The late great George A. Romero is mostly known for his Dead Series, particularly the first three, starting from the black/white shocker Night of the Living Dead, followed by the most famous Dawn of the Dead and ending with the bleak Day of the Dead. He basically created the modern zombie genre as we know it. Besides being a revolutionary in the horror genre, he’s also an icon of independent cinema. If you’re an aspiring filmmaker, you should really delve into the making of the Dead Series — even if you’re not a horror fan. These films were created out of a genuine love of cinema, not to reach the highest commercial gross. It’s an inspiration for any fan of cinema.
But Romero’s own favorite film was Martin, the little-known, low-budget 1978 vampire drama. Though calling it a vampire drama is doing it a disservice, as it’s far more than that. In fact it’s not even entirely clear that the film is about a vampire, despite the main character being a blood-sucking murderer. Contrary to Romero’s fame as a gorehound, Martin is more interested on the psychology of its monster than on his bloodlust. There are traces of social-commentary like we see in his Dead Series, as frequent mentions are made on the economic disparity of its setting, but it’s most of all a character-piece. It’s a slowburning coming-of-age drama as much as it is a staple of the horror genre.
The same could be said for Michael Shea’s independent film The Transfiguration, a film that owes an obvious debt to George A. Romero’s Martin and can be seen as a modern update — the film acknowledges this by having the main character mention Romero’s Martin as being a realistic take on vampirism. Both films are about a troubled teenager who might or believe themselves to be vampires, one is called Martin, and in the case of The Transfiguration, Milo — the fact that the main character’s first name also begins with an ‘M’ cannot be an accident.
Both characters murder people and gulp down their blood. Both films strip down and mock traditional vampire lore. In both cases we are not entirely sure whether or not they are really vampires — in the supernatural sense that is — or that their blood-sucking are merely symptoms of their idiosyncratic psychopathy. Both films end with their shocking and tragic demise.
But it’s the little differences between the films that are really interesting and makes them very interesting companion pieces. In this article I want to explore those very differences, hoping to inspire others to check out these little-known gems.
The Connection Between Martin and Milo
In both Martin and The Transfiguration, we are introduced to the murderous habits of the main characters. In Martin, we see its main character Martin Matthias (John Amplas) target a woman in an overnight train. From his backpack he takes out a specialized medic kit, filling the syringe with some mysterious sedative as he stands in front of her carriage door. He crouches down and deftly picks the lock with a little hairpin. Clenching the handle of syringe between his teeth, holding the handle of the door with one hand and the ready syringe in the other, he prepares himself mentally by letting his imagination take hold. Suddenly the colorful world turns into a classic black/white as he imagines the same woman standing there, dressed in an elegant dress, turning her hair as if she’s from some fancy shampoo commercial. She smiles at Martin and opens up her arms for him. It’s as if she permits his assault on her, as if it would be a great honor, an erotic pleasure even, to be the subject of his feeding.
But the illusion is shattered when he comes in and she isn’t standing there. He looks around frantically and hears the sound of a toilet flushing. The woman who comes out of that toilet is nothing like his romantic fantasy: instead of the elegant dress she’s wearing a simple nightgown; her hair is not flowing wildly like Martin’s imagination but tied into a bun; her face is covered in an exfoliating mask as she’s blowing her nose loudly. When she finally sees him, there’s that few seconds of dread on her face. When he attacks her we already see the difference between Martin and The Transfiguration’s Milo (Eric Ruffin): while they are both killers, there’s an apologetic tenderness to Martin’s killing which is absent with Milo. After he plunged the syringe into her body, he pleads with her to stop struggling, telling her to ”please go to sleep.”
This scene is great mostly for its realistic clumsiness. There’s no vicious coolness of some deft killer which we would normally see in a vampire film. Martin, being skinny and frail, only manages to get the upper-hand because the sedative eventually kicks in. Even so the woman doesn’t hold back, screaming and bravely cursing at him until she’s too weak to fight back. Her last moments are heart-wrenching, as she becomes increasingly aware of her fatal predicament, asking Martin what exactly he poisoned her with and asking him what he’s planning to do with her.
