Children of the Night

The following is a slightly modified essay on two films 'about' Dracula I wrote a little while ago. Just about everyone knows the story of Count Dracula, so I'll just cut to what makes euro trash legend Jesús Franco's version different.    I've learned a lot from Franco, probably more than most people feel liked admitting. Everytime I'm about to direct or edit a scene, I hear the dubbed dialogue in Devil Hunter and Women Behind Bars. I think of everytime the indefatigable auteur zooms in and out and in and out on some poor starlet's crotch for what feels like an eternity, everytime a public school classroom masquerades as a courthouse, everytime his wife and muse Lina Romay accidentally walks into the camera. Franco's films are invaluable in figuring out how easily something can stop being affective and start being fucking hysterical. But the biggest lesson to be learned is just how hard everyone worked to make Female Vampire, Eugenie De Sade, A Virgin Among the Living Dead and all of his nearly 200 feature films. People worked (and showed) their asses off for these films and mock though we may, it's always good to remember just how the hell hard it is to make a film worth watching for the right reasons. If you could follow the crew of a bad film in the making, you'd probably be pretty astonished by how devoted everyone was. In fact, that's just what someone did, during the making of Franco's Count Dracula, but before we can see what makes that film so amazing, we must first look at its source.

In any other director's hands the involvement of some truly first-rate European talent in front of the camera: Klaus Kinski, Herbert Lom and Christopher Lee would hint at something regal, or at the very least something slightly dignified. Between Franco directing and Bruno Mattei in the editing room, the film's chances at self-respect were smothered in their crib. It is however novel and plenty fun to see Franco regulars Fred Williams and Jack Taylor in such well-worn roles as Jonathan Harker and Quincey Morris, because they calibrate you to the experience, the world of our director, a strange and beautiful place. Christopher Lee was reportedly sick of the old fangs and cape because they offered him little chance to delve into the stuff he loved about the novel. And after playing the count a half dozen times for Hammer Films, he could safely say by 1970 just what they were going to ask of him each time he did it for them and it didn't involve Bram Stoker's chilling prose. So how did Franco convince one of the greatest horror actors of all time to star in this most terrible late-in-the-game Hammer knock-off? He lied and said that the film would follow the novel closely. It’s a good thing for Franco’s sake that they hadn’t yet invented home video because if Christopher Lee had seen some of Franco’s earlier films he would very quickly have seen that there was no fuckin’ way Franco had the resources available to make a straight adaptation of Stoker’s novel. Francis Ford Coppola had more than enough money and he still couldn’t make a straight adaptation! Perversely, a few of the changes Franco made to the script (which frankly could have been Lee’s idea for all I know) made the story make sense in a way it didn’t before. I always had trouble swallowing that Dracula happened to move in right next door to the sanitarium where Harker's fiance lived. But bringing Lucy and Mina to the Sanitarium to look after Harker, where they’re then attacked, makes all the sense in the world. That Franco wasn’t as clear-headed on a few other points may account for why Lee put the cape back on for Hammer another three times.

For the first act, the action drifts at a decently ethereal trot, the atmospheric sets and the dubbing mostly counter-acting each other and making it as moody a Dracula adaptation as had ever been attempted. And Franco pulls an interesting cheat that winds up creating a whole new kind of mood by shooting most of the nighttime footage in very early dawn. It was naturally a cost-cutting measure (day for night may not have been expensive, but I'm guessing it was time-consuming), but it works to the film's advantage. But you forget all that once we get to the borgo pass and then…that voice. Christopher Lee shows up disguised as the coach driver and with just three sentences blows everyone in the cast out of the fucking water. You can see in one of Franco’s ubiquitous close-ups that Lee was still very much a young man despite having played the ageless count Dracula as often as Bela Lugosi did in his whole life; a testament to his not inconsiderable weight as an actor. Christopher Lee was one of the few titans of the stage who almost never left the genre. He was the Peter O’Toole or Laurence Olivier of horror, and even though the roles treated him with less respect over the years, he never did anything less than his best. To his credit, you can tell that Franco was trying to make a respectable film for his star. He took off all but his most simple baggage, settled in and got serious enough to make a mostly decent movie (between monumental mood-killers), even as it was clear he was becoming a less capable filmmaker by the minute. Compared to his version of Venus in Furs just two years before or early work like The Awful Dr. Orloff, this film shows a pretty shockingly shaky grip on tone and dynamics. A hint of what was to come.

