Some time in the early 2000s, a Peruvian government spokesman was forced to testily deny online rumours that some of the country’s cabinet were vampires. “A government cannot go around sucking the blood of its people”, the spokesman claimed, inviting the obvious rejoinder; which government has ever refrained from this? The idea of the vampire as political metaphor is an image which has been taken up by everyone from Karl Marx to Nazi propagandists, Matt Taibbi to the Serbian man who claims to have staked Slobodan Milosevic’s corpse. It’s also at the heart of Pere Portabella’s Vampir Cuadecuc, now released on Blu-Ray and DVD by Second Run. Made in the tense final years of General Franco’s regime, it might be the most distinctive, unusual, challenging and provocative thing British home viewers have seen this year.
Vampir Cuadecuc was filmed on the same sets with the same cast as Jess Franco’s Count Dracula, though the relationship between the two films is difficult to define. I had expected something akin to Chris Marker’s films about Akira Kurosawa and Andrei Tarkovsky, which are essentially unusually reflective, artistically interesting versions of the behind-the-scenes film and the biographical documentary respectively. This is not the case. To define the relationship between Portabella’s film and Franco’s, we have to step outside a cinematic frame of reference.
We may, for instance, use musical terms. The first sound in Vampir Cuadecuc is a thunderclap; a fairly predictable way to start a Gothic horror film, yes, but Portabella extends it using delay effects into a churning, swirling ocean of noise. Reggae fans will understand what’s going on here – Portabella is doing the dub remix of Franco’s film! We might also turn to art theory, in particular the Situationists’ concept of détournement, in which mainstream imagery is hijacked to serve a more subversive purpose.
The Situationists, though, did that without permission. One of the remarkable things about Vampir Cuadecuc is that Portabella created this strange, spiky subversion of Franco’s film with Franco’s full blessing. He was allowed seemingly unrestricted access to the production, and the finished film includes a lot of things you’d expect from a behind-the-scenes documentary. We see Franco’s star Christopher Lee reading Bram Stoker in his dressing room, crew members using a strange handheld device to spray fake cobwebs on the set, and Maria Rohm smiles and winks at Portobella’s camera in between screaming her head off as Mina Harker.
Why did Franco allow Portabella to do this? Well, partly for political reasons – Franco may have shared a surname with the man who ruled his country at the time, but he certainly didn’t share any of his beliefs, and he must have taken pleasure in allowing his film production to be transformed into a piece of radical anti-fascist, anti-capitalist agitprop. It’s also true that Franco, like any exploitation film-maker of his generation, will have re-used plenty of sets and props from bigger-budget films. Now that he was the one working with a reasonably generous budget and a starry international cast, maybe he wanted to take the principle even further and give Portabella the chance to re-use his whole production process?
The thing about Vampir Cuadecuc that might have most impressed Franco, though, is that it’s a damn good adaptation of Dracula. It’s not necessary to have seen Franco’s film to enjoy Portabella’s (I haven’t), but it may be necessary to know Bram Stoker’s novel. On its release, a key selling point of Franco’s movie was that it was more faithful to the novel than any previous screen Dracula, and so, in its own way, is Vampir Cuadecuc. Franco’s film picks up on Stoker’s detail that the initially elderly Count becomes younger and more virile as he drinks more blood. Portabella’s Brechtian approach allows him to go even further and end by transforming Dracula from a movie monster into the actor Christopher Lee, pulling out his contact lenses and false teeth to walk among the living.
There are lots of these clever, conceptual jokes in Vampir Cuadecuc – I enjoyed how Portabella undermines the idea of the vampire as a creature of the night by continually leaving the extremely bright artificial lights of Franco’s production in shot. Once you set aside its politics and avant-garde artistic strategies, though, it’s a surprisingly sensual, beautiful film. Portabella’s adaptation of Dracula analogises Jonathan Harker’s stagecoach ride with an exhilarating blur of trees passing by a carriage window, and he zooms in on Soledad Miranda’s rapturous face as Lee’s Dracula drains her blood. Of the two fine Portabella shorts included in the extras, the most relevant might be La Tempesta, a series of close-up shots of body parts being sprayed with water. It includes no nudity but feels fantastically obscene, in much the same way that this collection of strange odds and ends somehow adds up to a genuinely satisfying Bram Stoker adaptation.
What, incidentally, is a “cuadecuc”? In his suitably eccentric, incredibly enjoyable booklet Stanley Schtinter explains that it’s a Catalan word, literally meaning “worm-tail” but used within the film industry to refer to the tail-ends of a film reel. Using it in the title of Portabella’s film, it therefore has three meanings, referring to the shoestring status of its production, of its worm’s-eye view of society and film-making, and as a statement of defiance against Franco, who banned the Catalan language. The fact that the question of Catalan independence has returned from the grave to haunt the Spanish government just adds another reason why this singular, strange, witty and fabulously imaginative film is as relevant now as it was in 1970.