In 2014, director Steven Soderbergh released two experiments in editing on his website. One of them was a 108 minute “Butcher’s Cut” of Michael Cimino’s four hour epic Western Heaven’s Gate. The other experiment turned Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark into a black and white silent film with the score from The Social Network. Each experiment transforms both films into something new but also remind us what makes them so special. However, these experiments allow an audience to understand filmmaking choices in the context of a new film.
Watching Pere Portabella’s Cuadecuc, vampir, I wondered if Soderbergh was familiar with this film. While shot as a documentary on the set of Jess Franco’s Count Dracula, most of the film’s sixty minute running time consists of footage from the film. Except Portabella transforms this footage into high contrast black and white images. He and editor Manel Esteban cut theses scenes with shots from the crew or show the sets from angles that remind you this is make believe. There’s an eerie, proto-industrial score from Carles Santos but no dialogue except at the end of the film. Occasionally stock footage from the modern day appears like a car or a train.
The resulting transformation truly transforms its source material and becomes one of the best Dracula movies. Changing the color film into high contrast black and white boils all of the images into a striking graphic look. Jess Franco’s film becomes something that is legitimately terrifying and surreal. The shot of the brides ready to feed on a child becomes absolutely monstrous, their hunger and the moving sack only adding to the terror. Christopher Lee hunting and stalking Soledad Martinez in the middle of night becomes downright chilling. When Martinez’s Lucy returns as a vampire, her now silent figure becomes a ghostly presence thanks to the black and white film. Even the shots of the crew, lighting rigs (lights frequently whiteout actors) and construction of the sets only add to the surreality. It serves as a reminder that films are dreams constructed for us, even if those dreams occasionally are nightmares. Pere Portabella clearly admires things in Franco’s film but truly finds ways to turn it into an entirely different beast.
Portabella also injects other things into the film. There’s a vein of humor and joy that run through this film. Numerous behind the scenes shots of Christopher Lee smiling get cut into the film. When Jonathan Harker shows a photo of Lucy and Mina to Dracula, instead of cutting to Lucy, the film cuts to Soledad Martinez in a keyhole frame smiling and winking to the camera. Maybe the most fun conceit is the “death” of Dracula. The penultimate scene shows Harker and Quincey Morris sitting in an empty auditorium while Dracula sits at a desk. Harker and Morris look on in horror as Dracula first takes out his contact lense, removes his moustache, then some more make up, and finally he is no more. Who sits before us is Christopher Lee, Dracula no more. A symbolic death but a reminder once the make up goes on Dracula lives again.
The film ends with Christopher Lee reading the end of Bram Stoker’s novel. His excitement to read this to the camera, as if the person behind it never read the book, is palpable. The film that precedes this scene asks that you are familiar with the book. Director Pere Portabella reworks Jess Franco’s film from an okay one with some great moments into something that is truly memorable. The result is a film that’s as much a nightmare as any black and white silent films it emulates. It’s a film that wants to scare us as it reminds us of the magic of movies.