Directed by Pere Porabella - Cuadecuc, Vampir/Umbracle [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - America - Severin Films
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (16th December 2023).
The Film

"Pere Portabella has been a pioneering movie producer and celebrated Spanish statesman, denounced by both the Franco dictatorship and The Vatican. But it’s his subversive work as a director that has rewritten the rules of genre narrative. Or as The Museum of Modern Art says, 'The films of Portabella expand the expressive potential of cinema.'"

During the shooting of Jess Franco's adaptation of Bram Stoker's Count Dracula – touted by the production as the most faithful adaptation but falling short even though it did allow star Christopher Lee to interpret the Count in a manner truer to the novel – Catalan experimental filmmaker Pere Portabella was on the set covering the shoot; but, rather than compiling the footage into a standard making-of, Portabella set out to create something completely unsuitable for mere promotion. Shooting on high-contrast 16mm sound negative film with no set audio, he created Cuadecuc, Vampir, an "counter cinema" adaptation of the novel structuring the behind the scenes footage to the order of the novel rather than the production schedule (itself a subversion of the logic of filmmaking that privileges the availability of locations, the scheduling of actors, and other such logistics over narrative, characterization, and emotional continuity). The shuffling of footage might have been "avant-garde" enough to suggest what Franco himself might have preferred in an adaptation and filmic storytelling in general as his subsequent films – particularly Vampyros Lesbos, ostensibly an adaptation of Bram Stoker's "Dracula's Guest" but actually a psychedelic inversion of the Stoker novel – would reveal.

To the rhythms of jazz, lush orchestral pieces, atonal instrumentations, and musique concrete, alternate angles of scene in production as captured from Portabella's camera shooting before, after, and "around" the Franco unit not only deconstructs film's suspension of disbelief but also the very tropes of Gothic horror with detached observations of the application of make-up to the performers and spun-sugar cobwebs (to both the sets and the vampires), the actors including Lee mugging for (and swiping at) the camera, and the presence of more lighting instruments and crew than one expects to find on a Franco film (actually the later ones, since the Harry Alan Towers and earlier productions were low budget but more conventionally-crewed). The act of shooting around the main unit leads sometimes to more interesting "expressionistic" camera angles – while the occasionally hard-to-read high contrast images are suggestive of both Nosferatu's own stylistic touches but also the way most contemporary viewers encountered it in its advanced celluloid decomposition – but also the illusion of filmmaking as light flares, the edges of sets, and crew members just out of frame of the 35mm motion picture camera reveal the construction of shots that can only be photographed as composed or risk spoiling the illusion.

The film also reveals the more baroque architectural features of the location used for the interior of Van Helsing's asylum than seen in the film (since a different exterior is used), the artifice of some sets built at the Estudios Cinematográficos Balcázar, more impressive views of Queen Isabella's Segovia Castle used for the interiors of Castle Dracula, and more coverage of the third bride played by Emma Cohen who would later star in Franco's masterpiece The Other Side of the Mirror) than one sees in the finished cut. The only spoken audio on the track comes at the end as Lee discusses Dracula's death as depicted in the book and reads the relevant paragraph. The titles erroneously cite the film as a Hammer production might be a Welles in-joke while the clapboard labeling the film as "El Proceso" may have been meant to disguise the production from publicity or it may just be left over from the earlier Towers/Franco/Lee/DP Merino collaboration The Bloody Judge, the Spanish title of which was "El proceso de las brujas". Although Vampir, Cuadecuc is better-known among horror fans as a companion piece to the Franco film, in arthouse and experimental film circles in Spain and abroad, it made a splash at Cannes in spite of invited Portabella not being allowed a visa by the Spanish government to travel and sending a letter in his place explaining the conditions under which he was working and the risks and necessity of a truly independent Spanish cinema. Portabella was also disallowed from attending the New York screening at the The Museum of Modern Art, prompting the audience to respond with a statement signed by one hundred and fifteen persons expressing their dismay at the Spanish government's decision.

