A Polish Vampire In Braddock: Martin

Is it childish that I can't look at the cover of Second Sight's new 4k release of George Romero's favorite film without singing Take 6's "Martiiiiin" theme song to myself, or just that I started my review by saying so?  What can I say?  I'm just excited this long delayed release is finally here.  Wasn't this supposed to arrive before their ultimate Dawn Of the Dead box?  Well, at any rate, Martin is finally here, on BD, UHD or a swagged up BD/ UHD boxed set.  All that remains to be seen now is if the wait was worth it.
I've always liked Martin, and the clever way we see the expectations of vampire films cleverly supported by modern reality, but I can't say I fully appreciated it at first.  I think I let the fact that it has a very low-budget look (more on that below), coupled with knowing half the crew was filling out the cast, including an early role by Tom Savini, Romero's future wife Christine Forrest and George himself as the priest, influence me into thinking this was kind of a dismiss-able kitchen sink amateur work.  Never mind that those performances are all actually great and this film can stand up alongside Oscar nominated dramas.  When you're young, it's easy to over-prioritize production values, gloss and special effects.  Besides your basic Herschell Gordon Lewis-style stage blood slathering, this film really just has two real Savini effects, and they both look pretty wonky.  He'd go on to perfect both in later films, but here he's clearly still learning.  But hey, they're alright for 1976; and anyway, in the context of a great little movie like this, what difference does it make?
I have to agree with Romero that the home invasion sequence at Martin's midpoint is the most effective scene he's ever filmed.  Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't go so far as to put Martin above Creepshow or the Dead trilogy.  It may be the director's favorite for personal reasons, but let's not go overboard.  That single scene, though, is so intense, smart and blackly funny.  It truly stands alone.  The rest of the time, this film is like the Ordinary People of vampire movies.  It makes great uses of its decaying Pennsylvanian locations and irony, mixed with a jazzy little score which is occasionally off-putting but then becomes sneakily effective.  Revisiting this film in 2023, I appreciate it much more than I ever did as a Romero fanboy growing up.
Not that this is Martin's debut on disc or anything.  Anchor Bay first put it out here way back in 2000, and Arrow released it on the UK in 2003.  Both of those were fullscreen, but then Lions Gate reissued it as a matted 1.78:1 DVD in 2004.  So Arrow released a second version in 2006, a 2-disc set with both the full and widescreen versions.  And they put out a third DVD set in 2010.  And Martin's been released on blu before, too.  Happinet was behind the Japanese edition in 2018, which stuck with the 1.78:1 widescreen presentation (they also threw a fullscreen version on the disc as a bonus, but it was SD).  And it was less than a month after that when Second Sight announced their blu-ray edition, so at the time, there was a lot of speculation if this would just be the same transfer.  Well, there were many delays, both because it turned out SS was doing a fancy new 4k restoration, which would later turn out to be a proper UHD release, and because they were hoping to obtain Romero's unreleased, extended, black & white director's cut, though that never ended up happening.
"Unreleased, extended, black & white director's cut," what?!  Yeah, Romero's never been shy about telling us of a longer, lost version of the film he prefers.  He talks about it on both the audio commentaries, in interviews, etc.  For starters, he always intended for the film to be in black and white, and the distributors compelled him to release it in color.  And this cut is around three and a half hours long, which naturally isn't a commercially releasable length.  Apparently he kept this print in the Laurel studios until one day he realized it wasn't there.  Was it stolen?  Had he taken it to screen somewhere and forgotten?  Who knows?  It was generally considered lost to the world... until it turned up.  Rather than being "return[ed] safely to the custody of Richard Rubinstein and Braddock Associates for digital revitalization and distribution to the world," as Michael Gornick suggests, it was auctioned off for $51,200 last summer.  And who has it now?  Who knows?  Not Second Sight; so it's not on their new release.  But what they have been able to provide is still pretty impressive.
2023 Second Sight UHD.
Sorry no comparisons.  I used to own the Anchor Bay DVD but sold it off long before I started this site.  I sort of intended to upgrade to one of the Arrow releases or something, but always figured something more definitive was around the next corner.  This Second Sight release (I've opted for the standard UHD) was the first one to finally push me over the line.  It's back to the original OAR.  I've seen the 1.78:1 framing other discs have used and can tell you, all it does is cut off the tops and bottoms while revealing nothing on the sides.  This 1.37:1 is the way to go, and as a whole it looks, well, a lot better than I remember the AB disc looking anyway.  This film is shot on reversal stock 16mm, i.e. the sort of thing that was sold to amateur consumers for home movies and the like.  And while Second Sight has done the best they could making a new 4k restoration approved by Gornick himself, it had to be taken from a 35mm dupe negative (as opposed to the original 16mm film elements, which are presumably lost, too), so there are serious limitations to how glamorous this can look.  Even with HDR, the colors look pretty muted, often the distinction between the color scenes and black & white flashbacks is fairly mild, though bright outdoor scenes stand out more than others.

