Vampir

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Now there’s a bad film  — Jesus Franco’s CONTE DRACULA, scripted and produced by Harry Alan Towers. Somehow those two pirates didn’t really improve each other when they collaborated. In fact, I think both are quite a bit better apart.

Franco said he liked Towers as a producer because you never saw him after you made the deal. On the other hand, you frequently never saw the money either.

Towers said Franco was an odd character and deplored his tendency to zoom in and out for no reason. (I assume he meant with the camera.)

My friend Lawrie once dined with Towers (and Richard Attenborough), but the meal was cut short by the arrival of a waiter bearing the unwelcome news that Towers’ mum would no longer pay for any of her son’s expenses.

He’s still at it! According to the IMDb, Towers, a former fugitive from justice, aged 88, is still an active producer of public domain classics, remakes and exploitation vehicles. Isn’t there some story that he finally quashed a prosecution under the Mann Act by arguing that the women he was immorally transporting were for the personal use of JFK? I seem to recall such a story, but I’d hate to think I was wronging the fellow. Wikipedia merely notes, “In 1983, Lobster Magazine ran a long article, citing many reliable sources, alleging Towers’ links with (among others) Stephen Ward, Peter Lawford, the Soviet Union, and a vice ring at the United Nations. Hearst Corporation newspapers had already mentioned Towers’ name in a 1963 article featuring coded references to a liaison between a pre-White House John F Kennedy and a known prostitute.” Okay, so I don’t seem to be wronging him MUCH. I welcome any JFK conspiracy theories involving the producer of FACE OF FU MANCHU.

Towers’ and Franco’s DRACULA seems to have come about because Christopher Lee had, at length, deplored the liberties Hammer Films were taking with Bram Stoker’s most famous character. Towers seduced Lee with the promise of a more faithful version, then staked him in the back — the only truly faithful element here is Dracula’s moustache.

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The good points: Bruno Nicolai’s score is excellent, genuinely scary all by itself, and very effective when in conjunction with images of misty forests and wolves. Franco films largely on location, finding some picturesque and appropriate spots, even better than Herzog’s NOSFERATU. The guy does have a great eye for place, and many of his films are really like extended meditations on a given setting. Or, if you prefer, demented travelogues.

Towers was able to supply Franco with a better class of actor than he was used to, but these are often somewhat wasted in the context of a Franco zoom-fest. Herbert Lom is an ideal Van Helsing, and Klaus Kinski a beyond-perfect Renfield, but the latter has no lines. Christopher Lee looks bored. When a prostitute addresses him in saucy cockney, he gives her a miffed look as if to say, “You’re not in the source novel!”

For some odd reason, Towers’ writing is worse when he works with Franco. I treasure a moment in 99 WOMEN (Lom again, plus Mercedes McCambridge) where one woman in prison tells another that she’ll be destroyed by the hellish island they’re bound for, her beauty lost, her sanity, her life… then thoughtfully adds, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to depress you.” Maybe Towers meant the line to be read ironically. Franco plays it straight.

Yet Towers wrote most of those The Third Man radio shows that Welles acted in, which are jolly good fun. Welles wrote a couple himself, one of which evolved into MR. ARKADIN, although one has to remember that Guy Van Stratten, protag of that film, is a very different figure from Harry Lime (a shady character, but a hero in the radio version).

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But one excellent thing DID come out of COUNT DRACULA, and that’s Pere Portabella’s CUADECUC-VAMPIR. Either an experimental film masquerading as a making-of documentary, or a making-of documentary masquerading as an experimental film, or both, or neither, it’s a magical oddity that has been little-seen, since Portabella has refused to allow it to be shown with Franco’s feature, correctly deducing that Franco’s feature is unadulterated kack, and perhaps incorrectly fearing that his film would be robbed of it’s wonderfully mystic atmos by associating with Franco’s big mess of bat droppings.

CUADECUC-VAMPIR seems to have been shot on two radically different film stocks, both b&w but one normal and the other insanely high-contrast. Sequences alternate between the two style. Portabella frequently films interactions between actors as if Franco’s camera wasn’t there (but omitting Towers and Stoker’s dialogue in favour of atmospheric music and abstract noise), but when he does show the crew it never feels like he’s revealing a separate element of the set-up. It’s hard to describe, but he’s creating a dreamlike semi-narrative out of all these disjointed comings and goings of actors in period costume, and the electric lights glaring at them are maybe intrusions from another era, the camera a device by which these Victorian figures are being viewed in our own age.

Frequently Portabella’s lens seems to by spying on the action, as indeed it is. He is forced out of the ideal camera position, and made to observe from a less favourable vantage. (Although when you see the Franco version, his angles are MUCH WORSE.) This gives the period drama a fly-on-the-wall aspect. And the loss of sound renders the narrative worryingly ungraspable, like the mysterious crimes in David Lynch’s Lumiere short.

