September 14, 2009

Martin (1977)

A key figure in the development of modern horror, American filmmaker George A. Romero forever changed the face of the genre in 1968 with his highly influential film, "Night of the Living Dead". What Alfred Hitchcock and H.G. Lewis had started in the early years of that turbulent decade, the 28 years old Romero would take one step further with his indie movie, which featured an urban style of realistic horror, a rawer kind of violence and a complete reinvention of the zombie as a monster. Unfortunately, Romero's following movies lacked the impact and success of "Night of the Living Dead", and only a return to his zombie apocalypse would take him back to the top: 1978's "Dawn of the Dead", the ultimate zombie movie. Nevertheless, amongst those less popular efforts done between "Night" and "Dawn", there's a modest film that despite lacking the tremendous popularity of the "Dead" films, is definitely as interesting as them, and perhaps one of Romero's finest works. That film is 1977's "Martin", the sad tale of a vampire for the modern world.

"Martin" is the story of Martin Matthias (John Amplas), a solitary young man in his early 20s with a tendency to use narcotics to sedate women in order to be able of slicing their wrists and drink their blood, believing himself a vampire. Martin travels to Pittsburgh, where he meets his uncle Tada Cuda (Lincoln Maazel), an hostile old man who accuses Martin of being his cousin, an 84 years old vampire from his native country. Cuda takes Martin to his house in the nearby town of Braddock, hoping to be able to save Martin's soul before killing him. While Martin tries to get along, Cuda treats him like an ancient vampire, using old folklore to protect himself and his granddaughter Christine (Christine Forrest) from Martin. All this takes its toll in the already alienated Martin, but he manages to develop a friendship with Christine, who thinks that Martin believes he is a vampire because their family has driven him insane. With Christine's help, Martin begins to open up a bit, even improving his relationship with women, but even in modern times tragedy follows vampires where they go.

In an interesting revision of the vampire myth, George A. Romero transforms the legendary predator of folklore into a troubled young man, whose apparent inability to relate to the world is manifested through silent killings and strange visions of romantic vampirism. But still, while Martin has those idyllic hallucinations, he still rejects Cuda's lore about vampires as silly superstitions, thinking of himself as "the real thing". Complex, realistic and rich in character development, the film is focused on Martin's life at Cuda's house, with the old man trying to save Martin's soul via magic and religion while Christine tries to save Martin's mind from the madness he lives in. A captivating character study, "Martin" deconstructs the vampire myth and plays with its lore and rules, keeping always in ambiguous terms whether Martin is really a vampire or not. Imbued with a sad, nostalgic tone, "Martin" is a tale of loneliness and decadence, as the one sure thing that Martin has in common with folkloric vampires is that both are complete outsiders.

Shot with a low-budget, "Martin" has a very realistic urban style, albeit one with a dark and depressing tone, as the town of Braddock is presented as a dying industrial suburb. Through the lens of cinematographer Michael Gornick, Martin's life is framed by a bleak atmosphere where the urban landscape equates loneliness and decadence. Unlike the common vampire stereotype of most horror films, Romero's bloodsucker is anything but seductive; on the contrary, Martin's inability to relate with the world forces him to use narcotics to drug his victims. While in his visions (shot as a stylish silent film) he's a complete vampire, in his reality, Martin is nothing but a bunch of unsatisfied wishes; with his only contact with the outer world being his calls to a night radio talk show. And not only the young vampire is a troubled person, but every character in the film seems to be trapped in that depressing loneliness that Romero implies that's inherent to our modern life. While slow in rhythm, Romero manages to keep things interesting and the film never runs out of steam.

Leading the cast is John Amplas, who delivers a truly powerful performance as the film's title character, Martin Mathias. In films like this, which are essentially a character study, the acting is of tremendous importance for the success of the film, even more with a story as unusual as the one in Romero's "Martin". Fortunately, Amplas delivers a wonderful job, capturing perfectly the tortured soul of the troubled young vampire. Wheter one believes in Martin as a mentally ill man, or as a true modern vampire (it's never fully stated which is the truth), Amplas is always in perfect tone with his character, fleshing out a very human and sympathetic character (quite a feat, because no matter if his vampirism is real or fake, Martin is still a very real serial killer). As religious fanatic Cuda, Lincoln Maazel is very effective, sometimes even frightening; albeit a couple of times he seems to overact a bit more than necessary. As the more "normal" character, Christine, Christine Forrest gives a good balance to the story, and her work is subtle, yet quite appropriate.

