Building Castles in the Air: Adaptation and Death in Pere Portabella’s Cuadecuc, vampir

Upon finishing my first reading of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, I remember feeling distinctly underwhelmed. The moonlit, barren castle and shadowy, apocalyptically dreadful figures of my imagination had been replaced by a moralistic plot swamped down in dull, repetitious passages about friendship and perseverance. The characters seemed archaic and stilted – passionate only when serving one of Stoker’s many diatribes. I wanted something more… well, scary.

Looking back, it’s hard to tell how great a reflection of the novel this is. If the words describing the Count didn’t frighten me, then it might be because the images they conjure have become so regurgitated in popular culture and in cinema that they have lost any potency. It is a book that degrades over time, constantly and ruthlessly stripped to its bare essentials. Indeed, despite remaining a widely read piece of fiction, the act of adaptation is key to its life and its own vampiric proliferation.

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A testament to this is that the two most famous movie Draculas, Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee, have both achieved a mythical status that almost transcends their origin. Even Max Schreck’s Nosferatu, with his pointed, skeletal frame, has gone from the realm of unlicensed copy to the certifiably iconic. Shifting images and interpretations of famous scenes remind us of the original’s grand status, but they also undermine it in a sense, pointing towards this radical, perpetual adaptability – the sense that the story moments and descriptions within are at once simple and endlessly repeatable.

Dracula, then, is a singular text diversified by its readers’ own love of altering it. Parts are rearranged or removed, but the thrust of the novel, its revenant spirit, never fails to return.


Pere Portabella’s Cuadecuc, vampir (1971), broadly a making-of documentary, takes place during the filming of a lesser-known Lee-staring Dracula movie by cult director Jesús Franco. Some of the basic motifs of the classic story, rigidly adopted by Franco, are presented here too, albeit with jarring interruptions.

Portabella’s style bounds between reality and artifice, adopting broad, immediate tracking shots that seem appropriate for a behind-the-scenes film, yet with an attention to the story that seems like a retelling. We see long extracts of famous passages brought to life: Jonathan Harker’s arrival, the three sisters, the vampire emerging from his coffin.

Occasionally the camera will pan or tilt away from the action, landing on an idle lighting or sound operator. These digressions are to be expected from the form, yet they gain an inversely disruptive power simply by how long he spends appropriating the fictional world that Franco has constructed. Similarly, Lee’s imposing creature saunters through darkened chambers and alleyways, but then dissolves completely as we cut to the actor grinning at the camera, or else being laboriously decorated with cobwebs. Not only the artifice but the ordinariness of film production is displayed. Ironically, Portabella uses the most grandiose and mythological of modern stories in order to demystify the processes of adaptation and film direction.

By this point I have neglected to mention the film’s two most blatant and expressive formal choices. The first – indeed, the first that viewers will notice – is its incredibly high contrast photography, which deepens the blacks to inky, cavernous abysses, pure absences of colour and light. This exaggerates the elements of gothic horror, producing a distance from reality and an immersive, nightmarish setting. Bold, immediate effects, such as sunlight flushing the frame with white, highlight the vulnerability of the film stock. The contrast enhances degradation and grain, making decay constantly perceptible. As Jonathan Rosenbaum notes, ‘the lush, high-contrast cinematography evokes deteriorating prints of Nosferatu and Vampyr.’ The intentionalism here removes this effect from the typical contexts of age and preservation. Thus, Cuadecuc, vampir dies before us harshly and unceasingly. Decay becomes integral.

The second choice is the soundtrack, which is often silent. Droning organ sounds and heavily muffled background noise add to its incessantly fractured and dreamlike world. Subversions of this are deliberately very jarring, shocking the audience in a way that seems almost contrived. In one scene, a slow, soundless, and eerie shot of a bite-mark on Jonathan’s neck suddenly shifts to Chrisopher Lee. While he is clearly out of character, playfully clawing at the restless camera, Carles Santos’ experimental score provides an oscillating, bestial noise that is indescribably alien and yet strangely visceral. In another such moment, the loud, screeching noise of a train passing by overlays the image of one of Dracula’s victims, bridging into an image of the former. While the mode of shooting is the same, each flash of modernity is strange and unwelcome – another surreal trespass between two planes of existence.

Portabella’s compositions are obsessive in their focus on this liminality. They are frequently split apart by metal bars, cobwebs, and columns; or else the camera is above or behind the set, gazing through windows at the action within. There is a great long take that shows Jonathan climbing out of a window – very much a part of Franco’s movie – onto a bare sound stage. It is an absurd image of the artifice of filmmaking, aptly provided just as we are most taken in by the perils of his situation. Much has been said of the parallels between the dominative roles of director and dictator, and how Portabella, by stifling the director Franco and by deconstructing the Dracula myth, forms a meta-commentary on fascism and its exhaustive, vampiric form of control; but the movie clearly has a lot of fun subverting genre too.

