Sunday, 31 October 2010

When I'm 84...

George Romero’s “Martin”, which was made in 1976, is one of best films of 70s. It’s not just great for a 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 several antagonisms are played out, a film which revolves, as so much 70s' cinema does, around conflict and disillusion. In many respects its an anti-horror movie, or at least attempts a subversion of the traditional vampire movie. It doesn’t do this in any kind of facile way, like “Love at first bite” a parody vampire comedy that came out around the same time or by emphasising the trashy, camp and erotic elements of the vampire legend as in the earlier “Blood for Dracula” but rather through forcing 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 problem of adequately representing the vampire in a movie in that unhappy land, and at that particularly unhappy time.

As has already been noted, in the 70s there is a shift to realism in horror, but also a general shift within the films of the decade, this realism isn’t just in the greater liberty in depictions of sex and violence but in the way in which films seek to demythologize and expose traditional authority figures, icons and institutions. Horror-wise the two most obvious or at least famous examples are probably “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Exorcist”, maybe we could also include “The Omen”. There’s also 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 infamous examples of which are Wes Craven’s "Last House on the Left" and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The crucial difference here is that "The Exorcist", "Rosemary’s Baby" and "The Omen" believe in the existence of evil while “Last House on the Left” and “Texas Chainsaw” are more concerned with the psychopathology of everyday life, whether this is in the form of Manson-family style clans killing for 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 in terms of its style and its content. And this is one of the crucial tensions in the film, Martin’s status as a vampire is never really resolved. The film won’t decide on the problem of evil by either opting for a religious, supernatural explanation or by completely psychologising it.

The meaning of Martin, the character, then is something that is effectively fought over by Cuda the traditional Old World grandfather and his modern, progressive granddaughter who rebels against the 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 the director, having already stripped Martin of all the trappings of the traditional vampire and the film of most 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-expressed at the very end of the film.

In 70s' horror cinema in general, the main affect of films of the era is less one of out-and-out horror and 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 16mm film, 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 of increasingly liberal attitudes toward screen sex and violence and the need to constantly up the ante in terms of blood and guts, which, combined with advances in make up effects make the gore more plausible and visceral. The films then partly take on some of the quality of the documentary form and some of the taint of pornography. "Deep Throat", the first really mainstream porn movie, was shot on 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 and misogynist, culminating in truly grim stuff like William Lustig’s ”Maniac” and Fulci’s “The New York Ripper” . This is also partly a pressure exerted on them by the fairly unashamed Italian cinema of the seventies 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 the Cannibal movies and then the uses of real death (though it is disputed) in the later Mondo Movies like “Savage Man Savage Beast”, which in turn produces American responses: “ Faces of Death” and then 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 the symptom of a sick society perhaps, but also that they’ve crossed a line in terms of acceptable representation. The real in some ways must remain sacred and these films effectively exploit this ultimate horror for commercial gain What kind of people would make these films, what kind of people would consume them.

But there is another slightly more artful and interesting way in which they achieve their effects. This is most evident in the works of technically really competent stylists like Polanski, Freidkin or indeed Romero, but is even there in films like “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Last House on the Left” and it’s the use of expressionist techniques, low angles, extreme close up, angular framings, buildings lit from below that loom up over the characters and so on. So there is a kind of repression of the fantastic elements within a realist frame, and this kind of knitting of the expressionistic elements into 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 making strange of the world is trapped and sublimated. So the horror is always there under the surface of the films realism, just as these films argue it is under the surface of real life, whether that is in the form of animalistic atavistic human drives or the world of the devil. When you look closely enough you see that reality looks like a horror movie. Martin in particular uses this technique a lot especially in the series of fantastic shots as Cuda leads him through a seemingly deserted Pittsburgh.