Dark, melancholic and fascinating, "Martin" is not a typical horror film, in the way it examines the mind of its lead character, the horrors he experiences and the horrors he creates. The vampire theme of the film serves Romero to explore a serial killer from a quite unusual and interesting perspective, as it's truly Martin's deluded psyche what's shown in the film. With its highly atmospheric cinematography, captivating storyline and the eerie score by Donald Rubinstein, there's little to complain in "Martin", however, it's a complete change of pace from Geroge A. Romero's other, more famous films. And perhaps the fame of Romero's iconic horror films about zombies is "Martin"'s worst enemy, because this modest little gem will definitely disappoint those expecting another "Dawn of the Dead". The atmosphere is similar, but the style is completely different, and "Martin"'s slower, subtler pace may not be something for fans of gore. Nevertheless, while a very different kind of beast, Romero's quirky tale about the alienation of a modern vampire is as good as his famous zombie films.

It's a shame that despite Romero's status as a master of horror, his films outside his "Dead" series tend to be overshadowed and forgotten. But "Martin" is a proof that there is more in Romero's career than zombies, and that he is certainly not a one trick pony. Melancholic, atmospheric and subtle, "Martin" may not be shocking or brutal, but it's the kind of horror that gets under the skin, the one that disturbs rather than terrify. Making a vampire tale for our age of disbelief, Romero made in "Martin" a true gem of psychological horror, a powerful study on the serial killer theme and simply one of this best films. Definitely on par with his zombie classics. And that's not an easy feat.


September 03, 2009

The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916)

In 1915, an athletic 32 years old Broadway actor moved to California and signed the contract that would start a legendary career. His name was Douglas Fairbanks, and his meeting with director D.W. Griffith at Triangle Pictures would be the first step in the road that would take him to be known as The King of Hollywood. At Triangle, Fairbanks met directors Christy Cabanne and John Emerson, as well as Griffith's favorite writer, Anita Loos; under their wing, Fairbanks would make many of his early films, most of them romantic comedies, in which Fairbanks' natural charm and athletic abilities would make him a favorite of the public. Amongst those early comedies, there's a strange little film that even now, almost 100 years after its production, remains a curiosity as fun and bizarre as when it was first released: the short film "The Mystery of the Leaping Fish", a surreal comedy about a cocaine-shooting detective named "Coke Ennyday". Behind this twisted Sherlock Holmes parody was Tod Browning (later a legendary filmmaker by his own right), who joined Griffith and Loos as writer.

Douglas Fairbanks is Coke Ennyday, "the world's greatest scientific detective", a man gifted with not only a brilliant mind for science and great deductive talents, but also with the ability of consuming huge doses of drug without any problem. In fact, it could be said that Ennyday's life wouldn't be the same without his constant injections of cocaine, as whenever he feels down or needs energy, his loyal syringes will get him high and laughing again. One day Coke is visited by Police Chief I.M. Keene (Tom Wilson), who asks him to investigate a suspicious gentleman (Allan Sears) so rich that literally rolls in wealth. Apropriately dressed in checkered detective hat and coat (and car!), Coke begins his investigation, which conveniently takes him to discover a gang of opium smugglers who operate in the beach and transport the drug in fish-shaped lifesavers known as "Leaping Fishes". But this adventure has something else for Coke besides his beloved opium, as he also will have to save the young girl in charge of the "Leaping Fishes" (Bessie Love) from the gang of smugglers.