Again we see Martin’s tenderness as he holds her, trying to comfort her, telling her: ”it’s alright! I’m always very careful with the needless, it won’t hurt you… It’s just to help you sleep.” She asks him why he wants her to sleep. He screams at her and tells her ”it’s important.” As she slowly fades away, he reassures her again that he’s ”always careful with the needless, so it put you to sleep. It doesn’t hurt… It’s very important.”
Milo from The Transfiguration attacks his victims without mercy. He’s like a cat lurking for his prey. He doesn’t plead with them, he doesn’t comfort them, he attacks them and goes right for the jugular. Milo just wants blood, he sees his subjects simply as food. We see Milo watch nature videos of predators dispatching their prey, from insects to lions. But Martin is different. He romanticizes his victims, he wants to be close to them. There’s an attraction to them, even a sick, twisted affection for them.
The big difference is that Martin sexually assaults his victims, something that Milo doesn’t feel the need to. In Martin, there’s a definitive link between sex and his murders, like most serial-killers. Most serial-killers only kill victims they are sexually attracted to. Milo doesn’t do that. Milo murders and drinks blood because he needs to ”feed.”
One aspect that could prove Milo to being a serial-killer with a vampire delusion is that during a conversation Milo has with a school-counselor, a reference is made with Milo having killed animals. Serial-killers are known for starting with animals. We never get to know if Martin started out like this too, though this could have easily been the case.
While Martin sedates his victims to eventually overpower them, Milo has a very different tactic. Milo uses his appearance as a child as bait, waiting until his victims come close enough so he can leap at them and quickly slash their jugular with a blade hidden in a makeshift pen.
Martin also has a specific target. Even though he does kill men, he’s mostly on the prowl for woman, like a typical serial-killer. Milo has no qualms in killing any victim. In The Transfiguration’s most harrowing scene, he even kills a child when she witnesses him killing his drunken father.
Martin does show a savage side when interlocutors intrude upon his fantasy. When he comes into the bedroom of one of his chosen victims, he finds a strange man there. When he finally catches up to the man, he kills him slowly him slowly by driving a piece of wood into his throat (courtesy of Tom Savini’s practical effects), all the while angrily telling him that he ”wasn’t supposed to be there.”
Martin doesn’t just want to drink their blood, he wants to abuse their bodies. In his own way he loves them and doesn’t want them to feel pain so when he’s done with them, he slashes their wrist with a razor-blade and let’s the blood spray in his face, which seems to give him orgasmic pleasure.
The difference in their murder habits is also strongly evident in the use of music. With The Transfiguration, we hear this continuously thumping sound, cold and monotone. We are watching an animal video, we are watching a predator take down a prey.
We don’t have any music during Martin’s bloody reign. The only music we hear is in his mind, when he recoils in his fantasies. Sometimes we hear the sound of a heavenly choir or in other times we hear his name being called out over and over again. It’s like he’s being called to them. It’s part of his fantasy. He’s not hurting them, he’s giving them what he wants.
But does Martin really believe that they are calling out to him or does he merely convince himself of this at that moment? This is up for debate but I do think he’s aware of this, that he knows it’s just part of his pitiful fantasy, something to make him feel less guilty before he commits his horrific act.
Milo knows very well that his victims don’t wish for their demise but he doesn’t care. He’s a predator that simply does what he needs to do. There are no fantasies involved. It’s just merciless nature. Kill or be killed. The strange tenderness in Martin’s murderous reign makes him stand out to the cold, calculated killing of Milo. Though interestingly, it’s Milo who opts for redemption at the end, not Martin.
Searching for Intimacy and Connection
Both Milo and Martin are alienated from the world around them. When Milo is at school, we never see him converse with any of his peers, we see him alone eating his lunch. When he walks home, he’s been chastised by the neighborhood thugs who refer to him as a ”freak.” He eventually finds kinship with Sophie (Chloe Levine), a girl who recently moved into the same apartment building. She’s estranged from the world as well, having become an orphan and being forced to live with her grandfather who regularly abuses her — she states that the best characteristic about him is that he’s slow, so she can run away from him easier.
