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  • Writer's pictureJames McCleary

El Conde // Film Review

It isn’t easy to make a vampire movie.

Dracula alone holds the Guinness World Record for the most portrayed literary figure on screen, racking up an impressive 538 appearances as of 2015, and the runners-up aren't particularly close. Since the time of Nosferatu (1922) and Dracula (1931), vampirism has become such a household concept that its various tropes now tend to go without saying; films like El Conde can safely assume their audiences are already familiar with the rules of sunlight and holy water, which allows them to skip straight to the meat of the material, so to speak. It’s a great convenience, but it comes at a price - when everyone knows the story you’re trying to tell, what can possibly be left to say?

For a while now, the answer has largely been to place it in the hands of “auteur” filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (1992) or Taika Waitii’s What We Do In The Shadows (2014). Latest to take on the challenge is Pablo Larráin, best known to Western audiences for his avant-garde and controversial biopics Jackie (2016) and Spencer (2021). In a surprising turn however, his El Conde adapts the vampire myth with more care to authenticity than his treatments of either Kennedy or Diana, “playing straight” the demonic legend as best as one reasonably could.

There is minimal genre-postmodernism to be found here, with the film’s grainy black and white tones harkening directly back to Bela Lugosi’s iconic rendition, and its titular Count playing all the hits you’d expect from a classic Gothic tale. Like the 500-odd before him, our vampire drinks blood to retain his eternal youth, bites necks to spread his curse and can fly in a formation best-described as bat-like. There can be no doubt that Larráin has a deep admiration for this mythology, which is especially fortunate when it becomes clear just how neat a fit this 30s-style is for his trademark pans and dollies. His sets in El Conde are designed in the same stagey fashion as Universal’s 30s studio lots, and embellished with his signature swooping, leering camera that keeps us at a distance, like voyeurs of a midnight show.

Treated with significantly less accuracy are the biographical elements of El Conde’s subject Augustus Pinochet, aka the longest reigning dictator in Chilean history. Under Larráin’s pen, Pinochet is revealed to be himself an immortal bloodsucker, dying and returning since at least the French Revolution, which is recreated in unforgettably grisly detail for a sequence early in the film. In justifying his mythologisation of one of history’ real villains, Larráin has argued that in dying before facing justice, Pinochet: “remains like a dark stain on our society that reminds us every day how broken we are and how divided we are.” In Larráin’s eyes, Pinochet’s cult of personality has given him undying influence, and what better story is there to tackle such a belief system than that of Mr Stoker’s seductive, but toxic creation?

The film resulting from this vision is a strange blend of broad comedy and bitter, nihilistic horror, emphasising at once the pathetic theatrics of the Count while also challenging any misconception that this is a man worthy of leadership, regardless of where one falls on the political spectrum. As far as the former is concerned, El Conde is a gleefully mischievous and utterly silly triumph. Sweeping shots of a bat-like Pinochet gliding over the city at traffic-speed, no swifter than the average commuter, never fail to get a laugh, while 87-year-old star Jamie Vadell proves deftly self-aware in portraying Pinochet’s tendency to flirt with much younger and sharper women, dialling up the cringe factor to a level worthy of sitcom legend.

Where El Conde stumbles slightly is in its more pointed critiques of the vampire at its centre. The second act in particular can get weighed down by scene-after-scene of monologuing schemers and palace intrigue, as Larráin endeavours to portray the decrepit household into which Pinochet has enshrined himself. Unfortunately, the ensemble around Pinochet - namely his ambitious wife, devoted butler and greedy children - are consistently less interesting than the ghoul himself, and in taking centre-stage for so much of the middle-hour they not only shift the story away from the vampiric iconography with which Larráin excels, but they also make the ageing dictator far too appealing a presence by comparison, which feels counter-intuitive to the script’s ultimate goals.

Whether or not El Conde succeeds in satirising Augustus Pinochet beyond putting him in the goofy cloaks and neckties of ye olde vampires is debatable, but what isn’t is Larráin’s masterful use of genre trappings to drive a familiar narrative which is undoubtedly and distinctively the work of an auteur. El Conde thrives above many in the vampire canon because its storyteller sees these tropes primarily as tools to create what might be the culminating work of his career thus far. The production is full of camp cheek in all the same ways as Ema (2019)or No (2012), while taking a bold and defiantly opinionated stance on a figure of real controversy in the vein of Jackie or Spencer. The film doesn’t quite balance all of these threads as elegantly as it could, with clunkier stretches between its grandest peaks, but what cannot be denied is this: there is no vampire movie quite like El Conde, and there is unlikely to be one again.

Reviewed at the Venice Film Festival.


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