Posted by: Trey | 02/04/2016

The Sympathetic Abject in George A. Romero’s Martin

Writer’s note: This is something I originally wrote *mumble mumble* years ago for a class on horror cinema, and it is presented with minimal editing. I don’t normally make a habit of posting online things I have written for academic purposes, but with today being George A. Romero’s birthday I thought it might be nice to share something about my favorite of his films, Martin (1977).

MARTIN - UK Poster

Cinematic vampires are, perhaps even more than other monsters, defined by rules.  These rules dictate all aspects of their monstrous behavior. It is therefore expected in a vampire film that the creature will adhere to the regulations previously established. Vampires drink blood, can only function at night, can possess hypnotic or seductive abilities, and often display a connection to bats and other creatures of the night. They were often (but not always) suave and foreign, as epitomized by Bela Lugosi (Dracula, 1931) and Christopher Lee (Horror of Dracula, 1958). This was the state of the vampire subgenre in the 1970s. The vampire was the mysterious foreign other, whose lust and appetites were an invasion of behaviors and desires repressed by modern society. In George A. Romero’s Martin (1978), the title character subverts virtually every aspect of what is to be expected from a vampire film. While Martin is most certainly a monster, the film refuses to demonize the character or his actions; by complicating the audience’s sympathies the film turns society itself into that which is threatening.

Martin is a film about an outcast. Martin himself is the abject figure of the film.  In Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine, Barbara Creed discusses the abject directly in relation to women in horror films. However, her basic discussion on the nature of the abject, taken partly from Kristeva, is useful in thinking about the character of Martin.

The place of the abject is ‘the place where meaning collapses’ (p. 2), the place where ‘I’ am not. The abject threatens life; it must be ‘radically excluded’ (p. 2) from the place of the living subject, propelled away from the body and deposited on the other side of an imaginary border which separates the self from that which threatens the self.”[1]

Yet the family cannot completely distance itself from Martin for fear of the family curse; if the family defines itself as ‘not like Martin,’ then to destroy him would be to call into question its own identity.

The family is represented by Tada Cuda, his patriarchal uncle, and Christina, his cousin.  Cuda, distinguished by an “Old World” accent, ostracizes Martin and often labels him “nosferatu” rather than using his name. The house is decorated to make Martin as uncomfortable and alien as possible, with garlic and crucifixes hanging from doors and walls. Cuda also hangs bells on Martin’s door so that all will know when he comes and goes. Considering Martin’s lack of traditional vampire characteristics, Cuda is thus shown as the aggressor, going so far as to arrange an exorcism. These supernatural and superstitious tropes, indicative of the traditional vampire film, are all rejected by Martin. He insists repeatedly that “Things only seem to be magic. There is no real magic. There’s no real magic ever.”[2]

However, the film also presents a series of black and white sequences which appear to show Martin longing for just that sort of fantasy to be true. Shot with vaguely period costumes and expressionistic lighting, the scenes depict Martin as a more typical movie vampire, rather than the very amateurish attacks he manages to orchestrate. At one point in the film, Martin stalks Cuda at night while wearing pale makeup, a black cape, and plastic fangs, once again insisting that the magic is fake. It is unclear whether these sequences, combined with his one outing in traditional vampire garb, are meant to show flashbacks, hallucinations, or merely wishful fantasy, but they show that Martin desires such magic, even if it is not real.

To emphasize his marginalized status, Martin is not shown to have a social life or hobbies. He works as a delivery boy at Cuda’s grocery store and frequently calls a late-night talk radio show under the alias “The Count.” It is this separation from society which makes him most like a traditional vampire. His exclusion from the family is linked to his desire for blood. Creed notes the importance of blood as a taboo object which links directly to vampire films.[3] In Martin, the title character’s desire for blood is directly connected to sexuality. Lacking fangs or any of the supernatural powers afforded the typical movie vampire, Martin instead drugs women with a strong sedative, then uses a razor to open their wrists so that he can feed. This much messier, less magical method connects Martin even more directly with the abject blood, as he is covered in it by the time he finishes feeding. It is heavily implied, although not explicitly shown, that he also rapes his victims either before or after drinking their blood. Martin’s vampirism does appear to have rules, although not of the supernatural sort found in most vampire films.  He insists repeatedly the importance of his victims being asleep. Also, the presence of other people, such as his victim’s lover, causes Martin to completely change his plan.  In the two instances of Martin feeding off of men, it is presented as being out of necessity and lacking the sexual energy of his other attacks.

