Welcome back to Let’s Scare Bryan to Death, where this month we’re chatting with writer and podcast host Gena Radcliffe. As one half of the Kill by Kill podcast with co-host Patrick Hamilton, Radcliffe pokes fun at slasher tropes while also giving due to the characters so often forgotten in some of our favorite franchises (for a touch of sophistication, also be sure to check out their side project Dish by Dish, where they dive into episodes of Hannibal). You can also find Radcliffe over at The Spool, where she writes about horror and a vast array of other pop culture, including music, film, and television.
Radcliffe’s selection for this month takes us to Western Pennsylvania to spend some time with the late, great, George A. Romero. But rather than spending time with hordes of the undead, we’re getting to know the world’s saddest vampire in the 1978 psychological horror film Martin. The titular Martin Mathias (John Amplas) believes himself to be a vampire, but other than a craving for blood and a claim that he’s decades older than he appears, Martin dismisses the supernatural elements about vampirism as his quest for blood seems much more in line with that of a serial killer. This puts him at odds with his aging cousin Tateh Cuda (Lincoln Maazel), whose strict Catholic faith frames Martin as a classic nosferatu to be warded off with crosses, garlic, and wooden stakes.
There’s a lot to unpack in this bleak vampire yarn from Mr. Romero (and as always expect plenty of spoilers), but before we dig into that, Gena, can you talk a little bit about the first time you watched Martin?
I want to say that I caught it randomly some late night when I was in my teens, but I honestly can’t remember for sure. I think it just has that grimy, gritty look of a movie you discover by chance, and my brain has convinced me that that’s how it happened. In all likelihood, I probably saw it on a list of “10 Underrated Vampire Movies” or whatever and thought I should probably watch it.
I think grimy and gritty are about as apt descriptions of this movie as one could hope to find. My first thoughts coming out of the movie were that I needed a shower and a hug. Do you remember how you reacted to your first viewing?
I found it really interesting because it might be the first vampire movie I ever saw (and possibly the first ever made, though I’m sure someone out there would be happy to correct me ha ha ha) that made being a vampire seem just awful. It’s not sexy, it’s not seductive. It focuses on the isolation, and the means you have to go to keep yourself fed. I thought that was really unique.
That was such a vital element in terms of what made this movie so interesting to me. And I think in Martin as a character, Romero does something really bold in introducing him during his vampire “routine,” as he stalks and drains a woman on a train. But he does so in a way that, without the supernatural elements, is very off-putting. Instead of glamouring her, he drugs her. Instead of erotically biting her, he cuts her open with a razor blade. It’s a very ugly process.
But then, as the story begins in earnest, Romero dares us to sympathize with him. That’s a tricky feat, but one that I think he pulls off by leaning into that feeling of isolation that you mentioned. Do you think Romero was successful in making him sympathetic? Also, within the context of the story, do you actually believe him to be a vampire, or is he delusionally roleplaying as a vampire?
The movie does a really good job in making that ambiguous, which I appreciate. It really could go either way. For the most part, it does seem like something that’s just in his head, and the “flashbacks” he has are part of a psychosis. But then you have Cuda, his uncle, who certainly seems to believe him, and ultimately pulls a Van Helsing on him at the end. You could also question whether Cuda is really a “hero,” though. To me, he’s a little too eager to torment Martin, and doesn’t seem torn over possibly having to kill him. We don’t really know much about him, so that also ends up being kind of ambiguous.
Ambiguity seems to be the name of the game for Romero in this film. But regardless of whether or not Martin really is a vampire, Cuda seems to represent an overzealous reliance on faith that doesn’t really allow for humanity. He’s either keeping a vampire in his home out of familial obligation, or he’s preventing a very sick man from getting the help he needs. Perhaps it’s a bit of both. Either way, his rigid (and quite likely broken) moral compass is putting both Martin and others in danger. He seems to represent something of the old guard, clinging for dear life to tradition as he watches his community decay around him, which I suppose gives him an element of sympathy as well. What do you think Romero is trying to convey as he incorporates these side stories of a town in decay with this pseudo-vampire tale?
