El Conde, a Chilean horror comedy now on Netflix, reimagines the brutal dictator Augusto Pinochet as a centuries-old vampire in a beautiful but ultimately unsatisfying film. It begins with an intriguing premise, giving him a brutal origin in 18th century France and making him a hungry fixture of state-sponsored violence. The young monster fights against revolution wherever he finds it. But now, decades after his fall from power and a faked death, Pinochet finds himself beset by his inheritance-starved children and longing to be dead. Again.
Pinochet denies vampirism to his children, and even his wife–he wants the power of it for himself. But he does intend to give them his fortune, if it can ever be properly documented.
To that end, a young nun is invited to his decrepit island compound by one of Pinochet’s daughters. The nun pretends to be an accountant hired to unravel the family’s very tangled holdings, but she is really there to perform an exorcism on him. Things do not go as planned, for anyone.
El Conde is visually striking, with lingering shots of characters’ faces and sweeping views of the desolate place where Pinochet has hidden. Its subtle black and white cinematography actually enhances the gore that soaks the story. And there is plenty of gore to be had.
According to the snide voiceover narration, Pinochet was always a grotesquely violent man. Being a vampire only made him worse. He eats hearts rather than guzzling blood, and tortures the people he feeds on. The plot only touches on the atrocities he committed during his rule of Chile, and broadly shows some of them. The real-life horrors are completely in character for the bloodthirsty Count.
The historical ferocity is leavened by fictional silliness. The vampire Pinochet’s flight is almost cartoonish, with his ramrod straight back and his military cape flapping behind him, and there is the surreal interruption of a military band appearing to play for a romantic dance But there are moments of actual terror that puncture the silliness and undermine the effectiveness of the black humor.
Vampirism is a fine allegory for what a long dictatorship does to a country, and black humor is a fine way to reckon with the horrors of life under one. But despite these tools El Conde loses its way.
While it flirts with pitch-dark comedy, satire, and genuine horror, El Conde disappointingly plays coy and doesn’t fully commit to any of them. The layers of familial conflict are funny and surgically sharp, and the manipulations of all involved are incisive commentary. Alas, El Conde opts for a strange twist ending that lards the film with heavy exposition to set it up and derails the other entanglements.
The vampire Pinochet is left in undeath, indeed.