Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Time To Take Out The Trash

Once, what feels like an age ago, I asked a like minded-fan of sleaze, smut, blood and/or guts why it was that modern filmmakers had such a hard time getting trash right these days. Why is that despite remakes of every sleazy-ass backwoods horror film, no one manages to create anything that gets the balance of lovably shitty filmmaking and irredeemable yet somehow endearingly tasteless subject matter right? Why couldn't you even really improve over shit like Last House on the Left? The golden age (the 70s, ending I like to think, with Dawn of the Dead ringing the bell on high) produced horror movies with just the right sensibilitiy. Mark of the Devil, Axe, Alucarda, The Big Bird Cage, Clan of the Forgotten Eight, Blood on Satan's Claw...these guys knew what they were doing. But for whatever reason a great throwback is hard to find. Stuck!, The Human Centipede, 2001 Maniacs...they just don't do it for me. They either lack the strength of their convictions or are far too enthusiastic for their own good, running into a troubling dearth of funds or a criminal lack of understanding. They don't know what it was that made the movies they idolize so great, they just hone in on one aspect and then max it out. It rarely works and it's usually painful to watch. The House of the Devil and Black Dynamite work because they pay attention to enough period details while still finding plenty of time to tell compelling/funny stories. Recent history is littered with the corpses of movies that tried and failed to recapture the glory days. What killed them this time? Pointless dialogue and an excess of winking in the case of today's double feature. There was so much dialogue and so much winking in one of these damn films that Quentin Tarantino decided that his throwback was too good to be part of a double-bill with the much more interesting, game and entertaining Planet Terror and that his contribution needed to be a whole extra forty minutes longer to accommodate all his winking and talking.

Death Proof
by Quentin Tarantino
Three attractive girls get together and talk in their apartment, then they get into one of their cars and talk, then they get to a convenience store and talk, then they go to a bar and talk, then three boys show up and they talk, then another girl arrives having been stood up and they talk, then the bartender walks over and they talk, then three of their girlfriends show up and they talk, then Kurt Russell shows up and they talk some more and then one of them gives Kurt a lap dance, but first they talk about it, then when it's done they talk. Then Kurt kills most of them in his car, then the police arrive and they talk, then it's a year later in another town and four other attractive girls get together and talk in a parking lot, another parking lot, a diner, then they go talk to a guy about buying his car, explaining why to each other through the very helpful narrative device of talking, then they drive the car away and then talk about what they're going to do, then one of them climbs on top of the car because Tarantino could find literally no better cause for a carchase with a woman on the hood of the car than because she's a stunt woman who simply does this sort of thing for fun. and that's what they call screenwriting. Anyway Kurt shows up and the rest of the movie is a pretty predictable car chase that's exciting for the first five minutes before it's interrupted by more talking and then the rest of it happens but all the tension's gone when the girls are no longer in any real danger and the cars are destroyed so it's not really fun anymore anyway. Oh and before it's over, the girls talk some more.

