Wednesday, March 9, 2011

"Aren't we all vampires...."

Film can do strange things to you. Perhaps the silliest thing that's happened to me lately is continually seeing new horror films and thinking "Oh yes, I should review that!" and then having second thoughts that eventually force me to overlook said movies. Why? Because, friends, I'm trying like hell to be one of those unfortunate souls who paints a bulls-eye on his work and lets the world take potshots at it. Yes, students, I too have movies that are slowly making their way into the world. That's not to say I deserve the same respect as many of the artists whose work graces these hallowed halls, but I'm learning a thing or two about what that means. Whether I'm any good is for literally everyone on earth but me to decide. You wanna know something about directing and then showing your work? It's terrifying as shit, but it's also incredibly informative. You learn things about yourself and about film in general from trying to make movies that is simply not available to those who never pick up a camera and try it. I've learned that I'm a lot less anxious to criticize for the same reasons I would have two years ago, now that I know what's involved in making one of these things. As much as I relish the opportunity to be the next Tomas Alfredson or Danny Boyle, I can tell you I simply don't have the discipline of those guys. But can I tell you a secret? It's the bad films that teach me the greatest lessons. Where would I be without Mike & The Bots in the back of my head reminding me why film grammar and proper lighting is important with their characteristic wit and timing. Where else would I have learned the dangers of not doing second takes but the work of Brad Ginter, Umberto Lenzi and especially Jesus Franco. It was Franco who indirectly taught me so much about what I didn't want my films to be like. In that regard he's indispensable. Everytime I do a scene, I hear the dubbed dialogue in Devil Hunter and Women Behind Bars. I think of everytime a public school is masqueraded as a courthouse, everytime Lina Romay accidentally walks into the camera, everytime Franco zooms in on some poor starlet's labia for what feels like an eternity. 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.

Count Dracula
By Jesus Franco
Ok, well there’s literally no one who isn’t by this point familiar with the story, so let’s just talk about what made this version unique. Specifically the involvement of some truly first-rate European talent in front of the camera: Klaus Kinski, Herbert Lom and Christopher Lee. With Bruno Mattei in the editing room, they had less luck behind the camera, but… It’s actually kind of novel and fun to see Franco regulars Fred Williams and Jack Taylor in such well-worn roles as Jonathan Harker and Quincey Morris, because you really feel like you’re watching a Franco film, and, shitty or not, a Jesus Franco film is a strange and beautiful thing. 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. 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 Bram 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 change 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. Too bad Franco wasn’t as clear-headed on a few other points.

Things plod on 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, until Werner Herzog came along that is. 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. But you forget all that once we get to the borgo pass and then…that voice. Christopher Lee shows up 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 our Peter O’Toole, our Laurence Olivier, and even though the roles treated him with less respect over the years, he never did anything less than his best. And to his credit, you can tell that Franco was trying to make a respectable film. 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.

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. That’s a villa in coastal Spain…there’s just no way around it. Then there’s the scene with the taxidermied animals. Now Jesus had been doing ok up until this point and it actually comes at a pivotal moment. Van Helsing, 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 but are instead met by a veritable menagerie of unmoving dead animals. There are dead weasels, dead boars, even a goddamned ostrich! And they start barking and roaring and every other thing (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) and best of all, these three men, trained actors all, have to pretend they’re terrified of something Franco couldn’t even bother to light properly or give spooky eyes. Or at least they try to seem vaguely bothered. I think everyone (or anyway, Lom and Kinski) 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. And finally, there’s the conclusion. Harker and Quincey race to beat Dracula back to his castle. They overtake his carriage on the road in and 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, that’s how! Just when Franco had me rooting for his ambitious little film, he goes and provokes a hearty bout of laughter and thus the climax is ruined.

Count Dracula moves faster than just about all of its director's other work. The seeds for his later ‘style’ are planted here, including zooms in place of actual tension. But even still there are a few other things to recommend Count Dracula, Lee’s performance the strongest of them. 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, bring their improper moral code and ideas about sex into polite society and thus both suffer. 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 it’s way into the dialogue. But like I said, go looking for a lot to write home about and you’ll find happy accidents. This is a workmanlike adaptation of a book that was already dog-eared by 1970 with one extraordinary performance keeping it from circling the drain. Ok, I take that back. There are two reasons why this needs to be seen. The first is Lee, the second is because seeing it gives a helpful context to place Vampir Cauducec, the astonishing documentary made on the set of Franco’s film.

Vampir Cauducec
By Pere Portabella

While Franco was working overtime to make a film worthy of Lee’s commitment to the title role, a young Catalan director called Pere Portabella sat in the shadows with a 16mm camera recording it all. He processed it, edited it and 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 (until the last scene, the only one with synch sound, when Lee reads aloud from the original novel and makes you weak in the knees). 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 god bless him Jack tries, something he very obviously didn’t do on later Franco films. 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,” 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 for Jesus Franco). One of the most fascinating bits of criticism ever handed to this movie is 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 truly is amazing that the making of a movie can be inherently more interesting than what it produces.

There is a deconstructionist, almost 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 a highly unusual context, is both exciting and radically impudent. By the 1970s artists were no longer content to simply play with genres or existing forms and Portabella’s treatment 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 everytime I see it) 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 album Sandinista! Instead of a guitar solo, they lower the levels of all the instruments while the song plays on for an unheard verse and play an obnoxious bit of isolated feedback, as if to say ‘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 doesn’t exist in the original.

Neither Franco nor Portabella could have known it at the time, but this was one of Miranda’s last performances and everything from her subliminal first appearance on 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 (and no, I am not going to use the more obvious hip-hop reference. You want major label hip-hop metaphors? Go someplace else, you fucking philistine) 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. Film 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 camera and in a few moments preserved her forever. Such is the cruelty of filmmaking.
And so you see why I’m reluctant to discuss the highs and low points of imperfect but incredibly likeable films like We Are What We Are or I Saw The Devil or Prey or even something like Let Me In, a movie I’ve been dying to gut like a blue fin tuna at a sushi joint. I know the pressure put on someone everytime there are actors in front of a camera and a clock to beat, so my saying "this shot was too short" or "I wouldn't have put the camera there" is personal, kind of annoying and doesn't really get to the heart of the problem. The point is that I know how fucking hard it is to get even the simplest things right. Not only could Jesus Franco not deliver the respectable adaptation of Dracula he promised Christopher Lee, he couldn’t even explain through images why he was so obsessed with Soledad Miranda. There is a lot I want to say and do and there’s every possibility I’m going to fail miserably at it, but at the very least I hope I have an understanding of how easy it is to fail and hard it is to do the same thing.

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