During one of his talk radio sessions, Martin remarks that he doesn’t have any experience with “sexy stuff” with women who are awake. This changes when he begins an affair with an older married woman. His ability to finally separate sex from the taboo desire for blood shows that his desires could be curable. The relationship is still far from the societal norm, however, considering he merely stepped up from murder to adultery. Ultimately Martin’s ability to repress his desire for blood fails when his lover commits suicide, apparently from trying to drink her own blood. This leads to another radio session in which Martin bemoans the inaccuracy of women in vampire movies because “in real life you can’t get people to do what you want them to do.”[4]

It is also this adulterous relationship, along with Martin’s relationship with his uncle Cuda, which show an inversion of the vampire myth. Martin is an outsider, arriving in Pittsburgh from Indianapolis, and he is a virtual prisoner in Cuda’s house, and with the exception of one scene set outside of the home it is Cuda who stalks and intimidates Martin rather than vice versa. The vampire is seduced by the older and more experienced housewife. Also, Martin’s attempts at vampiric activity rarely go as expected; one incident is interrupted by the presence of his victim’s lover, and another is complicated by the police responding to a store’s security alarm. In each case it is the mundane and normal which threaten Martin.

The film’s conclusion highights the conflict between seeing Martin as monster and as victim. Cuda, assuming that Martin had killed his own lover, finally gives in to his Old World impulses and puts a stake through his heart. Up to this point in the film, Cuda’s role amounts to a meditation on the problem of change. As with his relationship to Martin, this is framed in an oppositional way, in that he as an old man is defined against the change brought by younger generations. He refers to his town as a town for old people with traditions rather than new ideas. Killing Martin with a wooden stake is the summation of this philosophy in that it is based entirely on superstition rather than evidence.

Yet in doing so Cuda also removes the abject against which he had positioned himself. As Creed notes, “Although the subject must exclude the abject, it must, nevertheless, be tolerated, for that which threatens to destroy life also helps to define life. Further, the activity of exclusion is necessary to guarantee that the subject take up his/her proper place in relation to the symbolic.”[5] While the film never reveals if Martin is actually supernatural, it is clear he is a murderer. Cuda, in killing Martin, actually embraces the abject, becoming a murderer as well. The consequences of these actions remain unrevealed, although the film ends by showing popular support for “The Count” by way of comments from his listeners on the talk radio show.

In Martin, the abject is both ambiguous and pitiable. Even when attacking, Martin is never physically imposing or particularly threatening, although he is very dangerous. Martin is the monster, but it is the people around him, particularly Cuda, who appear villainous in the film. He does not seek to take over the world or to infect people; he simply wishes to be left alone rather than be persecuted.

The film never answers the question of if he is a “real” vampire, although it never really matters either way. Throughout the film Martin is what he is perceived as; those who see him as a quiet, if odd, young man see him simply as that. Cuda, who decided he was a monster before meeting him, sees only the nosferatu. While Martin gives no clear answers about the character or his true nature, by framing the abject as persecuted (if not entirely sympathetic) the film offers a glimpse at the willingness of society to marginalize outsiders in order to maintain an artificial status quo.

 

 

Endnotes

[1]    Creed, Barbara, “Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine,” Horror, the Film Reader, Ed. Mark Jancovich, Florence, KY: Routledge, 2001, p.69

[2]    Martin, 1977, dir. George Romero, Perf. John Amplas, Lincoln Maazel, Christine Forrest, Anchor Bay Entertainment, DVD, 2000

[3]    Creed, p.71

[4]    Martin, DVD

[5]    Creed, 69

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