I’ve not seen Joker yet. Have you? I realise it’s been a divisive movie for a number of reasons, including controversial themes like mental illness, toxic masculinity and glamorising violence, but as I said, I’ve not seen it and am willing to give it the benefit of the doubt when I do get round to it. Check out our duo of reviews from two of the team who have.
What I have seen, however, is George A Romero’s largely overlooked 1978 pseudo-vampire movie, Martin, and I was strangely reminded of trailers for Joker (which I have seen!). Here’s another hard-hitting study in violence and mental illness, with similarities to Taxi Driver, and which hides its light under the bushel of Genre Cinema. In amongst the many opinions I have read about Joker, one common factor seems to be that the violence is more implied, Dark Knight style, than graphically depicted on screen.
Martin, however, is not so modest in its depiction of violence, especially towards women. Like many of its contemporaries, including Tenebre, Inferno, Zombie Flesh Eaters and Driller Killer, Martin found itself subject to intense media scrutiny in the early 80s as a potential addition to the infamous DPP List, created in the aftermath of the moral campaign led by Mary Whitehouse and her cronies. While not making the lists of 39 prosecuted or 33 non-prosecuted movies, Martin did find its way onto a supplementary list created for movies which could not be prosecuted for obscenity under the 1984 Video Publications Act, but which the BBFC really didn’t want us to see. Martin, instead joined 81 other movies in Section 3 of the Obscene Publications Act 1959. All 154 movies were collectively known and feared under a more sensational moniker, which was sure to strike terror into the heart of any British video shop owner in the mid-80s – The Video Nasties.
And Martin is nasty.
It’s a difficult watch as we are, from the outset, introduced to a troubled young man who is so desperate for female attention that he drugs women before sexually assaulting them. Pretty hard-going right? But that’s not the end of it, I’m afraid. After he is finished satisfying his abhorrent sexual desires, he then sates his other, even darker (if that’s possible) lust – for blood. You see, Martin is also a vampire. Or believes himself to be. He never bares fangs or turns into a bat, favouring a razor blade to draw blood. In fact, when outright asked if he is a supernatural being, he replies with the enigmatic “There’s no real magic”.
From the shocking train-set introduction we follow Martin as he moves to a new town, having lost his family to some unknown tragedy (although it doesn’t take Van Helsing to work out what probably happened to them), and moving in with his elderly, devout uncle who believes in the old superstitions of his Lithuanian homeland and sees Martin for what he is (or believes himself to be). Warned not to kill anyone in his new town, lest he be staked through the heart, Martin continues his search for love while trying to keep things a little less deadly (with mixed results to say the least). Making matters even more complicated for Martin is a pair of women who actually show an interest in him (one is his cousin, the other a much older divorcee neighbour).
Alongside the main narrative, we follow two other side plots which complement each other. Each night Martin calls his local talk radio station to chat about his vampirism, as a form of therapy, earning him the nickname The Count and making him something of a local folk hero. On top of that we see inside Martin’s own head where, in his daydreams, he fancies himself as a much more classic, vampire – all seductive Gothic romance, fangs and capes – complete with pitchfork-wielding mobs feeding into his deluded sense of persecution.
And all this brings me back to Joker – or my perception of it as someone who hasn’t seen it. What Martin presents is a despicable character, capable of utterly dastardly deeds, but while at the same time pushing our pathos buttons. And therein lies the dilemma for the viewer. He’s likeable and you feel sorry for him while realising what an utter bastard he also is – and with this duality, we are given an insight into Martin’s conflicted mindset. In many ways, this is more drama than horror or thriller. The vampiric excursions are kept to a minimum, with the focus being largely on character, giving Martin an emotional heft, making it feel almost soap-opera-like in places, so when the horror set-pieces do come, they hit you like a sucker-punch.
Just like many, many reviews I have read of Joker, my opinion of Martin is that it’s is a difficult watch, and I can’t in good conscience say that I enjoyed it, but at the same time I thought it was very, very good. Will I watch it again? I’m not sure – it’s not for those who are weak of stomach or easily offended by depictions of violence, some of it sexual, against women (like so many horror films of the mid 70s).
Martin is right – there’s no real magic here, just gritty realism. Life in Martin’s world is brutal and filled with disappointment, with his only escape from rejection and anxiety to pretend to be someone he isn’t. I do feel that despite being over 40 years old, many of Martin’s overarching themes (such as sex, religion, celebrity and the nature of evil) are eternal and therefore sadly, still quite prevalent today. As a result, while not containing the thrills and sense of adventure present in many of his other films (Dawn of the Dead, The Crazies, The Dark Half, Monkey Shines), Martin may very well be the most important film in George A Romero’s impressive catalogue.
I was recently sent a copy of Jez Winship’s commentary on Martin (part of the Midnight Movies Monographs series of books) which I will be reviewing for the fantastic website (and good chums of WGN) Ginger Nuts Of Horror. I’ll publish the links when the article goes live, but for now, visit Ginger Nuts of Horror for all manner of great spooky content!
Remember to follow the hashtag #31DOH on Twitter and Facebook every day in October to see what other terrifying treats we’ve been watching!