Cuadecuc, vampir

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A seminal work of avant-garde cinema, Pere Portabella’s Cuadecuc, vampir (1971) was shot in conjunction with Jesús Franco’s film Count Dracula (1970). Portabella shot his film as Franco shot his, capturing the same takes but from different angles as well as plenty of behind the scenes footage. Ostensibly each filmmaker is adapting Bram Stoker’s novel for the screen. However, Cuadecuc, vampir is less concerned with plot and more concerned with image.

At the heart of both Cuadecuc, vampir and Count Dracula is Christopher Lee. No other actor has ever played Dracula on film as often as Lee so it is no wonder that his image has become tied to the character in the minds of audiences around the world. In Count Dracula, Franco appropriates Lee from the Gothic extravaganzas of Hammer Horror films for his own picture; putting a unique spin on Lee’s portrayal of the famous vampire. What Portabella does in his film is to reveal those elements that give Christopher Lee’s Dracula his bite.

Cuadecuc, vampir is a film of deconstruction in which the myth making elements of the cinema are laid bare. Within this complex of operations the image of Lee’s Dracula is revealed to be entirely plastic with a fake mustache, false fangs, contact lenses, and all of the campy pomp and circumstance that is afforded an individual of Dracula’s rank. As Lee, adorned in all of his vampire gear, walks through the shadows of a dimly lit train station Portabella cuts to the camera tracking the actor. In another sequence, before Lee can answer Dracula’s door, Portabella shows a member of Franco’s crew applying artificial cob webs to the structure as if Dracula wouldn’t participate unless it suited his own sense of mystique.

Portabella suggests that all of the artistry that goes into creating Dracula is nothing more than an illusion designed to distract the characters, the actors and the audience from the real vampire: the camera. The beautiful Soledad Miranda will sit up in bed and look to her window in fear as the rubber bat of Dracula comes knocking. But as the Count draws her gaze, Portabella reveals that out of the shadows behind Miranda emerges a camera on a dolly that has come to capture her fear. It’s a type of vampirism; the act of recording an image is the act of immortalizing a single moment, a face, or a gesture.

The high contrast 16mm black and white film stock that Portabella used to make Cuadecuc, vampir does two things effectively. Firstly, it aligns Cuadecuc, vampir with the highly stylized B-Movies of the fifties and early sixties which only reenforces the film’s legitimacy as an adaptation of Stoker’s novel. Secondly, the look of the film stock is associated with the cinéma vérité documentaries of the sixties in the minds of the audience which adds credence to Portabella’s reflexively analytical tactics. Portabella is very deliberate and conscious of aesthetic associations and relationships, adeptly manipulating these cinematographic elements to prompt specific responses from the spectator.

However what holds Cuadecuc, vampir together is the music of Carles Santos. Santos’ experimental music adds a macabre and surreal texture to Portabella’s images of vampires and castles. The rhythmic clanging and banging of Santos’ music matches the movements and tones of the film which allows the otherwise silent spaces to feel full of dreadful ambience. Portabella and Santos approach the marriage of sound and image in much the same way as Alan Splet and David Lynch would some six years later with their Eraserhead (1977).

Cuadecuc, vampir is still the only film by Pere Portabella that is readily available in the U.S. Aside from being one of the major experimental features of the seventies, Cuadecuc, vampir benefits from featuring popular international stars and the involvement of a director with an intense cult following. The status and marketability of these elements may get this film a home video release in the States, but it is tucked away as a special feature on the Severin Films package of Count Dracula. Cuadecuc, vampir is not only a better film than Franco’s, it’s also by a filmmaker whose work is criminally under-seen in this country.