El Conde: Pablo Larraín reimagines Pinochet as a vampire in this retro-noirish horror

Larraín once again blurs the lines between biopic and horror with a gothic, anti-fascist vampire movie that draws on the darkest parts of genuine Chilean 20th-century history.

31 August 2023

By Kim Newman

El Conde (2023)
Sight and Sound

Pablo Larraín’s  Jackie (2016) and Spencer (2021) have shadows which blur distinctions between biopic and horror film; in his world, Princess Diana is literally haunted by Anne Boleyn and the House of Windsor is a crumbling edifice which neighbours the House of Hammer. Returning to his homeland, Larraín ventures even further from realism by imagining late dictator Augusto Pinochet as a vampire. El Conde embeds a lot of genuine Chilean 20th-century history into an old dark house gothic tale shot in stark black and white with literal flights of fancy – its vampires fly superhero-style with spread cape wings – and bursts of extreme carnage which represent the many crimes of the Pinochet regime.  

This approach isn’t unprecedented. Ever since Bram Stoker used elements of the life of the historical Vlad the Impaler as backstory for his fictional Count, many have imagined famous figures (Richard III, Lord Byron, Judas, Hitler, Lenin) as vampires. El Conde even brings in a British politician often depicted in cartoons as a bloodsucker to narrate the story, making editorial links between the general behaviour of corrupt authoritarians and the habits of film vampires. “This is what the Count achieved,” we are told, “beyond the killing, his life’s work was to turn us all into heroes of greed.” In Larraín’s telling, Pinochet (Jaime Vadell) is born Claude Pinoche in pre-Revolutionary France. His natural bloodlust leads him to lick the guillotine blade after Marie Antoinette’s execution and treasure her severed head as a relic and a reminder to be an eternal counter-revolutionary. Coming to Chile, and living the biography familiar from history books, he achieves what Dracula failed to do by rising to power and exulting in rapaciousness. Having bled the country dry, Pinochet fakes his death and lives on, surrounded by minions and grasping heirs in a remote, bleak compound.  

The vampire killings start again, leading the Catholic Church to send Carmencita (Paula Luchsinger), a nun who poses as an accountant, to gather the papers which will enable Pinochet’s non-vampire wife and five children to live off money stolen from the country. Her mission isn’t quite as idealistic as Jonathan Harker’s in Terence Fisher’s Dracula (1958), who poses as a librarian hired to catalogue the library of Castle Dracula to get close enough to Dracula to assassinate him; the church was at best neutral and at worst complicit with the Pinochet regime and she’s as much cover-up artist as vampire slayer. Carmencita piques the old monster’s interest, setting in motion events which summon Pinochet’s monstrous creator and patron to the Southern tip of the country for a reckoning and a reset which reinforces the lesson that fascism can’t easily be despatched with a stake and holy fire. Vampires always return for bloodier sequels.  

A rather beautiful film, El Conde explores its crumbling haunted house and the bleak environs in a stately manner but also splashes around deep black sludgy blood (these vampires favour hearts liquidised in a blender). It’s not so much the the classical grey look of Nosferatu (1922) or Dracula (1931) but the retro-noirish monochrome of 1990s vampire essays like Michael Almereyda’s Nadja (1994) and Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction (1995).  Some of the humour is laboured and – as is often the case with vampire political cartoons – there’s a sense the joke-teller doesn’t quite realise how often this one has been told before.  Longtime Count-followers will remember H.W. Geissendorffer’s Jonathan (1971), one of the first explicitly anti-fascist vampire movies, while even the throwaway Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter (2012) covered some of this territory.

In Dracula, Stoker’s Count is a vain, windy bore who boasts of his former military achievements – while justifying such heroic tactics as fleeing the battlefield to fight again, leaving his armies to be slaughtered. Here, El Conde similarly puts up a front, surrounded by icons of 19th-century militarism (it was said that Pinochet had ‘the last Prussian army in the world’). He’s more stung to be remembered as a thief than as a mass murderer. As with Larraín’s other portraits of political figures trapped in their pasts – the widowed Jackie, the powerless Diana – an element of whimsy creeps in. Vadell gives almost a sympathetic portrait of the shambling living corpse until deep malice glints again. The undead Pinochet of El Conde may be terrible, but we despise his enablers and hangers-on more… and it turns out that he’s not even the worst vampire in the world.

El Conde is in select UK cinemas from 8 September and will be available to stream on Netflix UK from 15 September. 

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