This movie's problem is simple but unfortunately it pervades literally ever aspect of the production from the music to the casting to the cinematography to the hood ornaments: MASTURBATION!!! Death Proof has the dubious honor of being the film that perfectly captures what goes on in its director's head before he fouls up his boxers. Yes despite the film's initially scratched-look, its constantly name-dropping better movies, its music cues lifted from Italian horror films, its comparatively low-budget, its car-based murders, Death Proof is not the throwback it wants you to believe it is. It is the single most masturbatory movie ever made (note, this was true until I saw Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch). Quentin Tarantino used to be world-renowned for his dialogue, a sly blend of pop-culture references and an absurd amount of never-too-much swearing. Tarantino was cool and to be cool meant trying to be like Tarantino. The dialogue in Death Proof sounds like a man in his forties trying and failing to imagine what hot girls sound like when they're alone. Everytime someone speaks I missed the point of what they were saying because all I could hear anyone saying was "hello I'm the writer of this movie and I have concocted a clever manner of speech that all the characters engage in. It's great, you see they're all dropping the names of tv shows and movies that none of them could possibly know about ("You know that show The Virginian?" HAHA! Cause no one under 45 has seen that fucking shit! Or Convoy! Or Vanishing Point!) and then they typically make amazingly unsubtle sexual references that come off insanely mean-spirited and out-of-touch even though they're delivered with neck-swaying casualty." With that being shouted at me the whole time I had a hard time paying attention to just what the fuck anyone said in and around the car chases. It wasn't that I wasn't trying, it was just that I realized that absolutely, positively nothing said over the course of Death Proof's inexcusably baggy 114 minutes amounts to anything other than padding. A torturous second visit just reinforced my original assessment with a vengeance and made me want to throw myself down a flight of stairs because rankly it's not even fun to hear. It's all this constantly repeated, endlessly impressed-with-itself double talk that goes nowhere. Lines like: "Now there is one thing every girl in the whole world whose name is Shanna has in common with each other - we all hate the name Shawna. And we really hate when people call us Shawna," "What about "kinda cute, kinda hot, kinda sexy, hysterically funny, but not funny-looking guy who you could fuck" did you not understand?" and "how does one become a stuntman, stuntman mike?" are all insanely, monomaniacally unwieldy, especially when leaving the mouths of perpetually bored-looking actresses. Tarantino dialogue used to be the icing on the cake. Here it's a plate of lukewarm leftover tv-dinner masquerading as Bisteca Florentine and Baked Alaska; it's a metaphor drowning in another metaphor! Nearly half the screenplay shows up in the IMDB Quotes page and none of it is as clever as that implies. It's a movie filled with one-liners that resolutely fail to come alive in the mouths of a generation Tarantino didn't bother to figure out.

