Film

‘Therapy for a Vampire’ Nails the Look of the Horror it Lampoons

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When commercials for Mel Brooks’s Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995) ran on Channel One at my high school, I was ready. Vampire movies had dominated the late Eighties and early Nineties, and at last a slapstick comedy was set to lampoon all that arty melodrama. High school me couldn’t know that vampire movies would go on to multiply like Mogwai in water, that I’d go on to delight in some fangy flicks but also get a bad case of Nosferatu fatigue, or that even the comedies meant to satirize the genre would come to outnumber the truly serious depictions, doing the job far better than Brooks’s ultimately bloodless parody. In David Rühm’s deadpan Therapy for a Vampire, decades of these vamp films coalesce into one movie with a throwback aesthetic, a wry, contemporary humor, and notes of screwball in between. But it’s still a movie about vampires.

Bored Count Geza von Közsnöm (Tobias Moretti) wants out of his 500-year marriage to the Countess (Jeanette Hain), a vampire distraught by her inability to reflect an image in the mirror — she has come to rely on her husband’s perfunctory descriptions of her face. (Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries fans will see more than a little physical similarity between the Countess and the lady detective.) The Count, for his part, wants to “self reflect” emotionally, so he pays a visit to Freud (Karl Fischer). The good head doctor thinks everything the Count is saying about his never-ending life is symbolic — the exchange offers some good, cheesy one-liners, like “Life’s lost its bite.” Freud gets lucky, though, because his new client stumbles upon another couple — mortal but eternally quarreling — who can solve all these marital hardships.

Lucy (Cornelia Ivancan) is the spitting image (and maybe reincarnation) of the Count’s one true love, and her boyfriend, Viktor (Dominic Oley), is a trained painter who could easily capture the Countess’s image with a brush. The dynamic of the two couples is the classic push-and-pull of the golden era of screwball comedy, complete with a nosy old neighbor. Rühm depicts the exasperated pairings on a stagy set any German Expressionist filmmaker would envy, but with an eye for horror of the Vincent Price style, framing the Count in gorgeously lit portraiture. All the whites are muted peach, and earthy browns dominate a precise color palette that’s only interrupted — or punctuated — by some splashy reds, if you know what I mean.

The tone is both a little slapstick and a little dry, like a Wes Anderson ensemble with less emotional manipulation, but it seems at times that the characters want to break free of the container and really go for the good punchline. Ivancan’s the leading lady who gets goofy, a little wacky Katharine Hepburn or even a German Kristen Wiig, while Moretti does a superb Christopher Lee. But with vamps there’s only so much virgin flesh to sink your teeth into.

If New Zealand mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows (2014) hadn’t mined this territory so thoroughly (and recently), maybe the jokes would feel fresher. Some witty lines still draw a laugh, but the strongest aspect of Therapy for a Vampire is its exquisite visual homage to the vamp films of old, and also the screwballs.

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