In what would be a climactic, tense moment of horror and emotional intensity, he uses a swooning romantic score – hardly an appropriate needle-drop for an image of men driving stakes through two women’s’ hearts. On the other hand, all music here, by virtue of its rarity, is somewhat surprising – an immediate refutation of the already-degraded image. Some of these choices are, at least at on a surface level, quite obvious, but it is a testament to the film-maker's deliberation that he maintains these rather stark rug-pulling moments.

Similarly, one of my favourite scenes in the film simply shows Jonathan and the Count pacing around a chamber. Gradually the obtrusive, stilted sounds of their footsteps grow more and more out of sync, suggesting a spectral presence within the room or perhaps outside of it. This mechanical, repeated, and arbitrary use of the same sample amplifies falsehood, fracturing the continuity of both narrative and image. It’s also creepy in a conventional sense, as, viewed one way, it implies that the creature may be an illusion, or capable of invisible movement. Portabella stresses the lie of the image throughout. Here he wants us to know that the most recognisable of stories can be ripped apart. Spirits can emerge, allegories can be told; and, crucially, adaptation can be the key to this destruction of fictionality itself.


Roland Barthes writes in Camera Lucida that the effect of photography, as is genuinely acknowledged, is often to provide a form of evidence and testimony. ‘The Photograph’, he writes, ‘does not call up the past. The effect it produces [...] is not to restore what has been abolished […] but to attest that what I see has indeed existed.’ Images somehow merge their own object with the referent, though only in ways that are immensely limited. They are a trace of a subject that may or may not exist now, but certainly did at some point in time. They signal towards death, partially because they convert a living subject into an object, immediately past, but also because the act of stalling time can only signal towards death itself, to the absence of even capturing that trace.

We often avoid this kind of analysis in regard to cinema, favouring expressive uses of the medium over the inherent expression of the medium itself. I am obviously glad that film has emerged as a diverse art form out of this technology, yet I feel like the stark simplicity – the absences, omissions, and tangible experimentation of Portabella’s film – demand the former.

Watching early cinema, particularly silent works, I frequently have a response that mirrors Barthes’ anxiety over death. It’s partly quite childish; I point to actors, even domestic animals, in my mind, and remind myself that they have surely passed. The crew of Battleship Potemkin, the struggling workers in Metropolis, the Tramp, Keaton, Mabel Normand – dead. Rosenbaum is right to suggest that vampir evokes the earlier Vampyr (1932), but the fantastical, exaggerative imagery of Dreyer’s work excludes it, to a certain extent, from the realm of real life. In a making-of piece however, we are constantly reminded of the subjective, variable decisions that dictate the creation of a constructed text.

Portabella emphasises the viewer’s innate awareness of their own mortality through the destruction of his own subjects before us. To me at least, silence inversely amplifies our awareness of this tracing of life, this photographic reminder of past-ness. Franco’s crew, even the inimitable Christopher Lee, are gradually fading before us. Quite distinct from still images, the film shows us a set path of movements that can be repeated, or brought to life, but never deviated from. By artificially heightening the volatility and desecration of the stock (even the word ‘Cuadecuc’ in the title points to the unexposed ends of the material), he takes away control from the director and instead points to the truth lying beneath the cracks of all sincere fiction and art: that what we capture barely even exists.

What was obvious to Barthes from early photographs has been obscured by cinema. Portabella simply lifts the veil.

Clearly demonstrating far more reverence for the novel than I have, Cuadecuc, Vampir ends with a rather endearing clip of Lee introducing and reading aloud the few lines which describe Dracula’s death. More so than the scenes on set, we are aware here that the Count is confined merely to words on a page. There is empty space beyond Lee and beyond the book, and his persona has become detached from this iconic character. He has not been killed in Portabella’s film, but as is shown just before, stripped of his makeup and costume. Again, we are left with the liminal space between fiction and reality, pondering the only constant of the film – its heavily exposed, corporeal, and harsh drive towards annihilation.

Panning from the grimly serious actor in the mirror to his actual self, then to another mirror, the fluidity of the camera pierces these three perspectives, embodying them (albeit from a distance) and then discarding them subsequently. The eye of the lens is acutely aware of the fragility of everything it captures, and yet it cannot help but, with its deathly glare, seize the actors, the sets, the director of this adaptation.

Through a dedicated meditation on artificiality, questioning even the very concepts of fictionality and adaptation themselves, the film opens up to us the fleetingness of everything the director manages to film. It gives these things a resonance beyond themselves – a resonance that is conditional on their transience, on the undeniable fact that they cannot happen again.


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