Among the many reasons why Pittsburgh-based horror icon George A. Romero is unique among his shock-cinema peers is the fact he possesses two equally important directorial personalities. Romero is best known for making over-the-top zombie flicks that are distinguished by witty social satire—and yet he also made a series of quiet horror films, of which Martin is arguably the best. Presenting an offbeat spin on vampire mythology, Martin leads with disturbing psychological aspects, even though it also contains plenty of unpleasant gore. So, while Romero’s Dead movies feature flamboyant allegories about topics including consumerism and government conspiracies, Martin and its ilk tell even creepier stories about the monsters walking the streets of the real world. It’s giving nothing away to say that Martin is actually more of a serial-killer saga than a proper vampire story, and that’s why the movie has the power to get under viewers’ skin. Since we all know what sort of damage the world’s wounded souls can inflict upon innocents, it’s difficult to dismiss Martin by saying, “It’s only a movie.”
The movie opens with a gruesome sequence that’s so methodical it feels relentless. Young everyman Martin (John Amplas) stalks a young woman on a train, subdues her with drugs, strips her naked, and then molests her inert form while slashing her wrists with a straight razor so her blood is a sort of sacrament on their unholy coupling. Yikes. Then Martin arrives in Pittsburgh, where he’s given lodging by an eccentric relative, Cuda (Lincoln Maazel), and Cuda’s granddaughter, Christine (Christine Forrest). Rather than being some benevolent guardian, Cuda is a living incarnation of religious superstition. Descended from a long line of Eastern Europeans, Cuda believes his family is cursed with vampirism, and that Martin is the clan’s current victim. Therefore, Cuda considers it his responsibility to monitor Martin’s nocturnal behavior. Through black-and-white flashbacks, writer-director Romero reveals how Martin’s personality was formed during his upbringing by parents who shared Cuda’s belief system. This creates a fascinating question of whether Martin was naturally inclined toward murder or if the family’s insane lore became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Filled with unsettling images and worrisome notions rather than sharp jolts—with a few notable exceptions—Martin benefits from Romero’s signature grungy aesthetic. The filmmaker’s use of real locations (and real people) ensures that Martin never feels like some slick Hollywood fantasy. Instead, it’s akin to a combination of a newsreel and a nightmare. And if the plotting gets a bit repetitive in the middle, that’s a minor flaw seeing as how Martin is sandwiched by the aforementioned opening scene and a final sequence that’s just as alarming. FYI: As with most of Romero’s work, this picture is not suitable for squeamish viewers, and if Martin catches you in the right frame of mind, it will stay with you in ways that you will not enjoy.