There are comic twists and turns here that are reminiscent of our classiest and crudest comedies of manners: think A Midsummer Night’s Dream meets I Love Lucy.
Therapy for a Vampire, written and directed by David Rühm. Screening at the Kendall Square Cinema, Cambridge, MA
By Peg Aloi
Vampire movies; can we ever truly have surfeit of them? Whether depicting 18th century England or 21st century Sweden or many other nations and eras, the imagery and lore of the vampire has generated a cinematic juggernaut since the heyday of Hammer Horror. There have been oddball offerings along the way that have contributes some new interpretations, stylistic or narrative, such as Blacula (and its arthouse foil, Ganga and Hess), Martin, The Lost Boys, Nadja, Stakeland, and others. But there’s no substitute for the old world European flair that was born in Bram Stoker’s Gothic novel Dracula.
I’m happy to say this 2014 offering from Austria is a first-rate addition to the roster of offbeat vamp flicks. Set in Vienna in 1932, it’s a stylish dark comedy full of lush details and intricate literary and cinematic references. Given the time and place, you knew Sigmund Freud would make an appearance, yes? And he’s a central, if not major, character (played with understated irony by Karl Fischer). Freud is employing a struggling young artist named Viktor (Dominic Oley) to illustrate his patient’s dreams. He’s also counseling a vampire named Geza (Tobias Moretti), an elegant Count whose marriage is in trouble. The Count’s wife Elsa (popular German actress Jeanette Hain) is obsessed with seeing her own reflection; which of course, being a vampire, she cannot do. Geza is also obsessed with a lost love, whose last letter to him, written centuries earlier when she’s about to be torn apart by dervishes, instructs him on recognizing her reincarnation. Seeing a painting in Freud’s office, Geza’s convinced his reborn lover must be Viktor’s model and muse, Lucy (Cornelia Ivancan). With Freud’s help, Geza contrives to meet him. A series of mishaps inspired by sexual attraction unfold.
The Freudian overlay provides a wry and witty context for its imagery and character motivations. Geza’s response to Freud’s interpretation of his marital frustrations is charming in its trusting naivete, and Freud’s laconic manner is perfect. Fischer’s portrayal gives us a paradoxical Freud: he is a repressed yet egotistical sexist whose theory of human behavior is based on how powerful unfulfilled sexual fantasies drive behavior. I suppose that’s to be expected; but how many vampire films acknowledge the deep-seated psychological yearning at the heart of horror.
Therapy for a Vampire takes this primal urge and runs with it. There are unexpected moments of glee and grotesquerie, comic twists and turns that are reminiscent of our classiest and crudest comedies of manners: think A Midsummer Night’s Dream meets I Love Lucy. The visual gags cleverly serve the film’s letter-perfect production design; the tiniest visual details are expertly wrought, particularly some masterfully subtle special effects that showcase Geza and Elsa’s vampiric abilities. The music is appropriately moody and unobtrusive. The sets and costumes are exquisite. I especially loved Geza’s foppish clothing; he seems to own an endless array of fancy silk smoking jackets which he wears for every occasion.
As for the performances, Tobias Moretti is superb, a graceful yet often hapless monster who is weary of centuries of immortality. It has come to the point that he just wants some excitement in his stale marriage. Jeanette Hain contributes a smoldering presence, perfectly punctuated with moments of comic genius. While much of the décor is pre-war European, there are touches of Gothic and steampunk aesthetics to please attentive viewers, and the actors seem completely at home in this lush period realm. I can’t recall a recent example in the vampire genre that gave me so much pleasure. Writer-director David Rühm deserves heaps of kudos for his feature debut. Journeying to the past for a fresh perspective on an overworked genre has yielded luscious fruit, oozing with comedy and libido.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She has taught film studies for a number of years at Emerson College and is currently teaching media studies at SUNY New Paltz. Her reviews have appeared in Art New England and Cinefantastique Online, and she writes a media blog for Patheos.com called The Witching Hour.