In 1970, Jesús Franco made Count Dracula, a vampire movie starring Christopher Lee, Klaus Kinski and Herbert Lom. It was a mostly faithful telling of Bram Stoker’s story: a naive and handsome man travels to Transylvania to conduct a real estate deal with an aged Count, becomes trapped and escapes back to England just as the Count arrives and begins sucking the blood of a young woman, who happens to be the best friend of the young man’s fiancée. Led by a scientist named Van Helsing, the young man and three other men figure out what the Count is, kill the woman who has herself been turned into a vampire and then go back to Transylvania to kill the Count. Franco was a director of notorious reputation, one who frequented the low-budget, pornier corners of European cinema for most of the 160+ films he directed. Count Dracula is the only one of his movies I’ve seen, and it isn’t terrible, but neither is it particularly good: Lee is terrific, as always, and there are some nice atmospheric moments. But the movie progressively becomes dumber as it goes along, either straying from Stoker’s original or cutting out the connective tissue that in the novel help the characters’ actions make some kind of sense. By far the best thing about the movie, though, is that Catalan experimental filmmaker Pere Portabella was there to chronicle its making.
Far from a conventional behind-the-scenes documentary, however, Vampir-Cuadecuc is more like a stealth remake of the same movie, using not only the same actors, but the same takes. It’s shot entirely in black-and-white, with a creepy soundtrack composed almost entirely of drones and ambient noises (passing trains or airplanes, workers hammering away): the world as it might sound from inside a coffin. The black-and-white is grainy and high contrast, with brilliant whites and deep blacks, bringing an eerie edge to scenes that in the conventionally flat-lit, color photography of the original are bland and somnolent.
The film follows the chronology of the original almost exactly, cutting out some of the more useless parts (including the entirety of Kinski’s one-note performance as the lunatic Renfield), filming the scenes as they are being filmed, but from unintended angles, such that we see the lights or cameras or behind the stage walls. Similarly we see the actors before and after their performances, getting into and out of character or simply walking around the set looking beautiful (Soledad Miranda lights up the screen in a way she just can’t as the zombified Lucy in the Franco film), often accompanied by jaunty elevator music. At the most basic level, the difference in quality between Franco and Portabella’s films can be seen in the fact that (in the version I saw, there are different cuts) Franco’s runs a seemingly endless 96 minutes, where Vampir-Cuadecuc is a very nice 69 minutes long.
By removing all of the dialogue and stripping out the extraneous plotting, Portabella captures the fundamental anxiety of horror cinema, spooky sounds and images that harken all the way back to Murnau’s Nosferatu and Dreyer’s Vampyr. The only spoken words come at the end, with Lee reading from Stoker’s book itself, a far better conclusion than Franco’s limp and silly climax. It’s the stripped down, elemental adaptation of Stoker’s text counterpart to Francis Ford Coppola’s blown-up, operatic version. Taken together, there’s no reason for anyone to ever make another Dracula movie.