The story, written by Tod Browning and D.W. Griffith (under the pseudonym Granville Warwick), is mainly a parody of Arthur Conan Doyle's famous character, detective Sherlock Holmes. Playing with Holmes' addiction to cocaine and taking the idea to the extreme, Browning and Griffith create a wacky story filled with absurd situations in which Coke's joyful consume of drugs serves nicely for comedy effect. It's very interesting how the short film keeps an irreverent and subversive tone, handling drug addiction in a very lighthearted way (an attitude that perhaps would not be seen in cinema again until the 1960s). The surreal world of Coke Ennyday, with his weird car and his "scientific periscope" (a prediction of closed-circuit television?), displays the bizarre originality of Browning's particular style of fantasy. The inter-titles, while not some of Anita Loos' best work, do have the witty style she was known for, and suit perfectly the joyfully irreverent tone of the short film. Perhaps at its core it's still a typical story, but one with a style of its own.

Directed by Christy Cabanne and John Emerson, "The Mystery of the Leaping Fish" shines because of three main assets: its unusual and outrageous screenplay, the effective work of Art Direction, and of course, the talent and charm of Douglas Fairbanks. The directors seem to realize this and in turn, decide to keep things simple and let the story flow freely by focusing on Fairbanks and his character's antics, as well as letting him show some of his athletic skill in certain scenes. Cinematgrapher John W. Leezer has the chance of a couple of interesting camera effects (although nothing that had not been seen before), but in general, the movie is quite simple in style and execution, following strictly the pattern set by the legendary D.W. Griffith (after all, Cabanne began as Griffith's assistant). An efficient albeit perhaps unimaginative craftsman, Cabanne takes no risks and keeps the basic line set by previous comedies of the same kind. Nevertheless, it's worth to point out that the pace given to the film is appropriately dynamic, considering its curious set of characters.

Being gifted with great screen presence and a natural talent, it's not a surprise that Douglas Fairbanks reached Hollywood's heights as fast as he did. While still not the kind of character that would make him famous, Fairbanks seems to enjoy himself in the role of Coke Ennyday. With a character as silly and unpredictable as Coke, Fairbanks allows himself to exaggerate, overact and play the fool; but still, he never feels wrong or out of place as the story is precisely about nothing else but playing the fool. Under the effects of his drugs, Coke lives untied by the norms and owns an unnatural luck; Fairbanks takes those traits of his character as a chance to engage in physical comedy. As his romantic interest, Bessie Love doesn't have much to do, as her role is quite stereotypical and could be considered as one of the few "normal" characters in the short film. Nevertheless, her sweet quietness provides an effective counterpart to Coke's wild antics. The rest of the cast is pretty much OK, delivering pretty much the standard quality from Triangle Productions.

As written above, "The Mystery of the Leaping Fish" is a great early example of the wild imagination of Tod Browning. Like "Sunshine Dad" (from the same year), it displays his fascination with irreverent characters who live outside the norm, as well as his taste for surreal, bizarre comedy. It's a shame that the directing, by Cabanne and Emerson is so uninspired, because a screenplay like Browning's could had been exploited in more imaginative ways. It's true that Emerson had already directed Fairbanks's hit "His Picture in the Papers", but a great deal of Emerson's success had to do with Anita Loos' (teammate and later wife) witty screenplays so, it wouldn't be fair to blame Cabanne entirely for the unoriginal, dull style of "The Mystery of the Leaping Fish". Certainly, given his amount of work and reputation, Cabanne would be the most logical suspect, but I don't think that Emerson is without guilt. Anyways, the fact is that the work of directing is a tad mediocre, and definitely unworthy of such an imaginative script and such an explosive lead actor.

Weird, bizarre, and truly unique, "The Mystery of the Leaping Fish" is a very interesting film that, despite its age and short runtime, still can get laughs because of its handling of the absurd, and it's complete irreverence. Given the generally innocent concept we have of the "good old days", it's at first hard to imagine a movie dealing with drugs in such a liberal, carefree way as this; specially a movie starring Douglas Fairbanks, written by Tod Browning, Anita Loos and produced by D.W. Griffith. Such legendary names carry so much weight that the shock is of a certainly big proportion. But in the end, those icons also knew how to laugh, and "The Mystery of the Leaping Fish" is simply a group of very talented friends who one day got together and decided to make a wild, crazy movie about a detective named Coke Ennyday. Who would use coke any day.