Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Johnny California: MARTIN in 4K

 by JB

Second Sight Films has delivered the goods.

This odd, one-of-a-kind vampire film has been very difficult to see for a very long time. I’m assuming that copyright issues kept if off home video for a time; theatrical screenings are still very rare. I did not actually see it until I got to college in the early 1980s. One of my film professors and I were discussing it one day after class, and he mentioned that he thought a print was in the university’s film library. He was right, but we were unable to book a lecture hall with projection capabilities to screen it. He allowed me watch it on the U of I film department’s Moviola. (Thanks, Dave!) Boy howdy, did I feel special. That was the day I learned to correctly thread and operate a real Steenbeck editing bench!
Martin was George Romero’s follow-up to The Crazies, and had him working on a low, low budget and shooting in 16mm. When Martin failed to ignite the Cannes Film Festival (that was the year of Mad Max) and couldn't establish itself as a reliable midnight movie draw, it kind of disappeared. This is a tragedy. Not only is it Romero’s favorite of all his films, but it is certainly the most original vampire film of the post-Night of the Living Dead horror era. (Era.) In a 2010 Time Out magazine poll of horror writers, directors, and critics, Martin took 87th place on the list of the Top 100 Horror Films.

The Plot in Brief: Martin (John Amplas in a performance for the ages) thinks he is a vampire and so, when the mood strikes him and he “starts getting shaky,” he injects female victims with sedatives and drinks their blood. We first see him do this on a train enroute to dying steel town Braddock, Pennsylvania, where a family member, Tata Cuda, has agreed to take him in. Cuda (Lincoln Maazel) is an old-fashioned, no-nonsense, god-fearing man who knows about Martin’s vampiric tendencies. He tells Martin outright that he aims to “save his soul,” but also “destroy his being.” Martin counters that, “There is no real magic... ever.”
Martin is a quiet, thoughtful lad who soon befriends a lonely housewife, Abbie Santini (Elyane Nadeau). They begin a tentative and sweet romance, but Abbie is ineffably sad. Martin begins to phone a late-night radio chat show, where he tells the host his life story. The host dubs him “The Count,” and Martin develops a cult following. Cuda is very concerned that Martin is choosing victims closer and closer to his home...

I find it very interesting that both contemporary and modern reviewers of Martin cling to the notion that director/screenwriter Romero “leaves it up to us” to decide if Martin is really a vampire—the old Turn of the Screw authorial cop-out. Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only did Romero explain on multiple occasions the interpretation he intended (the special features on this new disc include three instances of him clarifying the matter) but the film makes it abundantly clear. IT'S ALL RIGHT THERE.
Second Sight’s transfer is very beautiful. There is abundant film grain, given the film’s provenance, but it is never distracting and adds to the film’s gritty, working-class feel.

Apparently, there is a much longer cut of this film floating around somewhere, presented completely in black and white as Romero originally intended. The film was shot in color and the compromise the producers reached for its original theatrical run was to present the film in color except for Martin’s numerous flashbacks, which were all presented in black and white.
This new presentation is chock full of goodies: a new 4K scan of a 35mm dupe negative; four separate audio commentaries, featuring 1) George Romero, John Amplas, and Tom Savini; 2) George Romero, producer Richard P. Rubinstein, DP Michael Gornick, composer Donald Rubinstein, and Tom Savini saying different Savini stuff; 3) film writer Travis Crawford; and 4) the delightful Kat Ellinger; an hour-long documentary and location tour titled, “Taste the Blood of Martin;” a new interview with Donald Rubinstein; and a gallery of trailers, TV ads, and radio spots. The Second Sight Limited Edition comes with a handsome slipcase, a 108-page book with new essays on the film, an original soundtrack CD, and 5 collector’s cards with art by Adam Stothard.

I have no desire to spoil this special film for readers who have not yet had a chance to see it, but I would be hard-pressed to come up with contextual evidence in the film for any interpretation other than Romero’s own. This is important because it's key to the film's true horror. What makes Martin so special and so unique is to be found in the various ways that Romero weaves his tale of old-timey, romanticized vampirism... and a more modern, devastating depiction of evil.

Check out the original trailer here to see if this unique film is... how shall I say it... to your taste?

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