Ginger Nuts of Horror
My Life In Horror
Every month, I will write about a film, album, book or event that I consider horror, and that had a warping effect on my young mind. You will discover my definition of what constitutes horror is both eclectic and elastic. Don’t write in. Also, of necessity, much of this will be bullshit – as in, my best recollection of things that happened anywhere from 15 – 30 years ago. Sometimes I will revisit the source material contemporaneously, further compounding the potential bullshit factor. Finally, intimate familiarity with the text is assumed – to put it bluntly, here be gigantic and comprehensive spoilers. Though in the vast majority of cases, I’d recommend doing yourself a favour and checking out the original material first anyway.
This is not history. This is not journalism. This is not a review.
This is my life in horror.
There’s No Real Magic, Ever
The following was, in part, informed by a far longer and more wide ranging conversation I had with the excellent Daniel Harper, as part of the recent Wrong With Authority footnote podcast. For (much) more, including discussion of other movies by the same director, see here:
Because here’s the deal: the second your kid has a TV in their room - or, shit, a PC/iPad - any device that can connect to broadcast medium, the war is over. You waved the white flag. They can pour literally anything into their brains, now. Whatever human horror you can conceive, they can watch, in 1080 resolution. And almost certainly in porn parody form. All you can do is hope that whatever you’ve given them to that point, whatever you’ve nurtured inside them, will be enough for them to tell right from wrong, know their own limits, to survive whatever cultural assault they’re about to self inflict.
Truly, hope. That’s all you’ve got.
Do you know it, as a parent? Sure you do. As long as you remember being a kid, how could you not?
No internet in the bedroom for this kid. Back when I were a boy, dinosaurs roamed the earth, and the internet only existed to tell a computer scientist in some posh university that the kettle in the other room had boiled.
All I had was a black and white portable TV (with, crucially, a headphone socket) in my room that I’d bought from a neighbour for the princely sum of £25, and the 4 terrestrial channels it could pick up.
Turns out, that was plenty.
I’m pretty sure I can trace back my lifelong issues with maintaining a sleep pattern, and in particular my seemingly chronic inability to get to sleep on a Friday night prior to 2am even now, at 39, back to that giant heavy lump of plastic, wire and glass.
There was this program called Raw Power, see. On at 3am, it was the only broadcast show in the UK dedicated to rock and metal. Every week, it sat there in the listings, a mortal challenge to my tired pre-teen arse - you want the life source? Gotta stay up late.
And more often than not, I did.
But we’re not here to talk about Raw Power (or the replacement show Noisy Mothers). Nope, this is about what I’d sometimes end up watching while completing my lonely vigil to the hallowed hour of 3am.
This is about Channel 4 running a series of previously banned or censored films, and the night I’d catch one that would cut me deep enough that, even on a recent rewatch, I’d still find myself stunned by it’s power, it’s darkness.
We need to talk about Martin.
The film opens with a woman getting on a train. She’s beautiful. She’s being followed by a strange looking young man. He’s… not ugly, but odd. My 11/12/13 year old mind latches onto him instinctively. I talk a bit about this on the podcast above, and also, obliquely, here: To rehearse the argument, I, like I suspect 95% of the rest of the population, was an awkward kid. I knew I liked girls - even at 11, I knew that. But I was, as is normal, not equipped emotionally or biologically to really know what that meant, or to do anything about it.
And yet, I yearned.
I was drawn to girls I perceived to be pretty or beautiful. I wanted to be someone’s boyfriend, without knowing that meant or could mean any more than holding hands, (or maybe, in a fever dream, a kiss on the lips). I guess that innocence is something to be grateful for - I wonder how many post-internet children get to stay that innocent, that long.
Still, I felt... Something. And I couldn’t understand it or explain it, but thanks to pop culture, I knew what it was called: love.
So I loved. A lot. From a distance, after a couple of utterly crushing instant rejections. I loved, and I yearned to be loved, and I didn’t have a fucking clue what any of it meant.
So then there’s this boy. And the title card helpfully tells us he’s called Martin. And he looks at the pretty girl, just like I look at pretty girls, knowing they do not, will not, look back.
He finds out where she’s sleeping - it’s a sleeper train, which I know all about, on account of being a male child in Britain in the 80’s and this chap called James Bond.
Then he goes into a bathroom. Opens a wash kit, which contains razor blades, syringes, and drugs. He fills a syringe with fluid. And between Bond and Casualty, I know what’s going on here - he’s going to drug the girl, knock her out. It’s what the baddies do in Bond films, like, a LOT.
