This Portuguese film from director Edgar Pêra opens with a screed that positions the movie we’re about to watch as an adaptation of Branquinho de Fonseca’s 1942 novella produced in 18943 as a ‘Draculian movie’by an exiled American B movie company headed by ‘Valerie Lewton’. Actually, it’s even more complicated – this is the Portuguese version shot at night on the sets where Ms Lewton was making an English-language horror film by day, and it’s said that the regime found out and had all the actors roasted to death in prison. Then, the film unreels – gorgeously shot in black and white by Luis Branquinho, grandson of the author, on cavernous stylised sets that evoke Universal’s Dracula and Son of Frankenstein, with touches of Nosferatu.
A schools inspector (Marcos Barbosa) travels to a remote part of the country after complaints have been lodged against a teacher (Marina Albuquerque) and he is fetched off to the castle of the Baron (Nuno Melo), who declares that he runs things around here … and has an enslaved, but not exactly submissive minion in Idalina (Leonor Keil) and an entire tuna choir penned under a grille in his huge dining room. The nugget of plot comes from the novella, which vaguely evokes Kafka’s The Castle, but Pêra keeps overlaying scenes from the 1931 Dracula … nervous passengers insisting that a coach travel on rather than stop in dangerous country … the Baron hosting the inspector to a meal (he claims not to eat food) while ranting about his own complicated personal history (I nodded off a bit, but I think he talks about getting a horse a law degree and a sexual rivalry with his father). Idalina, who says that a lot of what the Baron tells the younger man is nonsense, sometimes wears a black headscarf like the one Gloria Holden sports in Dracula’s Daughter, and the Baron (or someone very like him) occasionally appears with a Wolf Man-like over-the-head boar make-up.
O Barão evokes the mannered, layered, playful mimicry of outmoded film techniques that Guy Maddin specialises in, but Pêra also has a habit of overlaying images so that every scene seems like one of those duality moments from Persona. I get a sense that I’m missing a lot of cultural specificity by not really knowing where this is coming from – I had to check out Portuguese Wikipedia to bone up on Branquinho de Fonseca – but it’s also a great-looking, wonderfully imaginative film that’s slightly resistable … but it’s full of nice images, eerie effects, and splendid asides. The tuna numbers are funny and spirited, and there’s a magical moment where the reflection of the dancing Baron’s Dracula cloak on the floor looks like a giant bat or bird. Melo’s bald, glowering, talkative tyrant – who is seen briefly in a flash of colour as he seems to expire – is an acceptable Dracula stand-in.