I think it presents a side of the ’70s that people aren’t always familiar with. I was very young at the time this was released, but it’s a pretty accurate reflection of the gradual decline in America of small, working-class towns, because the industries and factories that kept them alive were either shutting down or moving elsewhere. The disparity between the wealthy and working class/poor people was starting to grow, even pre-Reagan. Romero incorporating this into a vampire story, when at that point they tended to be very baroque and romantic, was really remarkable.
It’s also both compelling and pretty heart-wrenching to see the way that decline impacts interpersonal relationships. What’s your take on Martin’s relationship with Abbie Santini (Elayne Nadeau)?
Again, in keeping with the sort of anti-traditional vampire film that it is, there’s nothing erotic about it. They’re just two deeply lonely people who fulfill the need to be seen in each other, and nothing more. This is mostly my own read on it, but I believe there is a small part of Martin that believes that this relationship, even with a woman old enough to be his mother, lets him be “normal,” so when she kills herself, that’s his last opportunity to feel normal slipping away. As for Mrs. Santini, I think she hoped that whatever she had with Martin would allow her to feel something other than despair, but it wasn’t enough. It also (and again, this is strictly my own interpretation) seems like proof that Martin isn’t actually a hundred-year-old vampire. He’s just too much of a babe in the woods, and doesn’t have any seduction skills, which of course is why he has to drug his victims before taking their blood. I think the “flashbacks” he has that show him in a more traditional “sexy vampire” role are just a fantasy, what he wishes he was rather than what he actually is.
Their relationship actually reminded me of one that would be explored almost a decade later in Michael Mann’s Manhunter, as serial killer Francis Dollarhyde tries to wrestle with his demons as he attempts a normal relationship with a woman that ultimately fails. Both films question the idea of whether there is more to these men than the horrific acts they commit. And I agree that in Martin’s case, his relationship with Mrs. Santini hints more at a troubled young man than someone afflicted with vampirism. But does your reading of the film’s themes alter based on whether or not Martin truly is a vampire?
Probably, yeah. I think this would be a good double feature with Vampire’s Kiss, although I’m not really so much a fan of that one (and acknowledge that I’m definitely in the minority there). Both of them are about isolated, lonely-to-the-point-of-pathology men who project their emotional issues into either believing, or pretending they believe, that they’re vampires. The main difference is that in Vampire’s Kiss, it’s based largely in misogyny, while in Martin we really don’t know much else about him, what he’s experienced, or if he’s always at least behaved as though he’s a vampire. I’ll concede that it’s entirely possible he *is* a vampire. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to interpret it. Another companion to this would be Larry Fessenden’s Habit, which, again, is about a lonely, emotionally unstable guy who begins to believe himself to be a vampire. All three of them end the same way: the men die, and we never know for certain if what they believed was true or not. Either reading is correct.
I agree that either reading works, and for me what’s so effective is that it’s equally bleak either way. Whether Martin’s mentally ill or he’s this cursed creature, he’s forced to navigate his condition in a community ill-equipped to help him, and eventually he causes catastrophic impacts on everyone in his life, including himself.
With how rough and gritty the film is, part of me wonders if it’s ripe for a remake. On the other hand, though, I wonder if those rough edges are part of what makes the film special in the first place. Perhaps they’d need to go the same direction as Maniac (2013), and really build something new both narratively and stylistically, while still maintaining some themes from the original. How (if at all) do you think it could work? And who would you hire to direct and star?
Yeah, doing it in the style of the Maniac remake (which I think far surpasses the original) would be the way to go. The important thing to me is that it not be hypersexualized. The relationship between Martin and Mrs. Santini should not be erotic, it should still be a little sad and lonely. While John Amplas certainly wasn’t unattractive, you can’t cast the internet heartthrob of the moment as Martin. But right now, a lot of small towns still look the way Martin’s town looks, like it’s dying on the vine. Nothing much has really changed in that regard (or if it has, it’s only gotten worse), so it would certainly still be timely. For director, I think Ti West could do a lot with it, or Karyn Kusama, although of course she’s already got her hands full with a Dracula reboot. Since we can’t get in a time machine and grab Joaquin Phoenix circa 1999 to play Martin, I’m thinking… god, I’m so out of touch with young male actors of this era, ha ha ha. Maybe Caleb Landry Jones? He’s got that same kind of slightly angelic, but also slightly creepy air about him. But they probably would end up casting, like, Timothée Chalamet and ruin the whole point of it, so maybe let’s not do a remake and leave it as perfect as it is.