2.11.2013

Modernizing the vampire




“I just went off on this trip about…if a vampire existed today, he’d really have a hard time.  He’d probably be working the street, you know, doing something to get by.  He’d need a new ID every twenty years—and shit like that.”  That’s George A. Romero, quoted in J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Midnight Movies, explaining the inspiration for Martin (filmed 1976, released 1978), his character study of an 84-year-old vampire living (so to speak) in the body of a gangly teenage boy.  As Romero’s comments make clear, the film is an attempt to ground the vampire myth in a late-twentieth-century realist mode.  Martin doesn’t live in a Gothic castle or lurk in graveyards: he stays with relatives in a run-down house in an economically depressed Pennsylvania suburb, and his thirst for blood requires that he employ a meticulous professionalism when procuring his victims.  And, like Romero himself, Martin has little patience for well-worn vampire clichés.  (Romero’s low-budget, independently produced horror films were instrumental in liberating the genre from the creaky Gothic conventions of classical Hollywood.)

A whiff of tragic pathos has always attended the vampire myth.  Undead for eternity, the vampire’s immortality is more a curse than a blessing.  In the shabby working-class milieu of Martin, the vampire’s existence is further stripped of any glamour or romance that it might once have held.  Martin’s state of arrested development is compounded by his being forever trapped in the body of an awkward teenager.  He confesses that he has never made love to a woman who wasn’t one of his victims; he’s an anxious virgin, the adolescent as monster.  He’s also deeply troubled by his compulsion to kill, which is presented as a component of his sexual identity.  He is plagued in equal parts by guilt over the murders he commits and shame over the sexual urge that drives him to commit them.    

Wearing a cape and plastic fangs, Martin parodies the role of the traditional vampire.

Martin is a deeply felt account of a monster struggling to understand—and potentially master—his own monstrosity.  In this sense, it is a kind of coming-out story.  But it would be too reductive to claim (as one is often tempted to do when approaching horror stories) that the monster is simply a stand-in for the figure of the homosexual.  It seems to me more useful to think about monstrosity as standing for some sort of radical otherness that exists outside the realm of conventional knowledge or meaning altogether.  To read Martin as homosexual becomes too easy, because homosexuality itself has largely become domesticated, knowable.  Martin forces us to confront a far more vexing category of identity.  His otherness defies comprehension—we don’t know what to think about it, or even how to think about it.  Nor, then, do we know what can or should be done to accommodate it.  What rights, if any, does civilization owe its monsters?  As is so often the case in horror films, Martin forces us to confront the limits of our knowledge.

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