El Conde

EL CONDE is a pretty simple idea: what if Augusto Pinochet, the dictator of Chile from 1974 through 1990, was in fact a vampire? Sort of the opposite of our “what if Abraham Lincoln was a vampire hunter?” It’s kind of a horror movie in that it shows us graphic bloodlettings, beheadings of both humans and animals, eating a cat, crushing a skull, and it puts even more revolting imagery into our heads through verbal descriptions. It also gets a classic horror atmosphere going with its gorgeous Academy Award nominated black and white cinematography by Edward Lachman (LIGHT SLEEPER, THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, THE LIMEY, CAROL). But mostly it’s a satire hitting on a very old, very obvious, but still very relevant point: the rich and powerful are monsters. You could say we’re all human, we’re all petty, but that doesn’t make us all the same. These people are fucking weirdos, the bad kind. I don’t have the statistics in front of me, but it seems like more often than not the type of people who seek power, and the families who inherit it, and feel it is their right, there’s something very wrong with them. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, but also it attracts a bunch of freakos in the first place. I mean, part of the joke of this movie is that the fucking guy wears a cape. Like Dracula.

In this telling (courtesy of director Pablo Larrain [NO, JACKIE, SPENCER] and co-writer Guillermo Calderón), Pinochet wasn’t born in Chile. He started as one Claude Pinoche (Clemente Rodriguez), French soldier, murderer of prostitutes, breaker and eater of hearts, and witness to the execution of Marie Antoinette (Francisca Walker). In fact he came back later and licked the guillotine. I love how he needlessly puts his head under the blade to do it.

That’s probly some high quality blood for him. We hear about English blood being his favorite, because it has “a bit of the Roman Empire to it,” but he hates the taste of “South American blood, the blood of the workers.” He stole Marie Antoinette’s head from the grave and kept it preserved in a jar while traveling around fighting against the revolutions in Haiti, Russia and Algeria. Then he settled in Chile, excelling in the military and performing the coup d’état. But eventually he faked his death to hide out at a remote farm. He got to witness from inside his glass coffin when people spit at him – maybe that’s why in his old age (played by Jaime Vadell, POST MORTEM, NO, NERUDA) he grumbles that Chile hates him. But he’s quick to agree when his family tells him no one hates him, they’re just ungrateful.

The story of the movie is that Pinochet is 250 years old, and no longer wants to live, but can’t seem to die. His wife Lucía (Gloria Münchmeyer) can’t figure it out – “the general’s only and most loyal slave,” his Russian butler Fyodor Krasnov (Alfredo Castro, Narcos), swears he’s only feeding him vegetables. But also we see somebody who sure looks like Pinochet gracefully floating around Santiago, cutting out hearts and taking them home to turn into smoothies. Hearing about these killings, and concerned that they’re never going to inherit the money they assume is hidden away somewhere, their five children take a boat in to visit.

Pinochet’s mind is going, and he says he can’t remember if he put the money in secret bank accounts or what. (Which, come to think of it, is kind of like CAPONE, the movie about Al Capone’s syphilitic final years in Florida.) But to everyone’s surprise he announces that he found some old books that might have the answers, and that Lucia can have half and the kids split the rest.

They hire a young accountant, Carmen (Paula Luchsinger, EMA), who they say they can trust because she’s from a military family and because they’re paying her well. But really they’re hiring her because she’s an exorcist nun who says there’s a demon in him she can remove and then he can be killed.

To the jealousy of everyone, Pinochet immediately takes a liking to Carmen, especially when he finds out she speaks French, and starts thinking he wants to live, keep the money, and start a new life with her. She gets flirtatious and teary-eyed in their talks, and later can’t help but sniff his coat when she sneaks into his room to splash holy water around. I interpreted this as the result of some kind of vampire power of seduction, but maybe people are just attracted to power, even when it’s a 250 year old mass murderer with a walker, fur coat and jogging shoes.

But she’s also up to something. I don’t think her smiley friendliness is sincere when she individually interviews the family members, getting them to confess to all kinds of crimes and swindles. There are other scandals going on, including an affair between Lucia and Fyodor, and a biased narrator. The film is mostly in Spanish, but with explanatory English-language voiceovers from a very British lady who hasn’t introduced herself. I spoiled it by thinking it sounded like one of the famous Dames, looking up the credits and learning that the character is (SPOILER?) Margaret Thatcher (played by Stella Gonet, who was also Queen Elizabeth II in Larrain’s SPENCER). Pretty late in the movie we learn that the prime minister is also still alive, and also a vampire, and also his mother! It’s a fun way to say that monsters including but not limited to the real Pinochet often come to power and remain there with help from the west. (Also note that infamous torturer and murderer Fyodor received his training from the School of the Americas.)