I realize I sound like the world's most bitter man but I wouldn't be so furious but for the fact that until I saw Death Proof I was one of the biggest fans Quentin had on planet earth. I bought the script for Pulp Fiction in the seventh grade from my high school bookstore and had the thing memorized by the eighth grade. I watched Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction on a nearly endless loop until Kill Bill, Vol. 1 hit theatres. I liked it, but it seemed kinda long and like maybe there weren't enough solid ideas to keep the movie exciting for its almost two hour running time. Vol. 2 was even longer and gave me an even stronger sense that he was just killing time, that he didn't have an ending, that he and everyone in the seats around me were just happy to be hearing his voice. I would have liked it if the movie actually felt like a cohesive unit instead of a collection of references. The climax of his two-part revenge cycle is twenty minutes of talk. Was I the only one who felt cheated? The whole movie was set-up and not a second of sword-play or kung-fu or Jackass-style trailer fighting between these two epic nemeses? Just fucking babbling on about comic books and dead fish and abortion. David Carradine's career wasn't the only thing that died when that film ended. Tarantino had stated that his intention with Pulp Fiction was to create something that you could start watching and leave at any moment and still get something out of it. Its references were myriad but they were quiet and unflashy, they helped construct a world of cheaters and bastards who can't help but collide with one another. It was trashy, it was lurid, it was fun, but most importantly it was incredibly well-made. After Jackie Brown showed him that audiences weren't interested in new ideas with an old coat of paint, he gave them what he thought they wanted after four or five years of reading and believing every thing ever written about him on then-new chatrooms and damningly subservient  fad-books with titles like Cinema of Cool. They wanted cool? He'd give it to them! So began Quentin's turning his back on what he made his name on (taut but patient direction, incendiary screenwriting) and his films became games of expired Celebrity Taboo played with audiences who had no idea they were being sold second-hand ideas. This reached it's apex in Inglourious Basterds where he actually showed clips from other movies in order to explain what was happening in his own movie! He named his characters after obscure character actors seventeen people knew about and spent minute after minute rambling about the importance of G.W. Pabst, King Kong and Joseph Goebbels Vs. David O. Selznick despite these things never for even a second having a thing to do with the plot! Death Proof deviates from this only slightly in that it doesn't have a plot to deviate from. Everything that leaves the character's mouths is just one too-clever/not-clever-enough line that separates audiences from the car chases and lap dances that save this movie from total listlessness.
My friend Tucker was one of the lucky few (and I do mean few) who actually saw Death Proof when it was just one half of the promising double feature Grindhouse. Tucker remembers vividly the feeling of watching the amazing, funny and lightning-fast Planet Terror, watching a slew of hysterical bite-sized fake trailers, and then settling in for a post-Kill Bill, Tarantino car-chase movie, his hands rubbing together like a bandit about to look in the safe he's just cracked. Then that anticipation turned quickly to confusion, then boredom and finally anger. Quentin intended the whole endeavor to be a tribute to New World double features, but those films had one key ingredient that Grindhouse didn't: a producer breathing down its neck demanding cuts and a runtime people could stomach. Quentin was calling the shots and perversely when Grindhouse failed to perform at the box office he actually put footage back in and released it on its own, premiering it at the Cannes film festival. Which I have to say pisses me off more and more as I think about it. What Grindhouse was supposed to be was something your average gorehound would love (it's called motherfucking Grindhouse!!!) and instead Quentin decided his part was really an art film and not the sleazy, scratchy trash movie it was touted as in trailers. Not that I disagree with that particular point: it absolutely doesn't work as an exploitation film. There's nothing here being exploited except my desire to see an exploitation movie. On that end all I got was the music from Tentacles. Thanks Q! But Death Proof sure ain't no fucking art film, either. Its biggest issue are all those gorgeous women lining up to do whatever their odd creator wishes. The first scene sets the tone. After pornographic shots of the leads' feet, we're treated to a close-up of Vanessa Ferlito holding her crotch as she runs like a little girl to the bathroom. The humiliation continues as he pits an especially horrifying Eli Roth and friends against the girls, trying hideously to date rape them while spitting out just so much stilted, pointless, esoteric dialogue you can't make out a word of (Also, I'd like to point out that the line "hey Bj, where's the bear?" is not only stupid in the mouth of anyone who isn't Quentin Tarantino, it's also not funny in any context). And I'd like to reiterate that none of it matters anyway. The girls then pout when boys don't like them, do exactly what boys ask of them, then get their faces ground off and their legs removed by a guy three times their age. That the film is dull as sin would get it a low enough grade without the added bonus of being sexually regressive. Quentin reportedly cut out a scene of Kurt Russell masturbating in his wrecked car following the first crash. I get why he cut it; it's redundant. Anyone uncertain that someone was jerking off all over this movie wasn't paying enough attention anyway. His solution, to have some cracker sheriff spell it out in black and white, is an appallingly stupid compromise (To quote MST3K, "this is a Motion picture", we can show as well as tell!). On the plus side it's just as wordy and boring as the rest of the movie, so at least there's continuity! Nevermind that there isn't a shred of evidence to suggest that the car accident was anything other than a car accident. All the same it feels like a major copout not to have Russell's character in a compromising position after watching girls in hot pants doing impressions of girls in hot pants for a fuckin' hour. And not ever is it established why any of these girls talk to each other/are friends/have atrocious fake southern accents or say things like "Dick Department" with all the ease of swallowing a fistful of super bowl rings. To say that nothing works is to put it both nicer and milder than Death Proof deserves. Watching this again made me pine for a movie that at least got around to doing something, ANYTHING, just so long as it wasn't self-indulgent and misogynist. As it turns out, I could have searched a little harder but I will give my pallet-cleanser one thing: I wasn't bored.

Drive Angry 3D
by Patrick Lussier

In a voiceover that explains nothing, we're told that hell just can't hold some people ("Bad ass motherfuckers", to be precise). And among those people is Nicholas Cage playing a character called John Milton, because Patrick Lussier and co-writer Todd Farmer took freshman english, I guess. Anyway, Milton has escaped from hell and he winds up in a generic vision of the American south (the same one we wound up killing time in in Death Proof) that's too clean to be as frightening or trashy as Lussier wishes it was. After fucking up two satanists and issuing a not-at-all cryptic warning (to tell "him" that he's coming for him) he meets about-to-be-cheated-on Amber Heard who has just enough reason to leave home and just little enough in her head to follow Cage as he cuts a path across the south looking for "him." "Him" turns out to a Satanist (Billy Burke in what I'm going to say is his second-worst performance, which is a shame because he's a good actor) who killed Cage's daughter and is going to sacrifice his granddaughter in order to bring about Hell on Earth. And we'd be more worried as an audience if Satan's personal Accountant weren't also on Cage's tail, trying to bring him back (albeit not very determinedly). And so begins a two-tiered chase involving cars flipping, old waitress banging, dumb cop shooting, and Tom Atkins swearing and looking as apoplectic as the most apathetic man on earth can look.

