Cuadecuc/Vampir, dir. Pere Portabella

I didn’t know anything about this film before watching, except that Portabella is noted for being avant-garde (I’d not even heard of Portabella, until a few days ago), and not knowing anything, this changed the way I watched it. This is how I understood it:

The film is a retelling of Dracula, based on the Hammer Horror version. It is shot in black and white, without sound – which is to say, a soundtrack is put in, largely consisting on odd noises, but you hear no dialogue. It is a silent film then: characters speak; you hear nothing; you derive instead what is going on from the images, from your knowledge of having watched Dracula in your youth. It stars Christopher Lee, as Dracula, who is only proper. Herbert Lom is in it too, and Klaus Kinski.

The filming itself is quite extraordinary and beautiful. Often the film-maker seems to use too much brightness and contrast, which creates a strangely pleasing effect; sometimes things seem to be out of focus. The camera every now and then picks up images of people on set, but in an entirely casual way. Sometimes Portabella films the scenes as they are being prepared: forests being laced with dry ice, for instance, or crypts being covered with cobwebs. The filming sometimes doesn’t stop at the end of takes but continues to watch the actors as they relax and drop out of character. None of this is particularly disconcerting to the viewer; nor does it, as it would with a novelist, particularly seem to want to draw attention to itself. You wonder, in fact, why film-makers are always so bothered about hiding cameras and pretending what they’re shooting is real. In the final scene, Christopher Lee reads to camera (this is the only dialogue in the film) the ending of Bram Stoker’s book.

That is how I saw the film: as a remarkable rendition of the Dracula story – the best version of all, perhaps. But I learn that this isn’t really so; that in reality Portabella was making a sort of documentary, that in fact he was filming the filming of Jess Franco’s version of Dracula. And yet, this is not a Making Of as anyone would understand it: it says almost nothing about the process of film-making or the film-making; in truth, it just seems a far, far better film of Dracula made by someone who’s merely turned up on the set of someone else’s film and determined, from a slight distance, to shoot it is a work of art rather than a B-movie.

It is suggested there is a parallel to be found between the director Franco and the dictator Franco.


14 thoughts on “Cuadecuc/Vampir, dir. Pere Portabella

  1. I like your vision of this film more than I think I would like the director’s. Your review also benefits from this Don Quixote-like rewrite of film reality. It would be much appreciated if you could inform me what beverage you partook of while writing this so I could attempt a similar act of heightened film criticism at some point!

  2. I assume this has to be seen related to other Dracula movies and that’s interesting.
    We have the silent movie aspect – like in the first Nosefratu by Murnau,
    We Christopher Lee – the mainstream vampire and
    Kinski the Nosferatu of Werner Herzog’s eponymous (my favourite) film.
    Really quite a discovery.

  3. It was merely a strong shot of art that I quaffed. – I’ll grant, in other moods I might have found this film very annoying. In that, it reminds me a lot of Tarkovsky’s Stalker – a film I enjoyed as a kind of visionary experience, as opposed to all the rest of Tarkovsky’s films, which I found to be boring and irritating nonsense.

    Today, all kinds of ideas keep coming back and amusing me from the film. In the final scene, for instance, where they’re slaying all the female vampires in their coffins, Portabella concentrates instead on a completely out-of-place young blonde wearing a leopard skin jacket and leggings, with round very 60s sunglasses, a model of some sort, a girlfriend of one of the cast perhaps, who seems to find everything very amusing.

    I think maybe Dreyer’s Vampyr is referenced too – and might actually be the closest Dracula-clone in style. Herzog’s film was later than this, and to be honest I didn’t even notice Klaus Kinski (he is such a shy and retiring actor, after all).

    I also find myself wondering whether Shadow of the Vampire, a film about the filming of Nosferatu, was at all influenced by this.

    Mubi seems to have most of Portabella’s films; I will report back on how I find them.

  4. Interesting stuff. I’ve seen (on MUBI) Portabella’s other film with Lee, Umbracle, a fairly random assemblage on mostly unconnected scenes: Lee wondering through a museum, phones ringing, discussions about censorship, Lee reciting poetry and singing operatic arias in an empty theatre, chickens being killed and processed by a vast machine (while someone – not Karen Carpenter, thank Christ – sings ‘Why Do Birds Suddenly Appear?’), people being hustled away in sinister black cars, plus excerpts from an old Francoist film about a cowardly young priest who attains courage by serving as a military padre (there’s a scene of him conducting an outdoor mass while bombs are falling around him, determined to finish the ceremony in spite of the danger – real heroism). I understood well enough that a critique of Spain (and Catalonia) under Franco was being interwoven with an inquiry into the nature of cinema; beyond that, I understood nothing, but I never let things like that that worry me.

    I’ve also seen some the short ‘documentaries’ he made about the artist Joan Miró; very nice, especially the one about the giant tapestry.

  5. A new one to me as well: sounds fascinating. I will check out Mubi, thank you for the pointer Obooki.

  6. I didn’t pay attention to the fact that Nosferatu was filmed afterwards. Still there is a link, only the other way around.
    It can be watched on YouTube for free it seems.

  7. Yes, I’ll be watching Umbracle soon enough, I should think. It sounds like Portabella started following Lee around before he got to Cuadecuc.

    Of course, Kinski’s was in Jess Franco’s Dracula – just not as a vampire. Cuadecuc did remind me of Herzog’s Nosferatu at times – or maybe there were moments in it that were more reminiscent of Aguirre (another film with not much dialogue in it).

  8. Did you not like Andrei Roublev? Of all the Tarkovsky’s I’ve seen that was the one that made the strongest impression.

    I got an uncontrollable fit of the giggles during Stalker when they were throwing a pebble around in the grass to determine where to walk. I am a dogged suspender of disbelief but that was a step too far for me.

  9. Andrei Rublev I watched when quite young, and would probably be a film to revisit. I got a bit lost in it, I seem to remember – had no idea what was going on. Stalker, as I feel, needs to be seen in the right state of mind – I can imagine it is, indeed, an easy film to laugh at.

    I don’t know whether I agree with all this films being free on youtube. How can films continue to be obscure if people can just watch them places?

  10. It’s when no-one watches a film even though it’s freely available on YouTube that it’s *really* obscure.

    On Friday, I was at the Gothique (sic) Film Society showing of an obscure horror double bill. One of the two films (the Mexican one) was surprisingly good, but the other reminded me why these films deserve to remain obscure.

  11. Yes, there certainly are some bad vampire movies. The Gothique Film Society sounds great – did everyone dress up?

  12. Sadly, no – but it was great fun all the same. It was my first visit to one of their events (they do a double bill every month except for the summer break) – and I’ll try to get to a few more.

  13. Fascinating read, Tim! I can’t bvleiee I’ve never heard about the history behind this landmark film before. I saw Nosferatu when I was studying film in prep school (I started the film studies department there with one of the English teachers). Even in its technical crudeness, it captures the genre very well and I can still get the goosebumps when recalling the flick. Thanks for shedding some interesting light on a classic.

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