El Conde (Chile, 2023)
“This was what the count achieved. Beyond the killing, his life’s work was to turn us into heroes of greed.”
El Conde is another film that wasn’t even on my radar before this October. As the month has gone on, I’ve been craving stuff from the weirder end of horror, and El Conde looked like it fitted the bill. It’s a Chilean horror/comedy that reimagines the life of Augusto Pinochet as an ageing vampire. Political horror has always appealed to me, so I knew I had to give this one a try.
El Conde is currently available on Netflix in the UK.
General Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean dictator, is dead. Well, he has allowed people to think that he is dead. In truth, he is a vampire, some 250 years old, but his ousting from power and his subsequent rejection by the people of Chile have left him craving real death.
Once we have had a summary of Pinochet’s secret origins as a vampire in 18th-century France and his subsequent life as the brutal fascist leader of Chile, we move on to the general’s strange, sad existence after faking his death. He is living in a remote, derelict mining community, with miles of tunnels beneath, surrounded by a barren landscape littered with the bones of dead animals. Having allowed himself to age, he is tottering around on a Zimmer frame, stewing over his downfall, and preparing to die.
All this is interrupted, however, when the general’s bickering family descend on his home. They are eager to lay claim to his wealth and worried that he will choose to carry on living. One daughter has gone so far as to strike up a deal with the Catholic Church, who have sent an exorcist nun, disguised as an accountant, to deal with Pinochet.
Is Pinochet really stalking the streets of Santiago, harvesting human hearts? Why has he refused to turn his wife into a vampire, despite her longing for immortality? And is the exorcist nun’s mission really as holy as it seems?
The first 20 minutes of El Conde is pretty much all exposition. Normally, this is the kind of thing I would complain about. Here, however, the fantastical origins of General Pinochet are spelt out in an utterly captivating way, from his early days as a soldier in Revolutionary France to the coup that brought him to power in 1973. He is the ultimate counter-revolutionary, fighting against the uprisings in Haiti, Russia and Algeria.
This is all conveyed in a voiceover from a character credited as the “British Woman”. Most viewers will immediately identify the voice as Margaret Thatcher. Her descriptions of Pinochet’s life are arch and cruel, providing much of the film’s dark comedy. Honestly, I could have watched an entire film told this way.
While El Conde is very much a satirical comedy, it doesn’t shy away from horror and violence. The black-and-white photography tempers what might otherwise be a very gory film, but it is still brutal. It only seems fair not to pull punches when portraying a murderous fascist, even if much of the violence is of a more fantastical nature.
Considering that El Conde is primarily a political satire, the filmmakers have gone above and beyond with the special effects. The shots of vampires in flight are especially impressive, with Pinochet soaring over the Santiago night sky like a cloaked raptor, or the weirdly beautiful aerial ballet of a freshly transformed vampire testing her new abilities. It all looks so perfectly real.
The Rules of Vampirism
Almost every vampire story establishes its own rules for vampirism, and El Conde is no exception. Here, vampirism seems to be a bloodborne condition. It can be passed on with a single bite, accidentally through an open wound, or, according to the Church, through “sodomy”. These vampires can walk by day, eat food, and sire human children. They maintain eternal life by drinking blood, and can reverse ageing by consuming human hearts. The general prefers to drink hearts as smoothies, putting them through a blender first.
El Conde is a clever, audacious film that mocks the grubby reality of fascism. Presenting Pinochet as a vampire doesn’t make him any more of a monster, but allows the filmmakers to give him an afterlife in which to explore both the predatory nature of the man and how ultimately pathetic he was in the end. Seeing Pinochet in his senescence, consumed with the past, would be tragic if he were not the man he was.
My only complaint about El Conde is that it’s a little too long. Both the first and last acts are exceptional, blending comedy and horror faultlessly, but the middle drags. Showing the mundane corruption of Pinochet’s family life may strike hard at any impulse to mythologise the man, but we spend far too long listening to his children arguing over family finances. Even vampires can’t make accountancy gripping.
Even so, El Conde is a beautiful, funny and dark film, although it is an oddly sombre form of comedy. At times, I felt like I was watching The Death of Stalin, only with added fangs. The climactic orgy of death made me forgive the film’s weaker moments, and it still remains funny even when it grows ponderous. Definitely worth your time if you’re looking for something different this Halloween.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- Dark August (USA, 1976)
- Huesera: The Bone Woman (Mexico/Peru, 2022)
- The Banishing (UK, 2020)
- Brooklyn 45 (USA, 2023)
- Bloody Muscle Bodybuilder in Hell (Japan, 1995)
- Pyewacket (Canada, 2017)
- Grave Robbers (Mexico, 1989)
- You Might Be The Killer (USA, 2018)
- No One Will Save You (USA, 2023)
- The Sect (Italy, 1991)
- Last Night in Soho (UK, 2021)
- Errementari: The Blacksmith and the Devil (Spain, 2017)
- 47 Metres Down (UK/USA, 2017)
- The Oskars Fantasy (Philippines, 2022)
- In the Earth (UK, 2021)
- Something in the Dirt (USA, 2022)
- Blood Flower (Malaysia, 2023)
- Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (Canada, 1987)
- Older Gods (UK, 2023)
- Come to Daddy (New Zealand, 2020)
- Shrew’s Nest (Spain, 2014)
- Totally Killer (USA, 2023)
- The Premonition (USA, 1976)
- Murder Me, Monster (Argentina, 2018)
- The Gruesome Twosome (USA, 1967)
- Talk to Me (Australia, 2023)
- Gaia (South Africa, 2021)
- Demon (Poland, 2015)
- Juju Stories (Nigeria, 2022)
- El Conde (Chile, 2023)
- The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (Hong Kong/UK, 1974)
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Night House
- The Changeling
- The Endless
- Our favourite Cthulhu Mythos media
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!