From afar, Milo also witnesses Sophie letting herself be sexually taken advantage off by neighborhood peers. This is all because she wants to distance herself from the severe emotional pain she feels inside. The fact that she lost her parents makes her feel a connection with Milo, who lost both his parents — his mother through suicide, his father at a very early age through some undisclosed sickness which could possibly be AIDS. She accepts Milo’s weird ways, such as the fact that he invites her to watch slaughterhouse footage (which is a big red flag if you ask me), because he doesn’t take advantage of her. He listens and doesn’t make her feel bad for any of her flaws.
Milo lives with his older brother Lewis (Aaron Clifton Moten), a former soldier who’s suffering from PTSD. Lewis mostly sits on the couch zoning out from the television. Lewis has been forced to take care of Milo after their mother’s suicide. While Lewis does have intense love for his brother, he’s unable to properly take care of him or watch out for the warning signs of Milo’s behavior. Milo in turn, loves his brother too but he can’t confide in him. He can’t share his fascination for vampire lore or the fact that he’s a serial-killer.
Martin is very much alone in the world too. In the beginning of Martin, after his gory introduction in the train, we see that he’s picked up by his elderly cousin Cuda (Lincoln Maazel) to live with him and Cuda’s kindly granddaughter Christina (Christina Forrest). Even though I seem to have missed this from my viewings of Martin, Martin’s mother apparently committed suicide, just like Milo and this motivated Martin to move in with Cuda.
Cuda is immediately antagonistic to Martin, proclaiming him to be a vampire, even calling him ‘Nosferatu’ and promising to save his soul or else ‘destroy’ him. Even though we already know by know that Martin is a killer and drinks the blood of his victims, we can easily see that he’s not a vampire in the traditional sense as Martin tries to make clear to Cuda. Garlic does nothing to Martin, he even chomps it down in front of Cuda. The catholic cross has no physical effect on Martin. Yet Cuda is stuck in his old ways. Even though Cuda is the only person close to him who actually believes him to be a vampire, his faulty perception of Martin’s vampirism makes Martin feel nonetheless alone.
He does build up some kinship with his cousin Christina, who vehemently rejects Cuda’s old-fashioned beliefs, believing that it has had negatively impacted the psychological well-being of Martin. She wants to take care of Martin and at times, becomes almost a surrogate mother but she also desires some sort of future for herself, something that doesn’t seem to be possible in the economic disparity of Pittsburgh. She has an unbalanced relationship with local mechanic Arthur (Tom Savini) with whom she eventually decides to run away, even though she acknowledges that she won’t have much of a future with him.
Throughout the film we see that Martin only conveys his true nature to a local radio-disc jockey, where he wants to press to the listeners that there’s nothing magical about being a vampire. The disc-jockey thinks he’s some local lonely nut-case and doesn’t take his confessions at all seriously. Martin knows this but this is the only way of telling his story. The only way to tell his story is to a non-believing audience. It’s an incredibly sad existence.
The life of a vampire is one of loneliness. If you manage to survive being caught, manage to evade sunlight and the avid vampire-hunter, you can live forever but there’s a price you have to pay. Let’s state for the argument that in both the worlds of Martin and The Transfiguration, there is such a thing as vampires. They exist, they live among them. If this is the case it’s obvious that they are hiding, they won’t show themselves in plain sight. A vampire might never even come across one of his own for several lifetimes. So if Martin and Milo believe themselves to be vampires, they know they have a life of loneliness ahead of them. They know they won’t be able to bear their soul without being condemned, imprisoned or even annihilated. The price of eternity becomes solitude and it becomes clear, even through all the horrific acts in these films, that there’s enough humanity within them that desires connection, even intimacy with a fellow soul.
Both Milo and Martin receive it, but in both cases, they can’t fully portray themselves for who they really are. They have to hide who they really are in order to be loved and this will eventually, cause further alienation. Honesty being essential to finding true kinship with someone, their relationships are essentially doomed.