There are a number of zany Franco touches that stop it from getting either too respectable or too dreary. Like that there’s simply no way that the house that Dracula buys is in London. It’s a villa in coastal Spain…there’s just no way around it. Of course, Kubrick's New York and Vietnam were both London, so he's in good company. Then there’s the scene with the taxidermied animals. Now Franco had been doing ok up until this point and it actually comes at a pivotal moment. Van Helsing (the always mysterious, movingly sinister Lom), Quincey and Harker have just come from cutting off Lucy’s head and they then head over to Carfax Abbey to kill Dracula or at the very least sanctify the grounds. Instead they're met by a veritable menagerie of unmoving dead animals. There are dead weasels, dead boar, even a goddamned ostrich! And they start barking and roaring and in perhaps the most shameful shot in the whole movie, someone holds a stuffed owl and shakes it around, his hand unnecessarily just out of the frame. It would be a little sad except that these three men, trained actors all, have to pretend they’re terrified of the owl, something Franco couldn’t even bother to light properly or give spooky eyes. I think everyone (or anyway, Lom and Kinski, playing the most soulful Renfield in history, just a decade away from playing the Count for Werner Herzog) understood that there was no one in the house who was going to believe what they were seeing, so didn’t exactly give 110%. Kinski doesn't do much but look bored and slightly feral as Rennfield, but boy does he do it well. On their commentary track for Death Smiles On A Murderer, Wyatt Doyle and Kim Newman hypothesized that much of Kinski's work in the 70s was done in a day. Joe D'Amato would pay him for 12 hours because that's all he could afford, Kinski would show up and stare a hole in some beakers or out a window, and your film was better. Simple as that. Who says movies aren't magic.

After the feathers have finished flying, Harker and Quincey race to beat Dracula to his castle. They overtake his carriage on the road, desperately trying to find his tomb to kill him and save Mina and the world by extension! “How do they know it’s his tomb?” I hear you asking…cause it’s got his name in big fucking letters on the side! Just when Franco had me rooting for his ambitious little film, he goes and provokes a hearty bout of laughter and the climax is ruined. Shame, shame. Count Dracula moves faster than just about all of its director's later work. The seeds for his later ‘style’ are planted here, including his tendency to zoom to create (some, any) tension. But it's not without its charms, Lee's performance being the handsomest. But then there are little curios that you wonder about the purposefulness of. Like the pronunciation of Lucy’s last name, Westenra as ‘Westerner,’ which gets to an interesting point about her place in the story. She and Quincey, who in the novel is a bit of an uncouth boor (and a Texan to boot), bring their improper moral code and ideas about sex into polite society and both suffer for it. This would have made for a welcome addition to a slightly more literate adaptation where Quincey and Lucy are more characters than time filler, but it’s the only film I can think of where that little Freudian slip made its way into the dialogue. But like I said, go looking for a lot to write home about and you’ll find happy accidents, the kind that make film my favourite medium. But why go to the trouble of seeing a workmanlike adaptation of a book that was already dog-eared by 1970 undone by the third act, a few extraordinary performances keeping it afloat? Because it gives a helpful context in which to place Vampir Cuadecuc, the astonishing documentary made on the set of Franco’s film.

While Franco was working overtime to make a film worthy of Lee’s commitment, a young Catalan director called Pere Portabella sat in the shadows with a 16mm camera recording it all. He turned what could have been an ordinary behind-the-scenes doc into one of the more stunning meditations on just what it means to make movies. Because Vampir is silent the performances are limited to the physicality of each actor. Even robbed of his voice Christopher Lee, who can communicate several lifetimes in just his walk, still seems like the better actor next to Fred Williams (who looks like Han Solo thanks to the black & white photography and vague costuming) and Jack Taylor. Though bless 'em they try, something they very obviously didn’t do on later Franco films. Actually, the film isn't entirely silent. The last scene, the only one with synch sound, finds Lee taking his make-up off and reading aloud from the original novel for the benefit of the cast and crew. He makes you weak in the knees. Not many of us are blessed with his voice, but it's not even that. His commitment, his excitement at being able to entertain and illuminate viewers with what he saw in the novel Dracula, goes past thrilling and into seductive. He was born to play the count and it took Portabella to discover what was always lying beneath the surface of Lee's best-known work.

