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.