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

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

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

Mrs Sabatini for example is terminally bored, unhappily married, suicidal. Martin’s first victim is in transit, heading elsewhere as is he, his second attempted victim is clearly unfaithful, the sympathetic granddaughter leaves with the unreliable blue collar stiff played by effect’s man Tom Savini, and though she promises to write back, she never does, leaving Martin with the radio phone in show for company. 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, post Vietnam, post Watergate, post Oil Crisis, an America which has repeatedly lost its innocence and its influence and now seems to be in terminal cultural and economic decline. This is the 1970’s as a kind of killing ground for the American dream, a point of maximal disillusion before neoliberalism comes along and re-enchants everything. There’s a superb sequence in which Martin watches some cars being crushed, both of them, the mythical figure of the vampire and the great symbol of American freedom 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 two images of a more innocent past adrift in the anomie and chaos of American decline. Both films are reflections of masculine anxieties about what modern women want. One major difference is that while Joe Buck foolishly believes that the traditional image and allure of the cowboy still has some traction 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 stalks Cuda 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 real and 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 partly Martin’s purgatory and Americas in the 1970s, the absence of consoling fantasy, the failure of the old myths. It’s impossible to live too close to the real for too long, its monstrous to insist upon it this is finally why Martin must be destroyed, the real must be erased, covered over, buried and faith must 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 some awful things he’s largely a sympathetic character. Fundamentally then its Cuda the grandfather who takes Martin in to either save or destroy him, who is the terrifying figure. The man who truly believes and who acts without compunction on his belief, the figure of fanatic who won’t be disillusioned 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 vampiric force in “Martin”, an invisible creature of the night feeding on the pain misery and fantasy of these lost and lonely souls floating through a ruined America. Martin has been involved in the phone in for a while until realises the kind of cynical permissiveness of the host, who tries to get him into the studio and tells him regarding his vampirism. “whatever gets you through the night”. The future, the final shot suggests with uncanny acuity, belongs to these two forces, faith and conservatism and the cynical-permissive aspects of the entertainment industry.

Romero’s own position on this is ambiguous. He appears in the film as a worldly priest who certainly enjoys a nice glass of wine and who infuriates Cuda with his equivocating over the existence of evil for example, yet on another level the film is an elegy for a bygone age and a certain form of cinema that Romero’s own work had made increasingly untenable. It should be remembered here that Romero’s favourite film is Powell and Pressburger’s high-culture, technicolour confection “The Tales of Hoffman”, a film that’s about as far away from “Dawn of the Dead” as you could possibly get). But certainly Romero yearns for a little fairy dust to be sprinkled on American life once again, and the final voice on the radio show, which says “ I have a friend who I think is the Count” does suggests a kind of continuation of Martin’s legacy, the possibility of a more romantic re-enchantment. In reality of course this re-enchantment was already underway, “Jaws” and “Star Wars” are upon us and Reagan and Reaganomics are almost here. So there is a grand reimagining of America, a new kind of mythic quest already underway as Martin is mourning the decline of the old.
Of course that dream has now also died.


David K Wayne said...

Martin! Was talking about that last night (vampire movies come up at Halloween) - and considering doing a similar post. Definitely Romero's masterpiece. Good stuff!

There's a whole swathe of early 70s American 'urban' movies - that took adavantage of eased censorship - unjustly forgotten (apart from the ridiculously overrated Scorcese). The whole image of the city suddenly 'sanitised' by the 80s (or of course used as fodder for avenging angels).

Have you seen Hal Ashby's 'The Landlord'? I've yet to meet anyone who's even heard of it, but it's attitude to race, class and sex is very 'un-American' (ie. more 'true to life'). Why the f**k don't they show this stuff on TV anymore?

Niall said...

Very asture, the juxtaposition of Martin, Midnight Cowboy and the choice facing American Society between the Cowboy myth and its alternatives. In the electing of Reagan and later GWB the "traction" of the cowboy myth is evidenced and dramatic forms continue to seek new formulations of the question of whether American society wants to face up to a complicated and ambiguous reality or seek refuge in a simple myth. Arguably [and perhaps obviously] it was in Westerns that the question was first posed. John Ford's major westerns for instance are riddled with amibiguities about good V evil, means v ends, myth v reality.