Carl Neville

Carl Neville on George A. Romero’s Martin and 1970s horror films

George Romero’s “Martin”, which was made in 1976, is one of best films of 70s. It’s not just great fora horror film, but a great film by any standard and certainly Romero’s best.

“Martin” is in many respects a quintessentially 70s movie, a complex film in which severalantagonisms are played out, a film which revolves as so much 70’s cinema does around conflictand disillusion. In many respects its an anti-horror movie, or at least attempts a subversion of thetraditional vampire movie. It doesn’t do this in any kind of facile way, like “Love at first bite” aparody vampire comedy that came out around the same time or by emphasising the trashy, campand erotic elements of the vampire legend as in the earlier “Blood for Dracula” but rather throughforcing the vampire movie into a pretty straight social realist frame. In some respects “Martin”is a meditation on the problems of being a Vampire in 70’s America as well as on the problemof adequately representing the vampire in a movie in that unhappy land, and at that particularlyunhappy time.

As has already been noted, in the 70s there is a shift to realism in horror, but also a general shiftwithin the films of the decade, this realism isn’t just in the greater liberty in depictions of sex andviolence but in the way in which films seek to demythologize and expose traditional authorityfigures, icons and institutions. Horror-wise the two most obvious or at least famous examples areprobably “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Exorcist”, maybe we could also include “The Omen”. There’salso an emergent set of low-budget films, now retrospectively tagged with the marketing term“Grindhouse” that starts to develop in the early Seventies too, the two most famous or infamousexamples of which are Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas ChainsawMassacre. The crucial difference here is that The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen believe inthe existence of evil while “Last House on the Left” and “Texas Chainsaw” are more concerned withthe psychopathology of everyday life, whether this is in the form of Manson-family style clans killingfor kicks or backward, backwoods hicks running around with chainsaws.
Martin locates itself between the two, and in many ways enacts a battle between them, both interms of its style and its content. And this is one of the crucial tensions in the film, Martin’s status asa vampire is never really resolved. The film won’t decide on the problem of evil by either opting for areligious, supernatural explanation or by completely psychologising it.

The meaning of Martin, the character, then is something that is effectively fought over by Cuda thetraditional Old World grandfather and his modern, progressive granddaughter who rebels againstthe family mythology. His age, Martin claims to be 84, is the only real manifestation of his non-human status, his only potentially supernatural quality and Romero hangs on to this ambiguity.There’s a sense, in Martin’s profaned world, a world in which there is “no magic any more” that thedirector, having already stripped Martin of all the trappings of the traditional vampire and the film ofmost of the cinematic conventions of the horror movie, is holding out against out-and-out realism, and allowing for a thin thread of fantasy, a thread of hope to survive, an idea which is re-expressedat the very end of the film.
Nausea

In 70’s horror cinema in general, the main affect of films of the era is less one of out-and-out horrorand more one of nausea: a queasiness, a sense of dread.

This affect is produced in a number of ways: partly through budget constraints, the use of 16mmfilm, lots of location shooting, naturalistic lighting. Partly through limited competence, duff acting,poor scripts, unimaginative camerawork, poor sound recording and so on. Also it’s an offshoot ofincreasingly liberal attitudes toward screen sex and violence and the need to constantly up the antein terms of blood and guts, which, combined with advances in make up effects make the gore moreplausible and visceral. The films then partly take on some of the quality of the documentary formand some of the taint of pornography. Deep Throat, the first really mainstream porn movie, was shoton 16mm for instance, (though so was Martin which admittedly dose wonders with the format.)

Commercial pressures, among other things, mean the films become increasingly graphic andmisogynist, culminating in truly grim stuff like William Lustig’s ”Maniac” and Fulci’s “The New YorkRipper” . This is also partly a pressure exerted on them by the fairly unashamed Italian cinema of theseventies whose films push remorselessly more and more toward the real as the decade progresses,from the gratuitous use of autopsy footage in “Superbeast” in 1972, through animal slaughter in theCannibal movies and then the uses of real death (though it is disputed) in the later Mondo Movieslike “Savage Man Savage Beast”, which in turn produces American responses: “ Faces of Death” andthen onto the hyper-exploitative “Traces of Death.”

In lots of ways the mere existence of the films feels kind of sordid and unhealthy, they’re thesymptom of a sick society perhaps, but also that they’ve crossed a line in terms of acceptablerepresentation. The real in some ways must remain sacred and these films effectively exploit thisultimate horror for commercial gain What kind of people would make these films, what kind ofpeople would consume them.

But there is another slightly more artful and interesting way in which they achieve their effects. Thisis most evident in the works of technically really competent stylists like Polanski, Freidkin or indeedRomero, but is even there in films like “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Last House on the Left” andit’s the use of expressionist techniques, low angles, extreme close up, angular framings, buildingslit from below that loom up over the characters and so on. So there is a kind of repression of thefantastic elements within a realist frame, and this kind of knitting of the expressionistic elementsinto an overwhelmingly realist presentation adds to the sense of reality itself being infected in some ways. Any kind of catharsis of horror, the frisson of the uncanny, any potentially liberating makingstrange of the world is trapped and sublimated. So the horror is always there under the surface ofthe films realism, just as these films argue it is under the surface of real life, whether that is in theform of animalistic atavistic human drives or the world of the devil. When you look closely enoughyou see that reality looks like a horror movie. Martin in particular uses this technique a lot especiallyin the series of fantastic shots as Cuda leads him through a seemingly deserted Pittsburgh.
Vampire

Martin, it has to be acknowledged, even by his admirers, is a pretty crap vampire. The traditionalVampire, especially in the form of Dracula (Martin is given the jokey moniker “The Count” on theradio phone in show he gets involved with) is a seductive figure, with his burning eyes, mesmericexoticism and commanding manner, representing a kind of urbane hyper-masculinity. In this sensehe’s an archetypal male fantasy figure, the ruthless seducer whose authority no woman can resistand who makes slaves of all he seduces, thus handily protecting the ego from the fear that shemight run off with someone with a bigger set of fangs. But if Martin, who is weak and cajoling, isfar removed from your standard-issue Prince of Darkness his victims are a long way from beingtraditional fang-fodder too.

