Pere Portabella’s Vampir – Cuadecuc (1971) is a masterpiece on all accounts. Made on the sets of Jesus Franco’s Count Dracula (1970) starring Christopher Lee and shot on high-contrast black and white film stock, the film was controversial at the time of its release– in the final years of the Fransisco Franco regime in Spain. Allegedly, the film was presented under the name of ‘Vampir’ at the Cannes Film Festival and Portabella credited as ‘Pedro Portabella’ because the Catalan name Pere and the film’s title ‘Cuadecuc’ were not allowed to be used. The word itself just means ‘The Worm’s Tail’ in Catalan, which is also the term used to refer to the unexposed footage at the end of a roll of film.
The film echoes the look of early-cinema expressionist horror classics such as Nosferatu and Vampyr. Some of the exterior shots are so overexposed that the image degrades into almost two dimensional shadows, the slightest suggestion of an outline but enough for our eyes to perceive beauty. The film opens with an incredible experimental electronic soundtrack by Carles Santos, which is borrowed by Ben Rivers in his new film A Distant Episode (2015) (also featured at Berwick this year). The pre-credits sequence is a glorious exercise in painting with shadows and light. There is a sinister presence of dark, looming shadows both visual and implied. It is only after the credits sequence that the film dives fully into its ‘behind the scenes’ approach. We are presented with fully blocked scenes from Count Dracula and the monster is presented in his fearful glory, only to be brought down by the revelation of the special effects and the crew of people working behind the camera to make the monster believable.
This has been popularly associated as a takedown of the Franco regime. Lee’s Dracula here stands in for Fransisco Franco, a fearful presence and a figure of awe. Portabella puts forward a very convincing in argument through is his film– ‘how fearful is the monster when all the smoke and mirrors behind him are exposed?’ Perhaps this is also the significance of the film’s title– the worm’s tail, the ‘unexposed’ tail-end of a film roll, now exposed.
The film carries a sense of humor and deliberate self-parody. We see actors having fun between shots and crew working to set up elaborate special effects sequences. The visual deception of cinema is being exposed here and helping make another kind of cinema. Far before ‘behind the scenes’ featurettes were common practice, Portabella employs it not as a record for the making of another film but as the basis of a different kind of film.
Portabella’s film could only exist in that place and that time. It is an example of a piece of work which deceptively seems like an elaborate exercise in artistic self-indulgence and is lost on most people. But once you dig deep enough, it has rich undercurrents that is perhaps only possible in a zeitgeist of political repression.