Directors: George A. Romero/Catherine Hardwicke
By Roderick Heath
I was a teenage vampire…movie fan.
And I still am of course. In the last week I finally caught up with George Romero’s Martin, which I’ve wanted to see it for ages, and Catherine Hardwicke’s Twilight, which I’ve wanted to see since, oh, never. Both are diverse takes on the way vampirism offers metaphors for teen sexuality and the terrors of coming of age in the modern world. Both seek to ground the fantastic in the humdrum everyday and the gritty realities of teenage life. One is slick, unironic, intended for young viewers, and hungry to be a blockbuster with all necessary compromises. The other is cheap, self-reflexive, and as potent a horror film as any made in the ’70s.
The Hardwicke film tells the tale of Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart), who moves to Forks, Washington, to live with her father, the local police chief (Billy Burke), after her mother and stepfather abandon Phoenix for Florida. In this perpetually cloudy, mud-strewn, homey town, she is inducted into a circle of pleasantly dorky high schoolers. But she is soon drawn in by the glowing eyes, snowy skin, and boy-band hairdo of Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), a hunk’a hunk’a ice-cold love who struts about the school along with his adopted brothers and sisters, all of whom seem to share his fondness for Marcel Marceau make-up. Soon, Bella’s discovering the awful(ly sexy) truth that Edward is a vampire, blessed with superhuman strength and speed, and skin like body glitter paint when the sun catches it. He belongs to a clan of vampires headed by Dr. Carlyle Cullen (Peter Facinelli) who schools his charges in the necessity of being nice to humans. But not all the of local undead are so hospitable.
The Romero film is the story of Martin Madahas (John Amplas), whom we meet on a train traveling to Pittsburgh where he’ll live with his uncle Teda Cuda (Lincoln Maazel), whilst keeping an eye on the attractive young women who are aboard the train. He chooses one particularly comely brunette, sneaks into her cabin at night, assaults her, injects her with a sedative, has sex with her sleeping body, and slashes her wrists with a razor blade so as to hungrily drink her blood, before covering up her death as a suicide.
Martin is greeted at the railway station in Pittsburgh by his uncle, who, dressed in an immaculate white suit, immediately hisses “Nosferatu!” at him. Cuda believes utterly that Martin is one of several for-real vampires in his family who are foisted on various relatives at the behest of a mysterious patriarch, but Martin is utterly unaffected by all the usual anti-vampire totems and makes fun of his uncle’s obsessions by stalking him in fake fangs and Lugosi cape. He seems, in fact, to be a painfully shy, troubled adolescent who wanders the disintegrating landscape of Pittsburgh like a prototypical slacker-goth lad, phones up a local radio call-in show, and entertains the DJ and listeners with his adventures and hang-ups. He drifts into an affair with lonely, troubled housewife Mrs. Santini (Elayne Nadeau) and hunts for more prey.
The differences between Edward and Martin are the fulcrum of the films’ disparate intentions. Edward is rich, gorgeous, accomplished, blessed with superhuman gifts and old-world, courtly ideals. He is most definitely what he thinks he is, and stands as a pasteurised pillar of wish-fulfillment. Martin’s status is never precisely resolved; he lacks fangs, powers, money, status, and just seems like another alienated teen. Martin is peppered with black-and-white inserts that may be flashbacks to Martin’s life long ago in “the old country,” or fantasy visions that Martin conjures to make his life and crimes more romantic. The fantastic romance of Edward and Bella is analogous to a scene that Martin keeps returning to, of a girl beckoning him with innocent joy into her bedroom with all the ripe promise of young love. But Martin is in other ways Bella and Edward combined; the unformed ingénue and the ruthlessly self-protecting but gentle-souled monster in one body. In Martin, the lore that Cuda holds onto and that Martin derides whilst simultaneously living it out, is dubious; in Twilight, the tales of the local Native Americans prove all too accurate. Twilight is about the effervescent thrill of fantasy figures; Martin evokes the troubles often inherent in living by them, because there is the real possibility in Martin that the antihero and his uncle are both obsessed enough with a tired, old legend to commit murder for its sake.
