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El Conde [Review]

Chilean director Pablo Larraín has done the improbable: made a vampire movie, El Conde, with a fresh perspective that is bizarre, repugnant, and darkly hilarious. Shot in B&W, the story is loosely based on Augusto Pinchot, Chile’s longest ruling and merciless dictator known for his human rights violation. Here, he is a buffoonish old vampire who after living for 250 years has decided he wants to die. His grown children and wife, all non-vampires, show up at his remote dilapidated mansion to suss out their rightful inheritances. But things don’t go as planned.

The stylistic approach echoes the whimsical work of Wes Anderson, with intercut close-ups of static characters looking at the camera and extreme long shots of the barren, cold landscape. It’s often shot like an observational documentary while still rooted in absurdist comedy. During the first act, the characters engage in very little dialogue, instead deferring to the voice-over to establish the story. We don’t know until the third act who the person narrating the story is, and the film reveals an absolutely genius stroke. It’s important to know the real history of Pinchot in relation to world politics to have a firm grasp on the narrative.

Also a standout is the musical score. The first act is primarily underscored with old sounding, weepy, staccato music from a harpsichord and strings. When the family arrives, the music becomes more quirky and horn driven. Long sections go by without music allowing the sounds and dialogue to shine. When a nun arrives at the house, the music becomes more gothic and moody lending a more horrific tone.

The visuals of the vampire flying in his military uniform complete with cape (the count insisted on having a cape added to his uniform) is also exquisite. In a bird’s eye view shot, the figure is frozen at the center of the screen, cape billowing, while the landscape below gently passes by. It’s a serene, poetic visual from a unique perspective, until we realized that the vampire is out looking for blood-filled hearts to rip from victims.

While this is a comedy, it's also quite bloody and often shockingly visceral. The mark of a good horror comedy, even one as dark as this one, is that balance between comedy and horror. A second viewing brought out the morbid, humorous undertow that permeates the first two acts. To add to the absurdity is the reimagining of historical figures in an unconventional way. This film is an implicitly political jibe at Chile and the United Kingdom, and it does so in the most peculiar and dark humored way.

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