The following year, Portabella debuted another film shot around the same time and prominently featuring Lee and one of his Bram Stoker's Count Dracula vampire brides Jeannine Mestre (Let Sleeping Corpses Lie) as provocative, glamorous figures in a very "Spanish" look at the other Franco's Spain in Umbracle. At the start, the film makes no clarification as to whether Lee is himself or a character, but he is introduced as a seeming tourist looking at a multitude of stuffed birds in a museum of zoology, after which he steps out onto the street, buys a cigar, and observes a man being chased down and dragged into a car by other men. The scene is repeated later with slight variation, calling into question the purpose and meaning of the museum visit while emphasizing that the abduction is an arrest by Spain's secret police the Brigada de Investigación Social.

This is followed by sequence in which Catalan film critic Román Gubern who ties the Spanish censorship laws to moves by the government to "rationalize" the "traditional" values of Spanish life in response to outside influences as they opened the country up to foreign money. He points out the hypocrisy inherent in the unequal application of censorship rules written ambiguously enough to sound balanced but "favor the reactionary and fascist film industry" by which "pornography, subversion and blasphemy are measured with the same ruler" – along with prohibiting films that provide "justification of suicide, murder out of compassion, revenge and duels, divorce, adultery, illicit sexual relationships, prostitution, abortion and birth control" – and forbidden to all audiences along with depictions of the "brutality and terror which it itself practices" to the most "grotesquely ambiguous" rule of about "the accumulations of scenes which in themselves present no fault yet collectively present a lustful, brutal, crude or morbid atmosphere." This is followed by a lengthy excerpt from party-favored director Pedro Lazaga's Frente infinito – which demonstrates when depictions of violence and terror are acceptable in service of the ruling ideology including the blasphemous image of a conflicted priest first holding mass in a battlefield and then taking up arms – and a stage act by a pair of popular comics while clips from American silent films are presumably there to show what gets banned.

Scenes of Lee walking about town, seeming to get preferential treatment from official types when he causes a road accident while the old man with the damaged delivery is waved off both by himself and the others, and a comic incident in which a monk reading the Stoker novel with Lee's image on the cover encounters the actor and flees in terror are intercut with Mestre traveling by train and shopping in boutiques as well as a visit to a chicken slaughterhouse set to The Carpenters' "Close to You" (the "why do bird suddenly appear" song). Lee and Mestre come together in a hotel room sequence in which he adorns her nude body with jewelry in a sequence that – accompanied by mismatching sound effects and dissonant scoring – may in itself be "lustful" if not for their solemn expressions or even "morbid" given Lee's horror persona, but the other sequences surrounding this seem to defy a logical application of the accumulation rule as if daring the government to censor it and prove the critics point. A surprisingly hyper Lee also appears in the film with an "unscripted" moment in which he sings some opera – which he claims not to have ever done in public at that point although in later years he would lend his voice to a variety of musical genres including heavy metal – messes up, starts again, and then recites Poe's "The Raven." The title Umbracle comes from a wooden protective structure shading plants – of "wooden shutter" as Jonathan Rosenbaum translated it in his review – suggesting that the Spanish "rules" are presented as "protecting" its citizens instead of oppressing them, while the taxidermy subjects of the museum of zoology are the idealized (and static) image of its citizenry to tourists who return home speaking glowingly of their holidays while anything contrary. Like Cuadecuc, Vampir, the film received positive notices at Cannes where Portabella was once again prevented from attending.


Long unavailable apart from grey market offerings, Cuadecuc, Vampir became available simultaneously in France and Spain in English-friendly complete sets of the director's works from boutique labels Blaq Out in France and Intermedio in Spain (with Spanish boutique label Cameo putting out a single-disc edition subsequently in 2018). Stateside, Cuadecuc, Vampir became available from Severin Films as an extra on their 2015 Blu-ray of Count Dracula from a 25fps television master converted to 1080i60 while in the U.K. in 2017 Second Run released a region free Blu-ray from a superior master running at the correct framerate.