I’ve got lots of catching up to do on Larraín. The only one I had seen before was SPENCER, which I didn’t review but I thought it was pretty good. I really, really don’t understand the interest so many people have in the royal family, but this one worked for me precisely because it was about a person unimpressed by and desperate to get the fuck away from them. And I don’t remember enough specifics to explain it, but I remember it felt almost like a horror movie to me in its filmatism. Between these two movies it’s clear that he’s a really skilled and interesting director, and he keeps returning to some of the same themes (including Pinochet) but still has a pretty varied filmography. I like that the guy who did the arty Princess Di movie also did a gory vampire movie.

I’ll do another one of his movies tomorrow, an earlier one I was always curious about but forgot it was the same guy. Until then, EL CONDE is a Netflix exclusive, so give it a shot if you have a subscription and think it sounds interesting. I think it’s very funny at times with its dry performances and petty, delusional characters, but never at the expense of a creepy tone. I think the goofy parts even enhance the dread because it seems accurate to these type of people. Of course the family all shout “Good evening, General!” in unison when he dodders into the room. Of course they have a marching band come in to play a patriotic tune as Augusto and Lucia have a romantic dance. And yes, if Pinochet really was a vampire he probly would sneak into the presidential palace once a year to check if they’ve added a bust of him. Who knows, maybe this is the year.

(In fact, the ending finds a perfect supernatural way to remind us that people like Pinochet are not just to read about in history books. They’re an ongoing problem.)

Vadell is particularly great as Pinochet, playing him as a sad old man who almost seems relatable. But it doesn’t make him sympathetic, it makes it more horrendous that he’s lived two and a half centuries and learned nothing. Early in the movie he solemnly tells the gathered family that he “made mistakes,” but after a beat he specifies, “Accounting mistakes.”

The other standout is Luchsinger as Carmen, who has such a quirky look and manner, not manic but I think you could safely call her a pixie dream accountant/nun/exorcist. But after she (SPOILER) gets bit she completely changes and it practically becomes a silent film performance. There’s an amazing scene where she tries flying, at first clumsily, then starts spinning like a dancer, and then like a synchronized swimmer. I don’t know for sure how they did it but if she wasn’t on wires high above the farm they sure as fuck fooled me. It looks incredible. And it’s an odd scene because it’s so beautiful and joyous but she just got turned into a vampire (and fucked an ancient war criminal). I’m not sure what to make of it except that it’s the best scene, and one I’ll keep thinking about.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 20th, 2024 at 3:23 pm and is filed under Reviews, Comedy/Laffs, Horror. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

3 Responses to “El Conde”

  1. I’m a respectful moviegoer in the dark. But streaming at home likely means I talk a lot, sometimes to companions, sometimes to the screen. And without being corny, watching this movie, there were scenes where I audibly said, “Wow!”, marveling at the cinematography and shot composition. This was one of the most visually beautiful films I have ever seen, and I’m really sad I couldn’t appreciate this on the big screen. The flying scenes specifically just had my jaw dropping. This was a movie Netflix gave one of it’s “excuse me” releases, and it was long forgotten at year’s end, so the fact it actually earned a Best Cinematography nomination at the Oscars suggests an honor based fully on merit and not campaigning or politicking (though I’m sure they had some of that too).

  2. Glad you liked this one! Goes without saying that it hits differently locally, were Pinochet’s brood are still part of high society – having actively benefitted from (and in some cases participated in) a horrendous dictatorship that’s left horrendous psychic scars on the country with barely a slap on the wrist when democracy was restored (some of them faced some legal problems during the ’00s for tax evasion/money laundering, but nothing much came out of that, IIRC). So there it’s not just a spoof on the rich and powerful, it’s a very pointed, very angry dig at a very specific group of people that won’t ever face proper justice.

    You’re in for a treat with Larraín- all the movies of his I’ve seen are at least excellent. I’m guessing the one that poked your interest is the one that references a certain ’70s movie and… oof, it’s a tough watch. But very, very good.

  3. dontgetnastybro

    March 24th, 2024 at 8:16 pm

    Bro you have to watch NO and POST MORTEM. Larraín’s english spoken films haven’t picked my interest… yet.

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