There are a lot of things stopping Drive Angry from being either as good or as wonderfully shitty as it should have been but the biggest problem with Drive Angry is that Lussier is too afraid to embrace the truly sleazy nature of his concept. A film like this doesn't need slow-motion unless it's the kind of slow-mo Sam Peckinpah used to use. It doesn't need music that isn't played by shit-kicking bar bands. It doesn't need super-cool car flipping or too-contained fight scenes or slick editing and cinematography or a reigned in, self-conscious performance from Nic Cage. It doesn't need someone like David Morse classing up the joint, or Amber Heard as the lead girl. In other words it's too 'cool' for it's own good. The idea of Cage fucking a waitress during a gunfight on paper sounds like the kind of Hal Needham or Peckinpah would have done with a straight face. Lussier on the other hand puts it in slow motion and plays The Raveonettes. Doesn't quite work; in fact none of his soundtrack choices work. Peaches and UNKLE aren't the soundtrack to a shitty car chase movie, they're the contents of a Canadian hipster's ipod. See the difference? The film's loaded with mistakes like that Heard's presence is too calculated and safe for a movie like this. Katy Mixon's cameo was more in keeping with the spirit of something like this (but not this), but frankly she's not even what you need. You need the kind of girl who you'd buy in a bar fight. Amber Heard puts on white trash for the duration, but you want the female equivalent of Strother Martin, someone who can match Cage's nutso charisma. And Cage is waaaaaay too calm for this movie. Where's the Cage of Bad Lieutenant? That's the crazy bastard I want escaping from Hell in a Challenger! Not the mildly respectable Cage we're stuck with here. In fact the only person who seems to fit the scenery is William Fitchner and he doesn't get nearly enough screentime. His performance as the Accountant is perfect and I wouldn't change it, I just want more of it.

I guess if you want to look at the problem in microcosm, let's examine the name of this beast. Drive Angry in 3D. It's no good. "Drive Angry" is a Groundhog Day reference. Already aiming way too high. "in 3D" sounds cheap and stupid, but really the 3D we're given is more in keeping with the trends of today rather than say the boneheaded audience baiting of Jaws 3D. This movie is too modern to be interesting simply because it claims the swagger of an old-fashioned drive-in movie. This is too self-aware and pretty to be the Race With The Devil remake it aches to be. What it needed was the kind of gimmicky shit that Tarantino tried to distract his audience with in the opening minutes of Death Proof. He once said that he'd "over-tweaked" Death Proof (on the list of things wrong with that film, that isn't even in the top twenty-five). The whole point of Death Proof (indeed the whole Grindhouse endeavor) was that it was supposed to look like it fell off the back of a truck on its way to the Capri in Cold Water, Michigan. If anything, when the movie stops doing the scratched-print and bad edits halfway through I just got more furious. No! Bring that shit on, says I! Otherwise, what the fuck is the point of the exercise!!!! It's just that kind of gimmickry that Drive Angry is missing. So while it was a perfectly enjoyable if regrettably stupid hour and a half, it wasn't the film I was promised. It was too cool to be filthy, too bad to be good, too good to be bad and so it's just kinda stupid; it didn't live up to its potential. What Drive Angry needed was someone who could have chipped the new paint and antiqued it a bit, who really understood the pantheon of shitty movies it was trying to enter. Just as what Death Proof needed was someone who could breathe some life into a DOA script and boring set-pieces.
There's a scene in Death Proof where one of the two wasted muscle cars drives through a marquee advertising Wolf Creek. Personally how Quentin gets off flipping the bird to anyone is totally beyond me considering he's apparently forgotten how to write and direct coherently/concisely, but that he's pissing on Wolf Creek of all things makes me especially furious. Wolf Creek is an art film that made it into an exclusive canon where the likes of Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Axe sit happily sharing pictures of their deformed grandkids. A place that with no limitations imposed on them neither Patrick Lussier's big budget spectacle nor Tarantino's wordy ouroboros touched by a mile. It's not enough to pay lip service to the greats; it helps to have something worth saying. Otherwise, save your breath and let someone else get a word in. Oh, one last thing, minor, but I'm going for it anyway. I'd like to thank Tarantino for permanently associating dumbness with Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich. Shouldn't it be some kind of hint when your actresses can't even pronounce the name of the band that perhaps it has no place in the movie? Why can't anyone get this stuff right?

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.