Elusive Vampire Film Steps Out of the Shadows

Posted December 22, 2017 12:02 a.m. EST

“Vampir Cuadecuc” is a ghostly film as well as the ghost of a film and perhaps the ghost of cinema itself.

Made in 1970 by Catalan filmmaker Pere Portabella, “Vampir Cuadecuc” is among the most highly regarded avant-garde films of the past half-century and has also been among the hardest to find. It is now available on disc from the British company Second Run Features in a zone-free format compatible with most DVD players and computers.

“Vampir Cuadecuc” was filmed on the set during the production of Spanish director Jess Franco’s “El Conde Dracula” (“Count Dracula”), a relatively modest vehicle for the redoubtable onscreen bloodsucker Christopher Lee. It could be variously characterized as a wildly impressionistic production documentary, a deranged remake of F.W. Murnau’s silent classic “Nosferatu” or an eccentric assemblage of outtakes. (According to the DVD notes by Stanley Schtinter, the word “cua de cuc” is Catalan for “worm’s tail” and also refers to the bit of unexposed film stock at the end of a roll.)

Using a hand-held 16 mm camera and high-contrast black-and-white film stock, Portabella filmed central scenes from the Franco movie as though he were spying on its making. Amid the mysterious comings and goings, which include much kinetic rushing through the woods, the Portabella film emphasizes details like the crude bat puppets fluttering outside the window of a woman soon to receive Count Dracula’s attentions. Ambient sound is almost entirely suppressed in favor of a musique concrètescore by Catalan multimedia artist Carles Santos in which rolling thunder and tolling bells are interspersed with passages of incongruously languorous lounge music.

Atmosphere is at least as important as action here. Images dissolve into shadows. Light is generally diffused. Portabella’s focus is sharpest when he shows various on-set preparations, including the manufacture of fog, the creation of cobwebs, the fabrication of bloody bites and the arrangement of actors in coffins. Everything is equally fantastic. Mounted on a dolly, the official camera is shown stalking the “Count Dracula” set as relentlessly as Lee’s voracious count.

Given Portabella’s politics (among other things, he produced Luis Buñuel’s savagely anti-clerical comedy “Viridiana”), “Vampir Cuadecuc” has been interpreted as a comment on the dying years of Gen. Francisco Franco’s dictatorship. But it’s also an example of what might be termed “positive” vampirism, drawing sustenance from the vital juices of another movie. Most generally, Portabella’s film ruminates on the vampirelike relationship of the motion picture medium to life. (As such it enters into a dialogue with Carl Theodor Dreyer’s sly, endlessly fascinating early talkie “Vampyr,” itself newly out on Blu-ray from Criterion.)

Portabella’s film had a short run at Film Forum in May 1973 under the title “Vampir.” Roger Greenspun, who reviewed the movie for The New York Times, found it “so distinctly worth seeing as to be almost mandatory.” Now, thanks to Second Run, that will be possible.

Another rarefied and elusive avant-garde film, “Anticipation of the Night” by Stan Brakhage, is newly available in a zone-free dual Blu-ray/DVD edition from the French company Re:Voir Video.

Made in 1958, “Anticipation of the Night” was conspicuous by its absence in the two excellent Brakhage compilations released several years ago by Criterion. Perhaps this was because it was difficult to transfer — or perhaps it was the obscure nature of the movie itself. Certainly, as the film that led Brakhage, then 25, to a new form of “first-person,” utterly subjective cinema, “Anticipation” can seem as puzzling today as it was nearly 60 years ago when his early supporters, like critics Amos Vogel and Parker Tyler, deemed it unshowable.

For the first time, Brakhage’s protagonist was fully the entity behind the camera. Even more than “Vampir Cuadecuc,” “Anticipation of the Night” (which has a running time of 40 minutes) is a film that is most analogous to a musical composition. The movie is silent; the only rhythm is visual. Like Portabella, Brakhage uses the hand-held 16 mm camera to dynamic effect — smearing light or blurring the image to achieve special effects that more timid filmmakers might consider mistakes.

As with many Brakhage films, “Anticipation” is hard to describe although it is by no means abstract. The images are recognizable but enigmatic. The film’s montage is even more so. “Anticipation” begins by acknowledging the filmmaker whose shadow is shown in a shaft of light on the floor. Soon the early interiors give way to the outside world — landscapes shot from a moving car, a rainbow produced by a lawn sprinkler.

A bit less than halfway through, “Anticipation” becomes an intensely fragmented, at times frenzied, study of children in a nighttime amusement park. The movie’s final movement is also nocturnal. There are numerous car-shots of empty road and onrushing trees in the moonlight (an image often used by David Lynch in “Twin Peaks”). A close-up of a sleeping child suggests that the various mysterious shots of birds and bears, evidently filmed at a zoo, are the child’s dreams.

Brakhage is often described as a lyrical filmmaker, but his can be a most disquieting, even violent, form of lyricism. Forms coalesce and vanish throughout. Narrative only becomes obvious in the final minutes when it abruptly appears that the consciousness behind the camera is contemplating suicide.

“Anticipation of the Night” is far from Brakhage’s greatest film, but it is the one in which he hurled himself into the unknown. It embodies a desire to make something completely new, which, even after six decades, remains fresh.

Newly Released

‘The Death of Louis XIV’: Jean-Pierre Léaud, who appeared as a 14-year-old in “The 400 Blows,” gives the performance of his life in Albert Serra’s period chamber piece. In his New York Times review Glenn Kenny called the movie “sober, meticulous and entirely convincing in its depiction of period and mortality.” It’s also a film for the ages. Available on Blu-ray and DVD. (Cinema Guild)

Fritz Lang: The Silent Films’: The greatest of pulp filmmakers, Fritz Lang pioneered or even invented several movie genres, many in the 1920s. This 12-Blu-ray box includes all of Lang’s surviving silent films, among them “Metropolis,” “Die Nibelungen,” “Spies,” “Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler” and “Woman in the Moon.” (Kino Lorber)

‘Lady Macbeth’: In his first feature, British director William Oldroyd transposes Nikolai Leskov’s novella (the source of the Dmitri Shostakovich opera “Lady Macbeth of Minsk”) to the 19th-century English countryside with ferocious results. In her review, Times critic Manohla Dargis praised the movie’s “ticklish nastiness.” On Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Video. (Lionsgate)

‘Personal Shopper’: Making her second appearance in an Olivier Assayas film, Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity assistant — as well as something of a medium seeking to make contact with a dead relative. The movie is “sleek and spooky, seductive and suspenseful,” The Times’ A.O. Scott wrote in a review. On Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Video. (Criterion)

‘Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series’: The big television (and motion picture) news this fall was, for many, David Lynch’s return to the great Northwest. Looking over the entire series, Noel Murray wrote in The Times that its best moments could be appreciated “as pure televisual poetry, regardless of their larger meaning.” All 18 episodes (and many extras) are available, in a multidisc set, on Blu-ray and DVD. (Showtime/CBS)