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One really great scene: a forest. A glossy black car bears us to our destination. Now a man runs through the woods with a smouldering tin on the end of the smoke, infusing the branches with billowing incense. The ceremony complete, he retires, and the invocation takes effect — emerging from the fumes, summoned from a bygone century, a horse and carriage rattles forth.

And WHO is THIS MAN???

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25 Responses to “Vampir”

  1. I have heard a lot about Portabella(read a piece on him at the Chicago Reader by Jonathan Rosenbaum). The man produced Bunuel’s ”Viridiana” and later became a politician in Post-Franco Spain and now works at the EU. I have not seen any of his films. The one film you mentioned is what I wanted to see.

    I have seen one Jesus Franco(too easy…way too easy) film. Forgot it totally. The zooms made me spit in disgust. Have no interest in his oeuvre. From what you say, I am glad I don’t have to see ”Conte Dracula” to experience ”Cuadecuc-Vampir”. Just like I have never felt the need to see ”East of Borneo”.

    I can never understand why people are hung up about being faithful to the Stoker book. It’s not exactly a great novel. The characters are all flat. The style(the various letters) is what makes it interesting as well as some details here and there, the whole apocalyptic mood of fin-de-siecle Europe. Coppola’s
    ”Bram Stoker’s Dracula”(which is a masterpiece) was touted for being faithful but it is faithful only in so far as it is ABOUT the book and Coppola took more liberties than anyone. And he also made the great stroke of removing the most cinematic bit about the book(the massacre of the Demeter), correctly acknowledging that Murnau had dibs on it.

    But then any version of ”Dracula” is fine. For me there’s Murnau and Coppola’s revisionist take, the rest is on the other side. Though the early Hammer Draculas are excellent, way better than the much hyped Lugosi one.

  2. I want to write something on the Lugosi sometime, because the first hald hour of it is magnificent. You have to kind of forget the rest.

    The Coppola for me is a weird mix of lovely and awful. Sadie Frost, the dialogue, Anthony Hopkins, and gimmicks like the dissolve from pucture marks to wolf eyes — awful. Keanu Reeves — awful to the point of genius. On the other hand, Tom Waits, the brides, many of the visuals, the costumes, and the restless urge to exploit any resonance or metaphor the vampire myth throws up: rather fine.

    The script makes the mistake of explaining Dracula, and generally explaining too much (the book already suffers from overexposure so it’s lost a lot of mystery).

    Cuadecuc-Vampir manages the task, almost impossible in a narrative film, of rendering things mysterious again.

  3. The minute I started reading this thread I hoped you’d mention Portabella. He’s fascinated by trappings of vampire films. He loves the cobweb-makers, and has shots of cobwebs being lovingly applies to sets. He also loves Christopher Lee — as do we all.

    Meanwhile. . . Claude Levi-DStrauss just turned 100. And on the film front there’s a Really Impotant Birthday coming up.

  4. Tod Browning lost all interest in the film after Lon Chaney had died and saw Lugosi as a stand-in for his original plan. I have never found that film very scary. Nowhere near ”Nosferatu” which is literally bone-chilling no matter how many times you see it. To me Lugosi gave a better performance in ”The Black Cat”, though he’s clearly outdone by Boris Karloff. Anyone interested in the differences between cinematic and theatrical acting need only see that film to understand what that means.

    With Coppola’s ”Dracula”, it’s not interested in making the vampires scary. Rather we are meant to find them sexy and attractive. It’s totally revisionist and against the grain(or as they say in French, “A rebours” with a grave on ”a” of course).

  5. Happy birthday to Mr. Levi-Strauss. He makes the best jeans ever…

  6. I feel sorry for Levi-Strauss, having to give house-room to Sarkozy. amd at his age.

    The biggest problem with Dracula is the structure lifted from a play rather than the book. It kills it somewhat in the later stages. But Browning is clearly engaged with the film during the Transylvanian scenes — the 30s horror films aim for weirdness rather than direct terror. Anyway, I’ll say more about this later.

    Very grateful to Rosenbaum for boosting Cuadecuc at every opportunity. When I chanced upon it, I snapped it up, and I wasn’t disappointed. Yes, the smoke and cobwebs fascinate Portabella, also the lights, and an actress walking about in oversize shoes for her own entertainment…

  7. Is Cuadecuc out on Home Video?

    As for Levi-Strauss meeting M. President, well he is a public servant and as annoying and irritating as he can be(and Sarko has both in spades), it’s not like it’ll give a leftist like him cooties.

  8. By the way, David E. your link to the very important birthday coming up on the film front…is it by any chance the film-maker who began a propos de Jean Vigo?

  9. Indeed.

    100 years old on December 11th with two films in production.

  10. He’s been on a roll this decade. I like all the films he did. He’s to the 00s what Hitchcock was to the 50s.

    I think I’ll re-watch ”Porto da Minha Infancia” on that day. He’s in it, he appears on stage.