Milo understands this full well as his story comes to a close. As his desire for blood begins to increase and he even starts to fantasize about slitting Sophie’s throat, he realizes that he’s a danger to the ones he loves. He knows that his nature is one of a predator and it will always be one. In his final redeeming moments, he ensures that Sophie has some sort of future, giving her all the money he accumulated from all his victims. He makes his neighborhood safer by ratting on the murderous neighborhood thugs which he knows will eventually prompt them or their friends to hunt them down.
Martin’s fate is far more pitiful. He eventually becomes romantically involved with a lonely woman named Abbie Santini (Elayne Nadeau). The only reason the woman is interested in him is because she is unable to have children and Martin’s boyish demeanor makes her feel like the mother she could never be. She is shown to be clinically depressed and is just using Martin to fill the void within her being. Martin wants to be close to her and during their romance, he does seize his murderous ways. As it becomes clear, finding intimate gratification with Abbie, even though this relationship is deeply functional and doomed to fail, quenches his thirst for blood.
But then one day Martin finds her in the bathtub having slit her wrists. Though despondent by the discovery, he’s also relieved because he knows that he can now return to his old lifestyle, as he often felt overwhelmed by the nuances of this romantic relationship.
In his last few scenes, we hear his narration to the disc-jockey, telling him that he’s come to accept himself. He accepts that he will be a lonely creature of the night and that he will only ever find intimacy through his sedated victims. When he wakes up one morning, he finds Cuda at his bed, a stake aimed at his heart. Cuda accuses Martin of killing of Abbie, of covering it up through suicide. He had promised on the very first day that if he would harm anyone in the neighborhood that he would destroy him. He hammers the stake into his heart and after a few blows Martin is instantly dead.
The tragic arc of Martin is that the only person he actually managed to find some genuine intimacy with, who he hadn’t harmed in any way, turns out to the death of him. He never could have known that of course, nor did he imagine that Cuda would actually be willing to murder him if he had suspected him of anything.
Both Martin and Milo are tragic characters, both are prisoners of their wretched nature which keeps them from ever finding true intimacy with anyone else. And these relationships, which are hampered by lies and secrets is all that’s left for them. It’s all they have.
Deep down, if we are really honest, we can understand this too. We want to be close to people. When you have nothing else, when this is the closest you can get with people, you will chase it down. Even if it might eventually kill you.
A Disease Passed Down to the Family
We don’t know where either Milo or Martin’s vampirism comes from. The only answers we do get are from possible unreliable sources, that being Milo and Martin themselves. Milo and Martin believe themselves to be vampires. They only struggle with how the world perceives vampires. But if we watch their stories closely, we might find a different interpretation.
In the case of Milo, we do receive a flashback from when his bloodlust offically started to appear. This was when he discovered the corpse of his mother in bed, who had slashed her wrists. Both fascinated by the sight of her bloody remains and shocked by his mother’s lifeless body, he walks towards her as if in a trance. He puts a finger into one of the gory spots and puts the bloody finger in his mouth. The insinuation being that Milo from then on was infected by vampirism. He refers to vampirism as being a disease rather than some supernatural curse (or privilege, depending on one’s interpretation).
But instead of taking Milo’s words for it, we can also conclude that this vampire delusion is his way of dealing with his grieve. Before her suicide, he already had the warning signs of every future psychopath. He was probably torturing and killing animals before he had any inkling that it was supposedly wrong. There was already a killer in him and if his mother hadn’t committed suicide, he would have probably turned into a serial-killer regardless.
Even so, the death of his mother did affect him emotionally. Years after her death, he’s still shook by it and he doesn’t even realize it himself. We can see this after he and Sophie had visited Milo’s mother’s grave, which he had previously never visited before. Sophie brought him there because she wants someone to talk to about her own departed parents but as they are waiting for the bus which will bring them back to their neighborhood, he refuses to talk about his mother and instead recoils in his vampire notebook, a tool he uses to strengthen his vampire fantasy.
