In a cool twist on the well-known horror favorites that pop up each October across various movie platforms, the Wex's Film/Video curators have programmed a Halloween double bill that's more out of the ordinary, in more ways than one. The October 31 program unites the distinctly (and wonderfully) odd 1932 classic The Old Dark House, by Frankenstein director James Whale, with the rarely screened Vampir-Cuadecuc, a 1971 experimental work by Spanish filmmaker Pere Portabella. Created from black and white footage shot on the set of Spanish horror meister Jesús "Jess" Franco's 1970 film Count Dracula, Vampir-Cuadecuc was recognized on its release as both a meditation on the Dracula figure and a lacerating critique of Spain's then-dictator, General Francisco Franco. For the upcoming screening, we turned to an expert for a contemporary take on watching Portabella's work: Joe Neff, co-founder and programmer of the annual Shock Around the Clock horror movie marathon at the Drexel Theatre.
To paraphrase Jean-Luc Godard, cinema is dreaming at twenty-four frames per second; a constant, recurring stab at hallucination en masse. At its best, the form allows for a collective summoning of the unconscious writ large on a blank screen, self-hypnosis as entertainment. As such, Pere Portabella’s Vampir-Cuadecuc exists in the space between those frames of dreaming. There are hints of a larger, more complex fantasy within its 66 minutes, but as with so many nocturnal flights of fancy, the viewer is left with only a series of fleeting, yet powerful impressions.
Having previously collaborated with Luis Bunuel on his scandalous Viridiana, Portabella’s choice to use fellow Spanish auteur Jesús Franco’s Count Dracula as the basis for his experimental trance of a film seems especially appropriate. Although he never attained the lofty respect afforded to Bunuel, Franco explored the delicate membrane between the waking world and the subconscious with just as much verve. His oeuvre was a series of delirious mediations on the intertwined nature of eroticism and horror, Eros and Thanatos in full embrace for the grindhouse crowd.
Ironically, Count Dracula is one of Franco’s more subdued films, an attempt by both he and star Christopher Lee at a more faithful adaptation of the Bram Stoker source material in the wake of Lee’s career-defining turn as the Count in the Hammer Films’ lush vampire cycle. But Portabella exploits the inherent intimacy that dominates Franco’s films in his camera’s point of view, stealing glimpses of scenes from the film from alternate angles, making the viewer a privileged insider and witness to the creative process. His use of high contrast black and white film gives the proceedings the feeling of a reverse-negative imprint of a pre-established reality, a doppelganger world running in parallel, separated only by perspective. Or, perhaps, the flip side of the celluloid.
Carles Santos’s soundtrack deftly subverts the expectations for a standard horror film soundtrack, mixing ambient electronic drones with Euro-lounge stylings. It’s a stunning effect, simulating the whiplash of a somnambulist veering through sub-reality after sub-reality, mirroring how Portabella intercuts scenes of high gothic terror with candid moments of Lee and Franco muse Soledad Miranda clowning around between takes. Just because we see the machinations behind the illusions doesn’t make them any less powerful or potent.
And that’s fitting, as part and parcel of the act of cinematic dreaming is the desire for a closer connection to the artists behind that grand hallucination, an ability to become one with the process. In this manner, Vampir-Cuadecuc evokes a psychic bolt from beyond, a half-remembered vision of moments in time that we might have once lived. As Bunuel once said, “Our imagination, and our dreams, are forever invading our memories.” If Count Dracula exists in the cinematic dreamscape, then in the spirit of another great chronicler of the fantastic, Edgar Allan Poe, Vampir-Cuadecuc is the dream within a dream.
Image: Christopher Lee in Vampir-Cuadecuc, courtesy pereportabella.com