  11. I love I’m Going Home very much.

  12. I love Harry Alan Towers stories… Burt Kwouk told me that HAT called up Herbert Lom one day, giving him a big pitch about how he was making a new series of Harry Palmer films, and how Lom would be the head villain, and it was all going to be lovely and amazing. He was upfront about money, unusually so, but wouldn’t be pinned down on the shooting location, except to say that it was ‘extraordinary, unprecedented’. And I suppose you could say that was no exaggeration. HAT was all ready to shoot the film on location in Chernobyl. Mr Lom politely declined the opportunity.

    Another film producer who had dined with HAT told me that he carries two wallets at all times – one, to be produced at the start of the meal, is stuffed full of folding money. “Don’t worry about a thing, it’s on me!” The second, identical one, produced at the end of the meal, is completely empty – “can’t think what happened, old man, I was sure I had money on me – by the way, could you lend me enough for a cab to my hotel?”

    I will be getting myself a copy of this extraordinary-looking film as soon as my Kargagarga ratio is looking a little healthier….!

  13. I’m so jealous that you know Burt Kwouk!

    My favourite Burt Krowuk thing is that he’s buying hamburgers in Soho in Expresso Bongo and selling them in Deep End. I think.

    So Lawrie’s dinner date may have been a pre-planned embarassment, if HAT is so good at suddenly not having money…

    i love the idea of the Chernobyl shoot, shades of Howard Hughes exterminating the cast of The Conqueror by filming on atomic test grounds…

  14. I interviewed Burt at great length for Psychotronic some years back, in his club – Gerry’s, in Soho, named after its original owner, Gerald Campion, who played Billy Bunter on TV. He told me he made a few quid selling burgers between set-ups during the Deep End shoot. Also, he grew up down the road from JG Ballard in Shanghai, and played a bit part in Empire of the Sun, which must have been weird.

  15. Indeed! What a remarkable life and career he’s had. It’s like a barometer of Anglo-American racial attitudes.

  16. And as he tells all the ladies, “After you’ve had Burt Kwouk, fifteen minutes later you want some more.”

  17. Oh dear oh dear oh dear. Heh.

  18. Ahhh, Cuadecuc-Vampir’s up on youtube.
    I am tempted.

  19. Also on Rapidshare, if you have a quick look about in Shareminer…

  20. My copy is far from pristine, and it would undoubtedly gain from better image quality, but if YouTube’s all you have, dim the lights and go for it!

  21. Lee’s detailed his increasingly frustrated efforts to inject Stoker’s words into the Hammer Draculas in his correspondence with the head of his fan club. Judging by what he said, he certainly hoped that the Franco would be the DEFINITIVE Dracula, after which he could be done with the character for good. He must have been disappointed, especially since he claimed that he refused to speak in some of the Hammers because the dialogue wasn’t true to the novel. You can read the letters, (where else?), in Hammer Studios – The Elstree Years. I promise that I’m not actually Wayne Kinsey on the shill, honest.

    I watched the Louis Jordan starring BBC adaptation COUNT DRACULA last week. Like most adaptations of the book, only the actors playing the Count, Van Helsing and Renfield make any kind of impression (Frank Finlay and Jack Shepherd in the latter two roles here), but this one does stick fairly closely to the book. If it suffers in one respect, it’s the 1970’s BBC habit of assuming that switching the image to negative is the only special effect that anyone really needs.

    The Portabella looks absolutely BEAUTIFUL.

  22. Yes, Portabella has an aesthetic that really works with the material, unlike Franco, whose best version of the book is Vampyros Lesbos (actually pretty commendable film).

    Jack Shepherd is SUPERB in that TV Drac, the best thing in it by a mile. Renfield probably is the best role anyway. He ALWAYS works.

  23. I found Coppola’s Dracula to be pretty disappointing the one and only time I saw it. It lacked one very important component that seems hard to find in films these days, atmosphere, and without that, it just doesn’t work. Also, though I’m told he was in Stoker’s novel, I could’ve done without the American cowboy. I read the novel years ago and I don’t recall him, but that’s not to say he isn’t there. What do Schrader’s Mishima, Coppola’s Dracula, and Tarsem Singh’s The Cell all have in common? Eiko Ishioka, who was involved with costume and production design for all three films. She brings a very unique touch to whatever she’s involved with. Her I like.

  24. Coppola really wanted to have minimal set design and “let the costumes stand in for sets”, but this wasn’t allowed. It seems like a strange combination of letting him spend money in lots of strange ways, while clamping down on a random selection of his ideas.

    Winona said that the best acting she did in her life was in promoting that movie.

    Kilar’s music works too, that’s another very good choice that deserves mention. He wasn’t on Hollywood’s list of approved composers, so it’s great that Coppola managed to get him. If the images were simpler, with those costumes and that music and mostly different performances, it could have worked better.

  25. Shepherd is always good when he’s given something to do. He’s got a great, unusual face. Oddly, seeing him as a young man reminded me a little of David Tennant. We’ll see.

    Renfield is the best, most fun role, easily. I’d have loved to have seen Freddie Jones get a crack at it.

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