Martin is presented in its original mono, along with Lions Gate's 5.1 remix and Arrow's stereo remix, all in DTS-HD.  Optional English subtitles are included as well.
Part of what's so impressive about this release is the special features package.  Even if you just get one of the single discs (BD or UHD), all the extras are included, starting with four audio commentaries.  First we get the original commentary by Romero, Savini and Amplas recorded for the Anchor Bay commentary.  It's lively and reasonably insightful, but it starts to feel like the majority of the time is devoted to identifying extras and cameo appearances by all of their friends.  Better is the track with Romero, Savini, Gornick, producer Richard P Rubinstein and composer Donald Rubinstein, which was recorded for Arrow's 2006 DVD.  It's a little more focused and informative, without losing its sense of fun.  Then there are two tracks by Travis Crawford and Kat Ellinger.  I was worried about the two expert commentaries - would we hear all the same trivia listed out verbatim twice?  But happily, they're quite individual.  Crawford is factual, and gives you plenty of great info about the film, especially when he reads excerpts from the screenplay towards the end.  And Ellinger is analytical, exploring Martin's place in gothic cinema, in comparison to other vampire films, 70s horror, etc. 
More exciting, though, is the all-new full-length retrospective documentary.  It features Gornick, Amplas and assistant cameraman Tom Dubensky wandering around Braddock, visiting the films' locations and reminiscing, intercut with talking head interviews with more of the cast and crew, including Christine Romero, actress Sara Venable and sound-man turned documentarian Tony Buba.  Also on board is a much shorter 10-minute featurette from the old Arrow DVD (to be clear, pretty much all legacy extras are on this new set), that ostensibly covers a lot of the same ground, interviewing most of the major players and visiting the original house.  But both have some exclusive interviews and go to places not seen in the other, so you won't want to skip either one.  There's also an on-camera interview with Don Rubinstein, which allows him to delve deeper into the score than he could on the commentary, and a vintage 1974 Buba short called J-Roy: New and Used Furniture.  I don't have the Kino BD of Buba docs, so I'm not sure if it looks any better here than it does there, but it's in HD, 1.33:1 with lossy mono audio and no subs.

That's the bulk of it, but there's also the trailer, which is one of those you should watch, because it contains footage not in the film, featuring Amplas, in character as Martin, talking about himself to the camera.  It also gives you glimpses of the black & white flashback footage in color.  Then there's a shorter TV spot and two radio spots.  The limited edition also comes with a soundtrack CD, a hefty 108-page book and 5 art cards, all housed in an outer slipcase.
So yeah, we finally got the Martin release I couldn't resist.  Barring original film elements being recovered, or that extended cut being allowed to flourish on home video, this is as definitive an edition as you could ever hope for.  But then again, newer and better releases have a way of showing up every time.  For now, though, this is easily the ideal way to view this underrated film.

1 comment:

  1. I think I can safely say that whoever decided to auction off the extended cut instead of giving it to Rubenstein is an idiot.

    I at least hope it's in safe hands.