Since Nosferatu first chilled filmgoers in 1922 (sparking a lawsuit in the process), almost every conceivable variation of vampire has stalked victims across screens big and small. In addition to the traditional ‘cape and fangs’ bloodsucker, we’ve seen funny vampires, mod vampires, hopping vampires, African vampires, even X-rated vampires – but until now I don’t think there’s been a movie depiction of a vampire undergoing psychotherapy.
That particular cinematic gimmick is the selling point of Therapy for a Vampire (Der Vampir auf der Couch), a darkly comic German chiller opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday. Despite its title, however, the film is more than just a ninety minute My Dinner with Andre style confessional for hemovores.
Writer-director David Rühm immediately signals his intent: opening in a spooky graveyard, the film is a tribute to classic gothic cinema, right down to its mittel-european setting ‘somewhere near Vienna’ circa 1932. For admirers of classic Universal and Hammer horrors, this mise en scène is the big screen equivalent of comfort food.
Viktor Huma (Dominic Oley) is a stereotypical garret-dwelling artist. By day, the one and only Sigmund Freud (Karl Fischer) employs him to ‘transcribe’ dreams onto paper; by night, he paints portraits, including his latest, an unrealistically glamorous depiction of waitress girlfriend Lucy (Cornelia Ivancan).
Enter Count Geza von Közsnöm (suave and debonair Tobias Moretti). A long-time patron of Freud, the Count is having marital difficulties with spouse Elsa (Jeanette Hain, whose resume includes a turn as the blood-bathing Elisabeth Bathory in Julie Delpy’s 2009 biopic The Countess).
Along with the expected strains of a centuries-long relationship, Elsa’s desire to see herself (vampires, of course, cast no reflection) is driving the Count batty. Freud suggests she meet young Viktor, who (he advises) has a special portraiture technique that will surely satisfy her desire.
Rather than rejuvenate the von Közsnöm marriage, however, Elsa’s visit sets in motion a series of events culminating in the attempted reincarnation of Geza’s long lost first love Nadila and a battle to the death after virtually everyone (including Freud himself) becomes infected with the vampire virus.
Though its tongue is firmly in its cheek, Rühm’s screenplay avoids the broad, winking comedy of Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) and the parodic excesses of Mel Brooks’ Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995). It’s possible to appreciate Therapy as both a loving tribute to classic vampire cinema and as a straight horror film (warning: for those averse to the red stuff, there are a fair few splashes of it onscreen).
The parallel worlds of 1932 Vienna are carefully delineated by cinematographer Martin Gschlacht (Goodnight Mommy): that of the Count and his kind in hues of sempiternal blue-grey; that of Freud and Hugo in comforting, cozy browns, while Andreas Sobotka’s production design skilfully returns us to those golden days when Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee stalked churchyards from Transylvania to Whitby. In sum, this is a bloody good time for those who wasted their youth staying up for the late, late show.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.
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