At the end of last month I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to see a rare screening of Pere Portabella’s avant-garde guerilla reworking of Dracula. On reflection I was fortunate in more ways that one as there were many reasons for not going to see this refreshingly innovative piece of cinema. Firstly I have to confess that until I saw the listing for this screening I had never even heard of Vampir, Cuadecuc (1971), although if I’m honest the discovery of a Christopher Lee version of Dracula that I had never seen or heard of is usually more than enough to get me down to any screening. Having said that there were other barriers to my attendance, most notably the fact that Portabella’s film is in fact a reworking of the material shot by Jess Franco for his 1970 film Count Dracula. The mere mention of Franco’s name (in sharp contrast to that of Christopher Lee) is usually enough to steer well clear of any screening of his work. Despite his established cult status I have always found Franco’s work dull and turgid in the extreme although I had actually seen his version of Count Dracula. This was largely due to the fact that Christopher Lee has often spoke of the film’s accurate portrayal of Stoker’s Count (although he has also pointed out that the film isn’t much good), appearing first as an elderly white-moustachioued man who gradually gets younger as the story progresses. Added to that, the names of Herbert Lom, Soledad Miranda and the always compelling Klaus Kinski on the cast list was enough to overcome my usual misgivings, tempting me into watching Franco’s disappointing take on the vampiric Count. Portabella’s film, shot on black and white stock on and around the sets of Franco’s production, reworks and reshapes elements of the original movie – combined with images of behind- the-scenes preparation and production – into an eerie silent movie version of the Dracula story.
I had suspected that this kind of guerilla film-making might at best result in an interesting curio or at worse a self-indulgent piece of would-be avant-garde nonsense but I’m pleased to say that all of my expectations were confounded by this beguiling and challenging piece of film-making. Skillfully piecing together the bare elements of Jess Franco’s film, Portabella produces an elegant and haunting adaptation of Bram Stoker’s original novel. Somehow the stiff and often clunky deliberations of Jess Franco are transformed into a tense and atmospheric retelling of a familiar tale. This familiarity with the much retold story does not serve to make Vampir, Cuadecuc boring or predictable but helps build the mute tension of the narrative, particularly early on as the dark secrets of Castle Dracula are revealed. The sections of overexposed film and the often dissonant noises on the soundtrack (courtesy of long-term collaborator Carles Santos) serve to emphasise the feelings of isolation and disorientation on the screen despite the often incongruous pairing of sound and image. The jarring sounds of the modern world – including traffic, trains and pneumatic drills would seem to be at odds with the languorous images on the screen but somehow they work beautifully together and draw the viewer further into the film’s spell. Even the cheesy Euro lounge music that occasionally rises to the surface is incorporated into the haunting atmosphere of the film and perhaps is also a back-handed jibe at Jess Franco’s oeuvre.
It is also remarkable that the ‘behind the scenes’ elements included in Vampir, Cuadecuc feel so well-integrated into the film’s narrative. Taken by themselves there are some charming and revealing scenes that expose elements of the film-making process. We see Christopher Lee taking out his blood-shot contact lenses and aiming a playful swipe at the camera before lowering himself into his coffin so that a prop man can waft a strange electric-fan like device over him, setting down gentle layers of artificial cobweb. Later on as the Count strides down a Victorian street the camera pulls back to reveal the arc lights hung on the film set, with the technicians poised beside their equipment. In the scene where Van Helsing (Herbert Lom) repels Dracula by drawing a flaming cross on the floor with hot poker (a rare flourish I’d forgotten about in the Franco version) we see Soledad Miranda floating about in contemporary dress, despite her fictional character having been ceremoniously staked a while earlier. As the action in the scene is completed, the terrified character of Mina (Maria Rohm) looks blankly at the camera, then suddenly aims a saucy wink at the camera that hits the viewer like a small but delicious electric shock. These ‘off camera’ moments provide in themselves fascinating morsels reflecting on the processes of filmmaking but are also expertly woven into the narrative flow of the story that they seem fully integrated into this singular adaptation. The potentially demystifying shots of Christopher Lee applying his make-up or playfully removing his false moustache run the risk of detracting from his sombre portrayal of the Count but in fact the film reveals a performance of great poise and dark beauty. Lee’s performance ably draws out the terrible dignity and tragedy of Dracula in a way that seems so far removed from the stilted storytelling of Franco’s original that it seems impossible that the two could be so closely related.
The scenes where images of the modern world invade the imaginary construction of the fictional past are similarly interwoven into the overall fabric of the piece with shots of commuter trains, traffic and idling labourers feeling continuous with the familiar characters of Stoker’s story. These images of the ‘real’ and the ‘now’, which serve to link the Victorian past of the novel to the present day, remind us of how the ever resonant tale of Dracula is as much part of the present as it is the past. The various changes, adaptations and allegories of Stoker’s landmark story over the last 100 years or so, reflect the shaping of Dracula across a range of temporal and geographical contexts. I hadn’t expected to be musing on such ideas when watching Vampir, Cuadecuc, and it is a testament to the vision and skill of the film-makers that the film is able to function both as an eerily effective retelling of the Dracula tale and also a provocative reflection on the processes of storytelling and film-making history. It wasn’t until after the screening that I discovered that the character of the Count is interpreted by some as being a sly critique on the enduring Spanish dictator, Generalissimo Francisco Franco, whose decrepit regime was living out its last few years at the time that Vampir, Cuadecuc was made. The figure of the elderly old count, once great but now well past his sell-by date, sucking the life-blood of the young to prolong his evil existence provides an obvious (or so it should have been as I was watching the film; the name of the director really should have helped me make the link…) and rather elegant allegory for the real-life Generalissimo as well as evidence of the enduring appeal and relevance of the Dracula story.