Only he’s Martin. He’s not a baddie - almost can’t be, he’s practically still a kid, very childlike, and there are not bad kids in movies, ever.
Because, of course, Martin goes to her carriage, and after a brief black and white shot (which even at the time I read to be his imagining what was happening behind the door, the pretty girl in a nightgown calling his name), he breaks in and attacks her, drugs her, struggles with her until she passes out, then strips her naked, has sex with her, and for an encore takes a razor to her wrist and drinks her blood.
We’ve yet to pass the ten minute mark.
The assault is horrific, by the way. It’s a scene that would have to make most women’s top 3 worst nightmares, I’d have thought. She physically fights him off, he wrestles her to the ground. She panics as the drug starts to take effect, pleading to be told what it is, and he gives gentle calm assurances that he’s ‘careful’, that she’ll just fall asleep and then wake up again.
And the worst part is, you believe him.
No. the worst part is; I believed him.
And sure, it’s an amazing performance. John Amplas is all big eyes, sad vulnerability. Even when he’s telling her not to scream, it comes out as pleading - as though he’s more concerned about her inner panic than the chance of getting caught. That apparent empathy for his victim is so sincerely delivered that, first time around, I was half convinced he meant it, that this was all some kind of misunderstanding.
This is where we must pause, and admire the horror of the moment. Because as a young woman is drugged, raped and murdered, my 11 year old boy brain is centered, not on her and her terror, pain, and violation, but on the apparent ‘sensitivity’ of her attacker.
Because fucking hell, George Romero, man.
And look, sure - this is not a movie for 11 year olds. Emphatically not. But just take a look at some of the cultural criticism made of this movie, and you’ll see variations of this theme, again and again - however much the male critics know what’s going on is sick, wrong, evil… there’s this massive sympathy, bordering on identification, with Martin.
Do we see more of Martin? Sure we do. A lot more, The movie is, in a sense, his life story. We get to see the different sides to him, his struggle to fit in, his possibly-crazed family situation.The performance opens up like a flower, and the rest of the cast is superb, and there’s a home invasion sequence which, I agree with Daniel Harper, should be taught in film school, as an example of what you can achieve on a low budget with enough skill, vision, and editing skills.
Still, though, the film starts with a basically contextless assault, sex crime, and murder.
And it was Martin my mind went to.
I’ve mentioned before here that I was raised feminist, and some of what that meant. Like I said up top - parents do their best, then set you loose and hope. And between you and me, I think mum did a pretty fucking good job.
But Martin happened. And at the time, I thought it was a brilliant movie, but also at the time I didn’t have the tools necessary to realise just what a monstrous, incredible feat of filmmaking it represented.
There’s this saying that I absolutely hate, that goes like this; porn tells lies about women and the truth about men. Well, fuck that gender essentialist bullshit, and fuck you if you believe it.
But. And. Also.
I think no matter how well we are raised, there’s a wider culture. And while it’s vibrant and messy and complex and multifaceted and self contradictory and even often in argument with itself, there are a metric shit-ton of untested assumptions that underpin a lot of it, about gender and what being a man means and what being a woman means. And as much as I recoil in horror from the notion of objectification, the idea that we can see another human being not as a funhouse mirror of ourselves, but instead as a thing to be enjoyed or consumed…
Well, there’s 11 year old me. Watching Martin. Watching Martin rape and murder a girl, and thinking only about Martin.
Martin was George Romero’s favourite of his own movies, according to the always-reliable wikipedia entry on the subject. I have no idea if it’s true or not, but I believe it. Certainly of all his works, it’s by far and away my favourite.
Not - to be crystal clear- because Romero was any kind of misogynist or rape apologist or objectifier of women. That’s the very opposite of what I believe.
No, because he knew how to make a movie that would force us - us men - to examine that part of ourselves that is capable of objectification. He did it in the way that’s true genius - they way that makes you slap your forehead and say ‘well, of COURSE!’
He makes the protagonist like you. Like virtually any male that’s ever lived. A child, yearning. Reaching for something he cannot understand, but craves. Desire, without understanding. ‘Love’ without awareness.
Hunger with only a facsimile of compassion.
I love the Dead movies, and The Crazies. And I know that, with Night..., Romero damn near invented a genre of horror fiction that is, at this point, probably a billion dollar entertainment industry. And honestly, as much as I love good zombie fiction, for my money nobody has ever beaten the source for sheer visceral impact. He was a monumental talent, a world class storyteller, and by all accounts, a lovely man in person, too.
But for my money, if the only movie he’d ever made was Martin, he’d still deserve the mantle of genius.
It’s that fucking good.
And so was he.