Someone once said ‘write what you know’. So here’s to all those years spent in a dark basement, nestled within a sleepy town, watching Italian westerns and horror films. Here’s to my escape from said basement – nature. Here’s to years of higher education culminating in sporadic environmental sector employment. Here’s to exploring the internal and external environment. None of these experiences were wasted on me. Cheers!
“Get three coffins ready.”
– L’uomo senza nome
The Strange Story Behind “C’era una volta in Transilvania”
(AKA: Once Upon a Time in Transylvania)
This series is based upon a supposedly lost film, rumoured to have been made in 1969. Apparently, at that time, it was the most expensive Spanish production ever attempted. Reports of stills surfacing online proved to be taken from other films (there are several lesser known spaghetti westerns to plunder) or fabricated by fans. The soundtrack, far from the norm for spaghetti westerns of the time, was rumoured to contain music by Can, Pink Floyd, and Jerry Garcia. So you may ask yourself – why have I never heard of this rumoured ‘lost film’ called ‘Once Upon a Time in Transylvania’? Of course, there are plentiful rumours and theories to explain why so few have heard of the film. Suffice to say that most theories concerning the genesis of the film, and how and why it became ‘lost’, are almost as unusual as the descriptions of the film itself.
If it can be believed, Spanish dictator Francisco Franco Bahamonde had a personal interest in the film’s production. Apparently, his administration – especially his censors and the Film Institute of Spain – were perturbed that Italian, German, English and American productions were dominating productions shot in Andalusia, leaving Spain playing second fiddle with co-production credits. In addition, Franco apparently considered himself experienced in the film industry following his involvement with Spanish productions such as ‘Raza’, a semi-autobiographical war film from 1942, and a pro-Franco documentary called ‘Franco, ese hombre’.
The exact nucleus of the production is of course unknown. However, rumour has it that the thinking was as follows. If Spain was to demonstrate their national cinema’s worth, they best mimic foreign producers and use local resources to create a type of film that was popular at that time – namely westerns and horror films. That is how they came upon the idea of blending horror and the western genres for maximum commercial effect. Apparently, they also sought to cash in on the recent wave of science and environment related books and films such as the recent success of Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’ and Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’, which was still popular. Rumour has it that early script development was also influenced by documentaries like ‘The Redwoods’ and ‘The Last Paradises: On the Track of Rare Animals’ and fiction films like ‘Planet of the Apes’ and ‘Night of the Living Dead’.
Rumours concerning initial casting are particularly interesting. It has been suggested that, despite censors’ concerns regarding his politics and escapist fantasies, Paul Naschy was offered a key role. Oddly, his own film ‘Las Noches del Hombre Lobo’ mysteriously vanished, so he would have been well versed for the role. Perhaps the producers overlooked the controversial aspects of his work in favour of employing the only Spanish actor with experience in horror films and a box office draw abroad. Alas, Naschy’s involvement never got past the preproduction stage. At the last minute, he was replaced with an unknown Spanish actor who the producers felt they could have more control over.
Little else is known about preproduction and the circumstances surrounding it; apparently there are no written or recorded records of any type. It is curious that if Paul Naschy was in fact up for a role in the film, then why did he not mention it in his autobiography ‘Paul Naschy: Memoirs of a Wolfman’? If Can, Pink Floyd, and Jerry Garcia had indeed contributed to the soundtrack then why is it missing from their discographies? As someone once said, ‘never let the truth get in the way of a good story’. Perhaps we shall never know for certain how and why this film came to light, if it did at all. Maybe all we’ll ever uncover are rumours, half-truths and pure hyperbole. Yet, those rumours persist to this day – and most of them revolve around the footage.
If you can get past the idea that someone has actually seen the film, then perhaps it can be believed that the film is a bizarre aberration eroding almost every pillar of Franco’s fascist regime. Ironic for a film produced in a strict right-wing, Roman Catholic environment, it is said to feature sex, copious violence, vampires, werewolves, anti-colonialism, anti-capitalism, ecological themes and socialist politics. All this made (somehow) right under the noses of Franco’s notorious censors (who incidentally sharply criticised Hammer’s ‘Dracula’).
It is not known if Franco himself ever read the script – or anyone else from his administration, for that matter. The sharp divergence between the initial impetus for the film – a testament to Franco’s unitary nationalism, staunch Catholicism, rapid economic development, and struggle to maintain colonial rule – and the final outcome suggests that someone kept the production concealed. Where that final outcome is, if it does exist, has remained a mystery since 1969. Rumours rush in to fill its absence. You may wonder why no one associated with the production has come forward by now, or been approached for comment on the film’s whereabouts. A legitimate point, but die-hard believers point out that there are no credits or records of any type to establish who was involved with the production. Contrary to initial plans, all the actors were said to be unknowns and probably unrecognizable if actual footage does surface. So few people are rumoured to have seen the film that none of the cast have been tracked down – provide they are still alive. Most of the cast were probably extras in previous films shot in and around Almeria by foreign crews. Lastly, there is the very real possibility that Franco’s notorious administration could have destroyed the film and used any means at their disposal to wipe all trace of it from the planet. Considering the political climate at the time, it is highly unlikely that unknown local cast or crew – many of them peasant farmers – would dare speak out, had they actually been involved with the film.
In conclusion, we may never know if ‘Once Upon a Time in Transylvania’ really exists (or existed). All we can say for certain is that the film exists in the minds of a few believers. Perhaps the rest of us have been robbed of a unique cinematic experience. This serialized novel is an attempt to rectify that loss. The novel brings together multiple rumours, theories and innuendos in order to partially reconstruct what could have been one hell of a film – to say the least.
A note on the film’s title: You may ask yourself why, if Franco’s administration were so keen on promoting Spanish language cinema, the film is only ever referred to by its Italian title and the English translation. It can only be assumed that this nomenclature was directed at the typical – and lucrative – western market that had been well-established since the release of ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ in 1964.