Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín (Jackie, Spencer) pulls another famous historical figure back from the dead, this time for a deftly executed satire about the murderous dictator, Augusto Pinochet. El Conde (transl. Count) imagines the former President (Jaime Vadell) as a 250-year-old vampire who never died in 2006, living isolated from the world and tossing the still-beating hearts of his victims into a blender for sustenance. While Larraín puts a much different spin on his characteristic biopic this time around, the horror and comedy elements co-drafted by the director and frequent collaborator Guillermo Calderón work surprisingly well, forming a scathing and entertaining—if not at times ironically mundane—indie hit.
In practice, El Conde’s unusual concept works surprisingly well, particularly when paired with a fairy-tale narrator commentating on the movie’s events and the spectacular cinematography and production design of Edward Lachman and Rodrigo Bazaes, respectively. Lachman’s striking black-and-white visage is arguably the best-looking of its kind in recent years, thrusting the infamous war criminal against a glorious Chilean backdrop and the drab, foggy ruins of a lonely farmhouse. The editing and camerawork evoke the film’s possible namesake, Count Dracula in Tod Browning’s 1931 classic and his creepy cobwebbed castle; when Pinochet succumbs to his vampiric tendencies, he channels Bram Stoker’s monster and, in a way, succeeds him, taking flight over the cityscape and cutting the hearts out of his victims with a knife. The special effects, headed by Asa Bailey and Jindrich Cervenka, are notably seamless and exceptional. Like the Universal Monsters that preceded it and the Iranian cult favorite A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, El Conde is a transcendent visual experience in monochrome.
After embarking on a blood-soaked night rampage, Pinochet, his wife Lucía (Gloria Münchmeyer), and their loyal servant Fyodor (Alfredo Castro) welcome visitors: the five adult children of the dangerous immortal himself. Pinochet desires death after over two centuries of depravity, death, and violence, something his children look forward to. With the vampire gone, his supposed fortune goes to his children, but Pinochet has forgotten where his money resides. To aid in the recovery, the family enlists the mathematical wizardry of the nun, Carmen, who is much more than meets the eye. Paula Luchsinger prevails as the holy sister secretly sent to kill Pinochet, weaving through the monster’s impassive offspring with quirky alacrity to uncover his problematic financial dealings. While the acting in El Conde is top-shelf, this middle portion consisting of sit-down-style interviews is the film’s low point, a droning effort to establish personalities for its least exciting characters and force the conflict forward.
Other than its minor shortcomings, including, personally, an unsatisfying ending, El Conde hits on its themes and looks spectacular doing it. The twisting allegiances and venomous motivations of each character in Pinochet’s camp speak to the former ruler’s egregious past and the consequences of his nefarious actions. Furthermore, signifying Pinochet as a parasitic stain on the world and, more than anything, the country he veered into political and economic decay by making him a cruel vampire is a clever way of admonishing the dictator. More importantly, the plotline ensures that Larraín and Calderón can highlight the countless atrocities Pinochet and his military junta committed in the later part of the 20th century. All in all, El Conde mostly succeeds when blurring genres and showcasing its brutal gore and impressive visual effects amid the amusing affairs of its title character, evidenced in strong first and third acts, and establishes a stylish portal into the [after]life of a monster who has given up on life.
El Conde is streaming now on Netflix.