We can also take the word ‘disease’ as metaphorical, as the genetic psychopathy that runs in Milo’s family. It could have been inside his mother too and though we never get to know the reasons behind her suicide, it might have been something to do with her own guilt or her own realization that her loved ones aren’t safe around her. It could be a similar mental illness that Milo suffers from. Her story might have ended in a similar fashion to Milo — sacrificing herself in order to safe Milo and Lewis from her gory appetite.
With Martin, it might be less to do with genetic psychopathy and more to do with a delusional mythology that was passed down from the family. Cuda mentions that this ‘curse’ runs in the family, which had affected Martin and his father and seven other family members. We know that Cuda is extremely old-fashioned, even clashing with a local priest for being too modern — the modern priest being played by George A. Romero himself, which signifies the director’s own beliefs for the need of letting old superstition die and seeking enlightenment in the modern world.
We get the idea that perhaps Martin is trying to find himself through the context of this family mythology, something that must have been hammered into his head from a very young age. He identifies himself to be this age-old vampire, signified by the black/white footage sprinkled in the film. I know some people might view the black/white footage of the film as flashbacks instead of representing Martin’s fantasies, but for me this interpretation completely destroys the point of the film and lessens the complexity of Martin’s character.
If you believe you are a victim of the sacred family curse, then you will act accordingly and thus Martin is just trying to find his way, in the most macabre puberty one can imagine, through the ways of being a vampire. Struggling with his own hormones too and his need for love and intimacy, he’s a prisoner of the indoctrinating beliefs of his family. One could imagine Martin perhaps being very different if he had been born in a different family, if he had a chance to grow up like a normal boy.
But we will never know that. We can also assume that Martin would have always turned out bad, since Christine shows to reject these old believes — though the women in the family might have been treated differently than the men, with women being pushed to be saintly, as women in old-fashioned Catholic circles are often expected to be.
Whether through genetics, tragedy or religious believes, in both Martin and Milo’s case, we can see that their vampirism ultimately comes from a ‘disease’ passed down from the family. They were both doomed in their own ways. Things might have been different, had they been born in a different family. In truth, they never really stood a chance.
The Grand Disillusionment
Whether or not Milo or Martin are really vampires matters less than the deglamorization of being a vampire itself. The film is more focused on the existential reality of being a vampire rather than the gore and seductive hedonism that is attached to it. Both Milo and Martin try to impress to those around them that there’s nothing grand about being a vampire, that being one means being socially isolated from those around you. In both cases the classic rules of destroying vampires don’t apply to them: they can walk in sunlight, they have no fangs, they can eat garlic and they can probably be killed like any other human — though we are never entirely sure about this with Martin but it seems very likely.
In Milo’s case, we can see that despite his fondness for vampire themed films, he does remark that most movies have it totally wrong — except for a few films like Kathryn Bigelow‘s Near Dark and of course George A. Romero’s Martin. His romantic interest Sophie adores the Twilight series, where vampires are portrayed as beautiful, even twinkling in the sunlight like shiny diamonds. She likes these films because these supernatural creatures are romanticized, as she wants to find as much escape from her harsh reality as possible. Milo wants exactly the opposite, as some people often do. A lot of people prefer realistic fiction for example than fantastical fiction because the realistic fiction makes them feel less alone. The supposed realistic fiction of vampires makes Milo feel less alone in the world because the fantastical vampire version is something he can never be, no matter how hard he tries. The reality of being a vampire is simply not that glamorous and never will be.
Martin, even though he revels in his vampire fantasies, knows full well that the reality of being a vampire is very different. In his radio confessions, he entails how he loathes the common perception that being a vampire is like being some sexy creature of the night because he isn’t like that at all. Instead he’s an insecure, socially awkward young man (though perhaps much older if you believe him to be a vampire), far removed from the seductive powers of Bela Lugosi. He doesn’t have any supernatural powers like we read about in Bram Stoker’s classic literary masterpiece, he can’t transform into a beast or put his victims into a trance-like spell. Instead, he is forced to sedate his victims because that’s the only way he can get what he wants.