I haven’t read Stephanie Meyer’s hugely successful Twilight novels, but I made myself familiar with their lore before planting my backside on the cinema seat (surrounded by way too many teenage girls and their mothers for me to be comfortable, but these are the things we fearless vampire fans will endure). Most reviewers have made sarcastic comment on a Mormon housewife’s sex/abstinence fantasies and the retrograde portrait of a teenage girl utterly enthralled by masculine power and beauty. To a certain extent that’s understandable, but Hardwicke’s adaptation does something few fantasy/horror films manage these days in establishing a believable milieu. (Just look at how the Harry Potter films desperately lacked a believable jumping-off point of Ken Loach-esque realism to give their fantasy liberation true impact.) Indeed, the early scenes are well handled; their naturalistic, defiantly low-fi atmosphere, the feel for the small rainy hamlet and the repartee of the young high schoolers, the shy but personable, brainy Bella making links with new friends and hate-lusting after the pretty boy, manages to feel reasonbly believable and authentic at first.
Martin goes far further with its social verisimilitude, and not just because of its miniscule budget. Its Pittsburgh is depressed, grungy, given up to drug dealers and serial killers like Martin. Anyone of any ambition is fleeing, including Martin’s homely cousin Christina (Christine Forrest) and her dim boyfriend Arthur (Tom Savini, who also began his career as a make-up wiz and stuntman here). The remnants of a once-thriving immigrant culture that still lingers around Cuda’s store comprise aging bigots, and the suburbs are filled with anomie and adultery, which Martin stumbles into with Mrs. Savini, and the housewife (Sara Venable) Martin stalks, only to walk in on her having a tryst with a lover. Martin stands as a satiric commentary on the horror film itself, but also as a vital predictive of several later variants of youth culture—punk, slacker, grunge, goth—springing out of the debris of the post-hippie era.
Martin is fatally stricken with an inability to express himself in any form other than violence until his affair with Mrs. Savini, and rejects the values of a society that pretends to be humanistic, and therefore shocked by his murderous activities, but is actually almost inimical to the individual. Cuda is both avenging angel and a ghost of old-world repression, feebly trying to keep Martin’s desires in the box just as he tries to stop Christina and Arthur from abandoning their tribal roots and moving away. In a wryly amusing scene, Martin is cornered by his uncle and an elderly priest who attempts to exorcise him—a pointed satire of the anachronistic exploitation of The Exorcist (1973) that has Martin simply run away whilst the priest mumbles on.
What is interesting about Meyer’s creation and the film extrapolated from it is the weird chemistry it revolves around: the teenage girl so ardently in love she wouldn’t mind becoming a vampire (i.e., banged until the sun comes up) and the vampire who, though about a century old, is really still a teenage boy who cannot assess his ability to control his strength or bloodlust and who doesn’t wish his state on anyone. Most critics have been inevitably sarcastic about the film’s barely veiled metaphor for abstinence and gentlemanly values combined queasily with an invitation of raw ravishment and death-desire in the familiar morbidity of adolescent girls’ fantasies. But this is precisely what prompted me to see it: vampire films need a dynamic of this type or they just become generic monster movies, as in the intolerably stupid Blade and Underworld films in which the legions of hell become pasty nightclub patrons.
Vampires are the most up close and personal of supernatural beasts, and the great vampires—Dracula, Carmilla—represent something powerful we want to embrace, though we know we shouldn’t; Twilight seems squarely in that tradition. One of the flashback/fantasy sequences in Martin mirrors the same sort of relationship that Twilight involves—Martin stealing into a old manor house, answering the delighted call of an innocent girl carrying a candelabrum in just such a moment of puppy love colliding with adult hunger. The savage punchline of this sequence is that, as is slowly revealed, Martin tore her throat out and had to flee a mob of torch-branding avengers. Of course, Edward never does that to Bella, though it might have been more interesting if he had.
Because Twilight becomes much less interesting once the vampire stuff starts up, the concepts too literal (see Edward fly and glitter! See the Cullens play magic baseball with fan-TV-astic special effects! See them battle evil vampires who are obviously evil chiefly because they dress like faux-hippies who shop at The Gap!), and the plotting too perfunctory to make the damsel-in-distress finale anything more than tacked on. Pattinson is likable, but he’s about as Byronic as a toothpaste tube, so he’s never even remotely convincing as potentially lethal. Worse, despite being notably overlong, the film has no time for exploring the dynamics of the perverse, pseudo-incestuous Cullen family, who, as one critic noted, resemble the Flytes of Brideshead Revisited in their glamorous complexions and bottomless complexity, or, more accurately, ought to resemble them. In the end, they seem like a bunch of pasty-faced fashion models. The film hints at a Bradburyesque American Gothic (promised in the pinstripe baseball uniforms the Cullens wear for their game) that is likewise unfulfilled.