The women in “Martin” are in fact rather threatening and there is a strand of wistful anti-feministconservatism in the movie, a part perhaps of Romero’s nostalgia. There are two flashback orfantasy sequences in Martin, one of him being driven out of his previous home, the other an earlierreflection in which the siren song of a willing victim leads a much more confident- seeming Martinup to her bedchamber. There is a nostalgia here for an age when women were more reliably docileand men knew what worked, when the sexual equation between vampire and victim was firmly inthe vampire’s favour. Modern, liberated women need to be forcibly drugged before you can getthem, and even then they fight like hell. Modern women make a vampire’s life much more difficultand so eventually Martin moves on to tramps, who seem a safer option, though even they prove abit too sparky for our increasingly weary hero.
Ruins of America.

“Martin” is of course also fundamentally a vision of America and it’s a country in which everybody isadrift, except perhaps for the grandfather, Cuda.

Mrs Sabatini for example is terminally bored, unhappily married, Martin’s first victim is in transit,heading elsewhere as is he, his second attempted victim is clearly unfaithful, the sympatheticgranddaughter leaves with the unreliable blue collar stiff played by effect’s man Tom Savini, andthough she promises to write back, she never does, leaving Martin with the radio phone in show forcompany. He achieves a limited notoriety, though even that proves finally to be disappointing.

The America of Martin is a kind of post-everything America. Post Kennedy assassination, postVietnam, post Watergate, post Oil Crisis, an America which has repeatedly lost its innocence and itsinfluence and now seems to be in terminal cultural and economic decline. This is the 1970’s as a kindof killing ground for the American dream, a point of maximal disillusion before neoliberalism comesalong and re-enchants everything. There’s a superb sequence in which Martin watches some carsbeing crushed, both of them, the mythical figure of the vampire and the great symbol of Americanfreedom and prosperity contemplating each others’ obsolescence.

So one film it might be instructive to compare Martin to isn’t a horror film at all but John Shlesinger’s“Midnight Cowboy”. In fact “Martin” is a kind of Midnight Vampire. Both films offer up twoimages of a more innocent past adrift in the anomie and chaos of American decline. Both films arereflections of masculine anxieties about what modern women want. One major difference is thatwhile Joe Buck foolishly believes that the traditional image and allure of the cowboy still has sometraction in contemporary America and is brutally disillusioned, Martin himself is a force of disillusion.

There’s a relatively famous sequence, a brilliant pastiche of silent movies, in which Martin stalksCuda through a fog-shrouded Pittsburgh in full vampire regalia, then reveals himself to be just plain-old-Martin underneath, taking out the fangs, smearing the make-up and so on. It’s at this point,interestingly, that Cuda labels Martin a monster, precisely in the act of revealing himself as realand not the fantasy that Cuda’s belief requires. Here again it is the real which is horrifying, sour,deflationary, mocking.
Martin has no belief in himself as a vampire, there is no magic in the world anymore. This is partlyMartin’s purgatory and Americas in the 1970s, the absence of consoling fantasy, the failure of theold myths. It’s impossible to live too close to the real for too long, its monstrous to insist upon it thisis finally why Martin must be destroyed, the real must be erased, covered over, buried and faithmust stand watch over its grave.
The real monster.

This leads on to the question then of who the real monster is in “Martin”. While Martin does someawful things he’s largely a sympathetic character. Fundamentally then its Cuda the grandfatherwho takes Martin in to either save or destroy him, who is the terrifying figure. The man who trulybelieves and who acts without compunction on his belief, the figure of fanatic who won’t bedisillusioned or swayed. The man of faith.

Ultimately its faith that triumphs. The final shot, over which the credits roll, is of a crucifix backed by voices from the radio phone in Martin has participated in. In fact the radio is a kind of vampiricforce in “Martin”, an invisible creature of the night feeding on the pain misery and fantasy of theselost and lonely souls floating through a ruined America. Martin has been involved in the phone infor a while until realises the kind of cynical permissiveness of the host, who tries to get him into thestudio and tells him regarding his vampirism. “whatever gets you through the night”. The future, thefinal shot suggests with uncanny acuity, belongs to these two forces, faith and conservatism and thecynical-permissive aspects of the entertainment industry.
Romero’s own position on this is ambiguous. He appears in the film as a worldly priest who certainlyenjoys a nice glass of wine and who infuriates Cuda with his equivocating over the existence of evilfor example, yet on another level the film is an elegy for a bygone age and a certain form of cinemathat Romero’s own work had made increasingly untenable. It should be remembered here thatRomero’s favourite film is Powell and Pressburger’s high-culture, technicolour confection “The Talesof Hoffman”, a film that’s about as far away from “Dawn of the Dead” as you could possibly get). Butcertainly Romero yearns for a little fairy dust to be sprinkled on American life once again, and thefinal voice on the radio show, which says “ I have a friend who I think is the Count” does suggests akind of continuation of Martin’s legacy, the possibility of a more romantic re-enchantment. In realityof course this re-enchantment was already underway, “Jaws” and “Star Wars” are upon us andReagan and Reaganomics are almost here. So there is a grand reimagining of America, a new kind ofmythic quest already underway as Martin is mourning the decline of the old.

Of course that dream has now also died.

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~ by caryncoleman on November 4, 2010.

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