Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Cuadecuc Vampir (Pere Portabella 1970)

During the filming of Jess Franco's Count Dracula, Catalan director Portabella created an alternate version by filming behind-the-scenes moments, sfx details, empty settings and large chunks of the actual narrative (much of the latter could just as well, and may actually, be clips from the Franco film itself). Instead of color, it's done in a high-contrast B&W that most viewers interpret as an attempt to recall silent films. The sound is completely unrelated to the images except for a shot of a passing train where the dopplering whine is most likely an overdubbed library effect and a sequence at the end where Christopher Lee describes Dracula's death and then reads the relevant passage from Stoker's novel.

The end result of such long narrative passages accompanied only by some clanking and low-key proto-industrial noise (and a few bits of easy listening just like the early industrialists did as well) is like watching the Franco film on TV with the sound turned off. Which just leaves me to wonder what Portabella thought he was accomplishing. I'd guess he might have been trying to free poetic moments from a commercial horror film but for one thing many horror viewers are quite adept at finding those ourselves and for another Portabella failed miserably. (Compare to Bava's Lisa and the Devil or a few decades later Maddin's Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary.) The end result is like watching an incompetent promo that the studio thought might entice audiences. Y'know, show us a few clips from the film, the actors having a lark while not in front the camera and a sfx guy creating fake cobwebs. (Speaking of which, the opening credits misidentify the film as a Hammer production - peculiar since you'd think Portabella and crew would have dealt with whatever actual studio to get access to the filming.)

So where did Cuadecuc Vampir get its reputation? (Many sources add a hyphen and sometimes a comma to the title but neither exist onscreen.) Jonathan Rosenbaum for instance wrote "It all adds up to a kind of poetic alchemy in which Portabella converts one of the world's worst horror films into one of the most beautiful movies ever made about anything." And elsewhere seeing a link from Dracula to General Franco that "Portabella offers witty reflections on the powerful monopolies of both dictators and commercial cinema." A MOMA notes writer claimed it's "a delirious reflection on the codes and conventions of the horror film through the language of structural materialist cinema." The Documentary Hour blog says "dreamlike combination of documentary, narrative, experimental, and essay film styles and is one of the key films of contemporary Spanish cinema." The La Mirada Film Festival added "a spectral and hallucinatory cinematographic experience by both revealing the entrails of the filmic process and re-arranging them in a radical form"

I can't even remotely understand these comments. The film I saw was not "beautiful" and certainly not a "most beautiful" "about anything". It's not dreamlike or hallucinatory, there's nothing structural about it (or actually any kind of "radical form") and maybe in 1970 wishful thinking and governmental over-reaction might have made it seem political but today that's just silly. Portabella doesn't show any logic to his organization other than vaguely following the story and using such long, completely edited narrative sections doesn't allow him to get enough distance from the source material. Now Jess Franco is an untalented hack and I expect that his Count Dracula is pretty tedious but the viewers that think Cuadecuc Vampir is an improvement are likely congratulating themselves for being above commercial cinema when they really haven't gone anywhere at all.