Portabella gets a lot of mileage out of something as simple as playing a broken record on the soundtrack as he shows bad special effects and cobwebs and smoke machines. “You’ve seen this before, you’ve seen this before, you've seen this before,” he seems to say and when he takes the record off, he then has Lee take his make-up off and show you who he really is, a perfectionist intellectual who clearly enjoys getting into character and researching his roles, no matter how trivial they might seem (and it doesn’t get much more trivial than acting in a Harry Alan Towers production). And as long as we're talking happy accidents: the shot of Lee's hands taking out his contact lenses recalls Buñuel's Un Chien Andalou but how much of that was planned. Some believe that Lee’s treatment by Portabella was meant to symbolize General Franco, and that we see how much work and clumsy staging goes into building the image of a monster. Only Pere knows, but you’ll notice no one bandying about this kind of theory about the movie he stole the performance from. It's often true and frankly amazing that the making of a movie can be inherently more interesting than what it produces. Joe Bob Briggs said that Blood Feast is one of those films that's more interesting to talk about than watch and a lot of Franco's oeuvre fits that bill.

There is a deconstructionist, Post-Punk aesthetic running through Vampir. The notion of this kid sitting in the bushes taking high-contrast black and white footage of a film in progress, in effect stealing someone else’s idea but appropriating it in an unusual context, is radically impudent. By the 1970s artists were no longer content to simply play with genres or existing forms and Portabella’s examination of the filmmaking process, leaving no secret like he found it, is refreshing to the point of avant-garde in its nakedness. To see the bat-on-a-string effects and the application of fake cobwebs (which for some reason makes me incredibly happy) is to show people what goes into horror films. ‘Here are the ingredients!’ it seems to say, "now make the cake yourself." It put me in mind of a rather brilliant bit of skullduggery that The Clash pulled off on the song “Up In Heaven (Not Only Here)” from their under-appreciated Sandinista! The Clash were famously, almost ridiculously loud. Listen to the audio on their Saturday Night Live performance. The microphones are about to break. On this particular song, instead of a guitar solo they lower the levels of all the instruments while the song plays on for an unheard verse and an obnoxious bit of isolated feedback takes over. I believe it's actually a train passing through the London Underground but the message is clear enough: Here’s the feedback you wanted. I’m sure it’s been pointed out elsewhere (it’s simply too good to pass up) but Portabella’s film can be thought of as a vampire, sucking the blood from Jesus Franco’s film and making a shell of its former self do his bidding. Perhaps it’s cynical of me, but I largely prefer Portabella’s damned creature of the night to Franco’s drab beating heart. Notice how through excellently underplayed music and editing Portabella manages to wring some tension out of the scenes between Mina and Lucy, which is totally absent from the original.

Neither Franco nor Portabella could have known it at the time, but this was one of Soledad Miranda’s last performances. Miranda was Franco's first love and she was his surrogate in many of his most idiosyncratic films from the first act of his career. He started zooming because he needed to be as close to her as the distance between actor and director could allow. But Franco's obsession partly blinded him to her gifts. He was so preoccupied with capturing her that he didn't really present her with any understanding. When she died, the year of Dracula's release, Franco's cinema changed forever. And just like Lee's dedication, her relationship with Franco made sense for the first time in Vampir. Starting with her subliminal first appearance Portabella's camera treats with her a kind of reverence. They were still releasing Soledad Miranda’s movies up to four years after her death, making her something like the 1970s equivalent of Jay Dee which tells me that the public shared Franco's love of this unfortunate beauty. Miranda is, like everything else in Vampir, someone or something that happened to be on set, but she comes across as the most vivacious and exciting woman for miles. Her body language, her smile, the way she moves all convey a humanity, a timeless beauty and likeability that Franco never once captured despite his years-long obsession with her naked form. In simply catching her smiling, Portabella found her essence. People still move like she does, still give off that winking joie de vivre, but not like her. She was the Marilyn Monroe of genre film. Celluloid may make liars of everyone who touches it, but there is no denying the truth in those few seconds she gets to laugh and be herself. It’s almost unfair that the man who had dedicated himself to putting her image on film forever completely failed to do her justice. Along comes a kid with what I imagine to be a spring-wind 16mm Bolex and in a few moments preserved her forever. Such is the cruelty of art.

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