Monday, October 30, 2006:

Martin / Nosferatu

Nosferatu at window
Lonnie Johnson -- No Love for Sale
Mississippi John Hurt -- Since I've Laid My Burden Down
(Spoiler warning: this post discusses plot elements of Bram Stoker's Dracula, F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu, Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, Whitley Strieber's The Hunger, and George A. Romero's Martin.)

The conductor's call goes out over a black screen; the scene opens on passengers boarding a train. The titles begin as the train approaches a crossing, warning lights flashing, bell dinging. Inside, a POV shot: walking down a hall, approaching a hand protruding past a curtain, palm up, its owner apparently asleep. The film cuts to Martin: tall, thin, pale; he eases past the hand looking frightened. In the restroom he opens a kit and prepares a syringe; in the hall he crouches to listen at a door, syringe gripped between his teeth. He picks the lock; the film cuts to a black and white shot of Martin opening a door, a woman in bed turning to him, arms outstretched. The film cuts back to color as Martin opens the cabin door; the bed is empty. The passenger can be heard in the restroom. Martin hides behind the restroom door, waiting for her. When she goes to her bed he rushes forward and stabs her with the syringe. They struggle; she is loud, terrified, enraged, pleading, curious: what did he inject her with? He tells her not to worry; he is always careful with the needles. She is not comforted with this knowledge. Eventually she passes out and he cuts her wrist with a blade and drinks her blood. When he's done he cleans up the cabin, leaving the razor and adding a bottle of spilled pills. The film is clearly a modern vampire story, yet director George Romero is not interested in indulging in the conventions of vampire fiction over the last century.

The classic vampire story, heavily influenced by Bram Stoker's novel Dracula, is set in an isolated, foreboding setting indicating centuries of unminded wealth and indifference to public opinion. The story is typically told from the point of view of the potential victims; the vampire can not enter a victim's home without permission; and the vampire has a curious hypnotic power over his victims--typically buxom women in nightgowns--as well as a weakness against garlic and crucifixes, to be finished off by sunlight or a stake to the heart. Bram Stoker wrote Dracula just before the turn of the 20th century; the film Nosferatu blatantly plagiarised the novel and was nearly lost as a result--Stoker's widow filed a suit charging copyright infringement, and the court ordered all copies of the film destroyed.

Without becoming distracted by all the stakes, it's safe to bring Freud into the conversation. The classic vampire story is about sexuality and repression, the id and the superego: the vampires can't enter a room without permission and so their victims have to allow their desire to cloud their judgment, arranging their own destruction. Jonathan Harker, in one of his nights in Dracula's castle, finds himself tempted by three of Dracula's women; he admits to his "repulsive" urges in his journal, though he notes that the admission would hurt Mina's feelings if she were to find it. And it's easy to imagine the passage in question loosening Victorian collars:
I lay quiet, looking out from under my eyelashes in an agony of delightful anticipation. The fair girl advanced and bent over me till I could feel the movement of her breath upon me. Sweet it was in one sense, honey-sweet, and sent the same tingling through the nerves as her voice, but with a bitter underlying the sweet, a bitter offensiveness, as one smells in blood.

I was afraid to raise my eyelids, but looked out and saw perfectly under the lashes. The girl went on her knees, and bent over me, simply gloating. There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive, and as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal, till I could see in the moonlight the moisture shining on the scarlet lips and on the red tongue as it lapped the white sharp teeth.

Since Stoker's and Murnau's work, some authors have expanded the scope of the myth. Richard Matheson in the 1950s and Whitley Strieber in the 1980s both explored vampirism as a disease, Matheson in an ominous futuristic backdrop with a sole human survivor and Strieber in an elegaic examination of love and loss in the face of weakened immortality. Anne Rice gave the genre her own distinctive treatment, starting in the 1970s, in a series of gothic novels largely concerned with ambience and glamour*.

Romero's treatment of the myth, just a year after Rice's Interview with the Vampire, is decidedly low-key. Martin is not wealthy; he is not powerful; he is not particularly intriguing or charismatic. The story is set in working-class Pittsburgh; Martin meets his uncle, Cuda, at the train station. Cuda walks Martin to his house, the walk filmed in a series of handheld shots, piano and flute on the soundtrack.

The general tone of the film is one of melancholy and longing, informed by skepticism and aware of preceding myth. Martin can't get people to do what he wants, he's not repelled by garlic or crucifixes; he doesn't sleep in a coffin on cemetery dirt. There's nothing seductive about Martin's process, nothing darkly attractive about the results. He finds the vampire stories exasperating, like the people who believe them, including his uncle.

The story comes across as a slice-of-life drama, perhaps because of the emphasis on relationships: Martin's antagonistic relationship with Cuda, his cautious relationship with Christina, with his slightly freer relationship with Mrs. Santini. In the broadest sense, the story is about a confused, unhappy young man who longs for human companionship yet has an overwhelming need preventing it. The treatment of the subject is surprisingly deft, light, and leavened with a gentle humor, as in the first scene at Cuda's home ("Vampire," Cuda says. "First I will save your soul. Then I will destroy you. I will show you your room.") And the conclusion, when it comes, is sudden, neat, and unexpectedly ironic, almost Hitchcockian in temperament, as if to imply that the particulars are insignificant since everyone is guilty of something.

*Rice's vampire books, for all their faults, are not as silly as Joel Schumacher's campy suburban horror film Lost Boys--which itself comes across looking like cinematic high art in comparison to Mel Brooks' execrable Dracula: Dead and Loving It. There are clever and interesting things that can be done with the vampire myth still; Brook successfully avoided all of them.
[Blues By Lonnie Johnson]
[The Immortal Mississippi John Hurt]

This post is part of the Vampires blogathon and will be updated with links to additional entries as they are published.

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This is a beautifully written post!
These two are definitely my favorites!

Thanks for the link!

Oh and happy Halloween!
Seb aka Nedv8

A terrific post, my friend.
And Martin is a personal favorite, which makes this even more special.

Excellent post. MARTIN is one of my favorite vampire movies ever.

Thanks for the kind words, everyone.

Girish, I saw this film because of a comment you left on your site, so I owe you some thanks as well. Much enjoyed, thanks.

A fine post indeed, Tuwa! I'll let you know what I think of Martin's geography sooner rather than later!

Andy, I look forward to it.

And I think you were right: my call for a horror film blogathon was superfluous.

Charming blues for a charming post. The blues without the angst -- a guilty pleasure.

No need to feel guilty about it. :-)

Excellent post on Dracula.
Really enjoyed it! Thanks.

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