This is why Martin is so inflamed by his aging cousin Cuda, who truly believes that Martin is the mythological vampire — the Nosferatu. Even though Cuda is the only person who shares Martin’s believes that he’s a vampire, his outdated perception of vampires is the opposite of who Martin really is. Martin tries to stress this to Cuda every time he can. He performs a simple magic trick on the dinner table, by making Christine and Cuda think he will cut of part of his finger in a tiny guillotine. But when the blade of the guillotine goes down, the blade is replaced by a slip-blade and thus saves his finger from being sliced off. After he’s explaining the trick to them, Martin tells them: ”things only seem to be magic. There is no real magic.”
Martin even mocks Cuda by dressing up like the classical Dracula in one scene, with the traditional long cape and the fake fangs and scaring him at night. After laughing at the terrified Cuda, he spits out the fangs and tells Cuda ”it’s just a costume,” rubbing his face filled with white powder (which he used to make himself look undead) and pushing it on Cuda’s chin. He just wants Cuda to wake up from his delusion that he’s this classic monster because he’s not.
And it’s this repeated line in Martin: ”there is no magic” that is crucial to both understanding Martin and The Transfiguration. It’s this grand disillusionment that isn’t just apparent in its portrayals of vampires but in the relationships that Milo and Martin has. Both know they can’t connect fully with anyone else because of who they are. It’s just not possible and they understand why. It’s just how things are.
In one of Martin’s most touching scenes, Christine says goodbye to Martin after she decides to move away with Arthur. Christine is no romantic, she is aware that her relationship with Arthur probably won’t last but it’s her only way out of his neighborhood. She’s just using this relationship to find a better life for herself. She promises Martin that she will call him, contact him from time to time. Martin shakes his head and tells her she won’t because eventually she will forget about him.
Martin has seen this, has seen people come and go. Even those who claim to be your closest friends will eventually move on. It’s how the world is. People forget and people move on. People die inside and live another day.
The theme of ”there is no magic” is there in its settings, in the case of The Transfiguration, Milo lives in the extremely impoverished projects of Queens, New York. Milo, like most kids in his neighborhood, don’t have much a grand future waiting for them. They either get lucky through some scholarship or get what they can. There’s temptation all around, especially in petty crime, in the camaraderie of gangs. It’s very easy to lose yourself, to fall into the wrong crowd and become an accomplice to a criminal act that will ruin your life
The fact that Milo is black should not be forgotten either. In the lives of these black people, there’s an understanding that life is not going to be easy, that the little comforts they have can easily be taken away by belligerent policemen. Even if Milo wasn’t a bloodsucking vampire, he would still have been an outcast because he doesn’t follow the criminal line of many of his peers. He’s socially awkward, distant and intelligent — but not enough to get him out of the projects.
With Martin it’s not much easier. Martin doesn’t have much of a future waiting for him either. You get the sense that people around him think he’s a rather simple boy, not very bright and easily pushed around. There aren’t many jobs available in Pittsburgh as Arthur mentions in the film, as the film takes place in the middle of the 1970’s recession. The difference in the economic setting between The Transfiguration and Martin, is that in The Transfiguration, we see that the price being paid for the excess of the Reagan years. The projects wouldn’t have been so bad, if the supposed trickle-down economics hadn’t made it so. Martin takes place just before the excess of the eighties, it’s at a time when people were cynical, when faith in government was weakened due to revelations coming from Washington and in Vietnam. In Martin, America is on the brink of a transformation. In The Transfiguration, we see the end result of this transformation — and since America is now on the verge of a different, but much more sinister transformation, we will have to see how the world will look like in the future for the future Milo’s and Martin’s.
In both cases, the message is very clear: there is no magic in the world. Not for living in these neighborhoods, born in these families. We are seeing a world where people are prisoners of their habits, are locked into their dreamworlds and where does seems to be no escape from them. Old-fashioned beliefs are clung to and despite all evidence to the contrary, people refuse to wake up. People refuse to see the truth.
There is no magic. There never was.
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