You are now reading an exclusive piece from the Film Daze Digital Magazine, Issue 1:Vampires. Enjoy! – The Film Daze Team
What does it mean to be a vampire? To bite a victim, feed on their blood, and attain immortality through draining their life’s essence?
What does it mean to be a director? To shoot a film, feed on its emotion, and attain immortality through capturing life’s essence?
Pere Portabella’s haunting vampire tale, Cuadecuc, Vampir (1971), probes at the spectral qualities of the filmmaking process, asking questions about art as an attempt to defy death. Most simply put, it’s a movie about making movies. But it’s also a movie about making myths, monsters, and much more. Cuadecuc, Vampir began as a behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of Jesus Franco’s Count Dracula (1970) starring Christopher Lee. Yet any notion of it being a traditional documentary quickly unravels as it begins to take on its own twisting shape. “Cuadecuc” reportedly means “worm’s tail” in Catalan, and can also refer to the unexposed footage tails at the ends of film reels, so it feels like an appropriate name, given this film worms its way underneath the surface of the original Count Dracula and transforms into a meta-commentary on the vampire story itself.
Dracula is a story everyone seems to know, even those who have never gone near Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel. The mythic vampire from Transylvania haunts our collective imagination and each subsequent cultural depiction of the blood-drinking undead. Dracula has become nearly synonymous with the entire vampire genre, embodied by a lineup of actors in hundreds of iterations of the story. Yet if there is anyone perfectly suited to deconstructing the familiar narrative, it is the radically inventive Portabella, one of Spain’s most politically engaged and aesthetically experimental filmmakers.
The footage, shot on high-contrast black-and-white film stock, remains hazy and grainy, having the appearance of a degraded film print — like a ghostly trace of history. We watch as the actors haunt the Gothic atmosphere, filming candlelit scenes in castle corridors or adjusting their makeup between takes. Yet often, the overblown white washes out parts of their faces, or the deep black hardly renders them above the shadows. Producing roars of pure noise, frequent Portabella collaborator Carles Santos creates an ominous soundscape of unidentifiable components – both man and machine. The film features almost no diegetic sound, as we hear the experimental soundtrack of rhythmic thumping or frantic footsteps – but no dialogue. As a result, the scenes from Count Dracula become eerie silent featurettes, and our experience of Cuadecuc, Vampir feels like wandering somewhere between nightmares and waking life.
But this dark dream has deeper meaning as Portabella’s artistic practice is inseparable from his politics. He long articulated his resistance against the oppressive Franco regime through clandestine filmmaking: flouting government-imposed restrictions and refusing to be silenced by censorship. At the time of filming in Spain, General Francisco Franco was still in power, so as Portabella follows the cast and crew on set, and dismantles the all-powerful image of Dracula, he also implicitly dismantles the control of the dictator. This subversive, guerilla style is palpable as Portabella’s camera captures stolen moments on set, allowing us a glimpse into the art and artifice of creating a work of horror.
Cuadecuc, Vampir deconstructs traditional cinematic form, resisting impulses for synchronous sounds, images, or a clear narrative structure. Instead, we get a fragmented portrait of the creation of horror’s looming figures. The film is not quite a traditional behind-the-scenes documentary, but rather an inside-and-underneath-the-scenes look. It digs into the layers of performance by taking long scenes of Franco’s original film and stripping them of their color and sound, forcing audiences to realize the contrived nature of the costumed characters and spooky spaces. The camera puts the mechanical work of Franco’s film production onscreen, while also catching glimpses of actors putting in their fangs or set assistants spraying fake spiderwebs on the tombs.
As Portabella peels back layers of performance to get at the uncanny slippage between actor and character, we start to see Dracula as both a vampire and a performer – a man and a monster – simultaneously. Dracula has a menacing look in his eyes and a lack of reflection in the mirror; but at times, the creature cracks, and Lee comes through, smiling at the camera as he lays down in his coffin. At one point, he even removes his iconic vampire teeth and contact lenses, then peels off his false facial hair. Other actors look on in surprise, as if wondering how much more of himself Lee will reveal at Dracula’s expense — where the monster ends and the man begins is never fully clear.
The only synchronous sound in the film arrives at the very end when Lee reads a passage from Stoker’s novel, fittingly discussing the vampire’s final moments in conjunction with the nearing end of his own embodiment of the role. “The actual death of Dracula, in the book, is surprisingly short,” Lee says, and soon he commences a dramatic reading. The moment is nearly hypnotic as we are unable to tear ourselves away from his endlessly compelling image and voice – like falling under a vampire’s spell. The final shot lingers on Lee for a moment, but then… a voice says “cut,” and we are reminded once again that it is all a performance. Dracula dies and Count Dracula wraps shooting, but Portabella’s vampire story of men who are monsters and monsters who are men lives on in the form of a black-and-white afterimage seared into our consciousness.