-in radio talk show where Martin has become an anonymous celebrity — but the notion of a family vampire curse is fostered by Martin’s stoic uncle Cuda (Lincoln Maazel), who is convinced that he must destroy the boy by hammering a stake through his heart.
John Amplas is hauntingly brilliant throughout. The first scene he is featured in is Amplas attacking an unsuspecting woman in a train carriage. It is the boyish good looks and dashing hairstyle that gives him the appearance of a rather feeble man. It is what he does once in the carriage that really makes it shocking. In an attempt to overpower the woman he uses a sedative and tries to restrain her while the effects take hold. A couple of times Martin is nearly overpowered himself as he is so skinny and weak and the woman’s furious lashing out shows just how pathetic he is. As she begins to fall asleep Amplas imparts “Don’t worry, I’m very good with needles. I don’t want to hurt you.” This admission would frighten anyone in that circumstance. He says it in an attempt to pacify her until the drugs kick in but her eyes tell the truth: they are filled with terror as her body fails her.
In one of the more gory moments of the film, Martin slashes one of her wrists and allows the blood to pour over him as he begins to drink it. This opening scene shows the character perfectly. He is too cowardly to attack women so uses tactics like drugging them. Even then, he still struggles and is almost pleading with them to calm down. Other scenes, featuring him attacking people, highlight his pathetic actions further.
The gore is not as noteworthy as Romero’s other, better known works but it is still effective. The initial scene of Martin attacking whilst in a train is wince-including as the red stuff pours onto his face and into his open mouth. The use of a straight razor-blade as his preferred weapon of choice is simple yet horrific enough to make it to be feared. In one instance he stages the murder scene to appear as if it were a suicide by leaving sleeping tablets and plenty of blades lying around.
The violence is never over the top or ‘in your face’. It is simple slashes of razors or syringes being slammed into someones arm, this allows one scene, when Martin invades a woman’s home only to discover she has a mystery lover with her, to contrast perfectly with the rest of the movie. Martin has no choice but to become violent and to lash out as he has to battle with the poor woman and her confused lover. It is the only real, aggressive blood-letting scene in the film. Also this was the first film that Romero worked with former war-photographer Tom Savini – a now iconic partnership.
Martin may be a vampire film but the plot is not typical of the genre. Martin is feeble, timid and immature, the opposite of how vampires are often portrayed as sophisticated, cunning and even sexy. ‘Flashbacks’ to Martin’s apparent early life as a bloodsucker are shown in black and white (although Romero wanted the whole movie this way) to imply that he has been doing ‘this’ for a long time. During one conversation he eagerly tells someone “Oh, I’m old… 84!” when asked his age.
While advanced years and retaining youthful looks are typical of the genre, this causes some doubt to emerge about who Martin really is. Lincoln Maazel, as Uncle Cuda, is the one who repeatedly tells Martin he is a vampire and needs to be saved. However, Christina (Christine Forrest aka Mrs. Romero) reveals that there is a history of mental health issues in the family and it may be Cuda (with his obsession that Martin is evil) who is the real danger. This creates doubts as to whether Martin is a vampire or has he perhaps been brainwashed into thinking so by an overpowering closet nutjob? The naivety displayed by Amplas takes on a new meaning when examined in light of this plot device.
Overall, the movie starts off a vampire film, heads into slasher territory and ends up as something much more rewarding and thought provoking. While Romero earns legions of fans with the likes of Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, it is Martin that shows he can create unique and original ideas without the aide of zombies. It is Romero’s favourite film that he directed, high praise indeed.
Arrow Video have lived up to their reputation for fine extra’s. The movie can be viewed in 4:3 or 16:9 ratios, on disc 1, as well as the European ‘Wampyr’, disc 2, release that has an Italian dub but English subtitles. More interesting is the Goblin created soundtrack for ‘Wampyr’. Further extra’s are a 10 minute feature called ‘Making Martin’ with Romero, Savini and more recounting the history of the film. Plus a 23 minute Romero documentary that sounds to be in German but has English subtitles.
The physical DVD itself comes with the trademark Arrow Video white slipcase, 4 different covers, a huge double sided poster, booklet AND a pack of art cards. Enough to make any fan happy.
SCORE: 9 out of 10!
About James Simpson
A freelance writer and lover of movies, James is a long term contributor to UK Horror Scene. He has a regular feature on UKHS, World of Horror, as well as reviewing and interviewing when he can. He also writes for Gore Splattered Corner and Space Monsters Magazine. He has previously written for Scream Magazine and Zombie Hamster. Twitter: @JSimpsonWriter