This is ultimately the disappointment of Twilight, and probably also the reason for its success: it shies away from any investigation of the concepts it exploits. Hardwicke fumbles stylistically—she’s comfortable with the everyday, but allows the supernatural and its interaction with Bella’s life to descend into MTV plasticity. Murnau, Lang, or Rollin would have had a ball playing with this tale’s liebestod possibilities, but the project of Twilight as a tale is the taming of the wild, which makes it the polar opposite to the gothic tradition.
Twilight stands in the shadow of some much better films that tackle similar ideas, not the least of which is Martin, but also Shimako Sato’s Tale of a Vampire (1992), where the depressed, melancholy librarian (Suzanna Hamilton), upon learning the nature of the moody, mysterious man who comes into her life (Julian Sands), begs him in desperation to be vampirised, or Neil Jordan’s Angela Carter adaptation The Company of Wolves (1984), which uses a different supernatural metaphor (lycanthropy) to explore the same point of awakening female sexuality and the potential ferocity of its male variety. Both those films glittered with a fairytale beauty (and tragic sensibility) that Twilight can’t ever approach. What does keep Twilight focused is the well-pitched performance of Stewart as Bella, capturing precisely the right mixture of coltish grace and clumsiness in her new, adult body, which quivers and flinches in response to the outside world; she projects enough charisma and dry humour to explain why everyone likes her despite her reticence and good-looking enough in an unpretentious way to make Edward’s obsession vaguely understandable.
Martin, on the other hand, is a small masterpiece that exudes a harsh melancholia that takes a while to affect one, but lingers in the bones after the film is over. Romero, an unlucky but talented filmmaker who’s been going through the paces lately, was at the height of bargain-basement ability here; the aimless drifting of the peaceful and humdrum scenes suddenly converts to startlingly well-edited and filmed intensity as Martin murders with amazing brutality for a spindly, innocent-seeming boy. Romero’s gruesome set pieces have precisely the effect that eludes so many directors, evoking a precise sense of physical and emotional damage, leading to two devastating moments: when Martin discovers Mrs. Santini has committed suicide in her bathtub, and the climax of vengeance when Cuda hammers a stake in his heart in punishment for this, the one killing he didn’t commit.
Martin’s sorry fate (buried ignominiously in his uncle’s flower bed) is contrasted with the gaping hole his disappearance leaves in the lives of the radio listeners, a community ironically united by the mysterious, troubled weirdo. In this regard, Romero’s film feels psychically linked to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, made at nearly the same time: both concern an alienated, rampaging killer whose private fantasies somehow attune with the ennui about him and see him become a folkloric hero. Martin’s aimless wanderings through the decaying landscape, both a part of it and separate from it, resemble Travis Bickle’s. A scene where Martin accidentally leads police pursuing him into a drug deal that results in a violent shootout has much the same irony as Bickle’s final combat with the pimps. The essential idea that Twilight toys with but Martin truly examines is this: irrationality often is closer to our hearts than the polite limits of modern life and that we are cursed with certain savage aspects of our natures that can never entirely be sublimated.
5 thoughts on “Martin (1977) / Twilight (2008)”
Martin is probably the best thing Romero ever did. Back then, he was a genius with little details, like the church service being held in the dingy attic, or Martin talking to the DJ with his radio turned up, so he hears his voice echoing back… That’s all great stuff. It’s like a kitchen-sink horror film.
I don’t want to make up my mind too quickly about how highly I place Martin in Romero’s canon – I’m still awfully fond of Dawn of the Dead – but it does rate very high; it might be more self-conscious and showy, but in a valuable way. You’re right about the details – that church was like an image out of a post-War Italian movie (and it made me wonder how much Neo-Realism might have influenced him as well as genre works). One thing that was so strikingly disappointing about Land of the Dead was the almost complete lack of his headlong, fuck-the-niceties narrative force (which was still there even in Bruiser), and that sense of layered detail. Here, the “action” scenes, Martin’s murders, are all the more effective precisely because of their regimented sense of detail, his planning, and what happens when things go wrong (and right).
Sorry, typing to quickly there: I meant this to read: “Dawn of the Dead might be more self-conscious and showy, but in a valuable way”…
Dawn of the Dead would rank number two with me, only because of the self-consciousness you mention — I’ve honestly never felt that satire was Romero’s strong suit, no matter what he says now.
To be honest, I hated Bruiser, although at this point I can’t remember all that much about it. I can say, on the positive side, that I do recall that a radio talk-show is once again used to good effect at the beginning.
Regarding the killings in Martin, I don’t think he has ever so completely given himself over to the idea of wringing all the gut-churning suspense out of a situation (with the possible and likely exception of Night of the Living Dead) as he does to Martin’s home invasion murder. It’s really masterful.
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