Surprisingly, Cuadecuc, Vampir has been left off of Severin's new four-disc 4K UltraHD/Blu-ray/CD soundtrack edition of Count Dracula (despite the presence on the set of the 2017 documentary Drácula Barcelona that discusses both films). Instead, they have included Cuadecuc, Vampir with companion feature Umbracle in the separate release Directed by Pere Portabella under review here. The 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.39:1 pillarboxed fullscreen image is touted as a new scan, but I presume Severin means that it is the newer HD master which also appeared on the Second Run Blu-ray. The image is sharper than the previous Severin presentation, and that makes a difference for a film shot primarily on 16mm sound negative film in which earlier video presentations could lose high contrast detail in a haze of gray. There is nothing in the way of fine detail and there never was intended to be but, as with the U.K. Blu-ray, more visible are facial details of the actors – including rare images of Lee and Miranda smiling as well as some odd reactions by Rohm as she observes the gothic happenings in chic street clothes – as well as strands of spun sugar spider web and evidence that Dracula's stone coffin was not built with Lee's height in mind since the actor has to bend his knees while lying in it.

Umbracle was only previously released on DVD in the aforementioned Spanish and French DVD sets. The film was shot with more conventional 16mm film – sometimes either underexposed or push-processed beyond its latitude – and 16mm sound negative film, and the 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.33:1 pillarboxed image is again an intentionally mixed bag. Scenes of Lee wandering around town have almost no detail with washes of white and black and little in between while the scenes shot on regular 16mm film evince sometimes varying degrees of detail and grain, with some available light scenes looking the grainiest while the "bedroom" scenes between Lee and Mestre are closest to looking conventionally "cinematic."


Both films are accompanied by DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono tracks. Both films are primarily composed of music and sound effects, but both feature some production dialogue which was a rarity in Spanish film production at the time. Cuadecuc, Vampir has Lee's scene at the end discussing the novel and reading the passage about Dracula's death while Umbracle has the critics speaking Catalan Spanish and Lee speaking in both English and French as well as singing in Italian. The music tracks sound quite lush throughout along with the sound score of sound effects unrelated to the onscreen action, although it is hard to determine what might be archival damage and what was added to give that effect. There are some limitations to the recording compared to the post-production audio, but that is inherent in the production. Both films include optional English SDH subtitles (the latter also translating the Catalan).


The only extras are related to Cuadecuc, Vampire starting with "A Cinema Of Vampires: Pere Portabella, Jess Franco and the School of Barcelona" (35:40), an interview with Spanish film scholar Dr. Álex Mendíbil who discusses Portabella's upbringing and education, getting into film by way of working on a Leopoldo Pomés short, meeting filmmakers Antonio and Carlos Saura and producing at Cannes and producing The Delinquents which lead to him meeting Marco Ferreri and producing El cochecito which proved equally successful. Despite the similar success he met with producing Luis Buñuel's Viridiana, the Spanish government tried to bury it and the Vatican deemed it blasphemous (Portabella did not like the script but liked its transgressive nature). Blacklisted from producing films for over six years, Portabella in the meantime met Franco along with members of the Barcelona school like Vicente Aranda and Gonzalo Suárez and had a small role in Franco's Marquis de Sade's Justine. When he decided to try his hand at directing, he was more inspired by experimental films, starting with the short No compteu amb els dits and the feature-length Nocturno 29 and a handful more shorts before asking his script supervisor wife Anne Settimó if she could ask Franco to let him shoot on the set for what would become Cuadecuc, Vampir. Mendíbil discusses the differences in approach by Portabella and Franco in filming their versions of Dracula and suggests that Portabella's film inspired Franco's experimental monster rally films: the near-silent Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein and the erotic comic strip-like Erotic Rites of Frankenstein. In his briefer discussion of Umbracle, he identifies the critic interviewed, some context for use of the film Frente infinito and its jobbing director Lazaga, as well as musing on the meaning of the title.

The disc also includes a video trailer (1:50).


Packaged with the disc is a 13-page booklet featuring a translation of Portabella's letter to the Museum of Modern Art explaining his absence, Rosenbaum's reviews of both films for the Village Voice, and a short piece focusing on Umbracle by Federico Karstulovich.


Long known to wider audience as an obscure companion piece to Jess Franco's Bram Stoker's Count Dracula, Cuadecuc, Vampir and the even more obscure Umbracle are extraordinary works of experimental cinema on their own but Franco fans would do well to still regard Severin Films' Directed by Pere Portabella as companion pieces while Portabella fans will want to check out the Franco film.


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