Reviewed by Lauren Humphries-Brooks
When Universal released the original Dracula starring Bela Lugosi in 1931, theaters warned film patrons that the movie would so terrify them that they might be in need of medical attention. Medical nurses stood by to tend to those delicate souls who could not cope with Dracula’s horrors. There were even reports that people fainted at the premiere. While this all might very well be put down to some excellent publicity on the part of Universal, there’s no doubt that vampires in 1931 were considered, well, a bit scary.
Vampires continue to hold some cultural cache, but their horror has greatly dissipated down to the contemporary period. Thanks to writers like Anne Rice and Stephanie Meyer, directors like Francis Ford Coppola, and media like Twilight and True Blood, the vampire has been increasingly romanticized as a tortured lover, a guy (or girl) who simply has a different lifestyle. Vampires today bear little resemblance to the vile seducers and walking corpses conjured by writers stretching as far back as John Polidori, or the more urbane (but equally evil) villains played by Lugosi, Christopher Lee, and Frank Langella in the great vampire films of yesteryear.
If Twilight almost killed the notion of a scary vampire, recent films have begun to conjure figures more complex than the romantic lover. The existential vampire is on the rise – a vampire, not quite tortured by his or her lifestyle, but grappling with philosophical notions of immortality. Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive gave us an artistic and weirdly realistic examination of the vagaries of immortality, featuring two vampires uninterested in biting the necks of buxom virgins. Meanwhile, What We Do in the Shadows gave us the day-to-day life of vampires in comic form, as the characters grapple with mundane existence and the peculiar needs of the undead.
The quirky Austrian film Therapy for a Vampire is another entry into the existential vampire subgenre, hovering somewhere between Only Lovers Left Alive and What We Do In the Shadows. It’s 1932 in Vienna, and the plot centers around Count Geza von Kozsnom (Tobias Moretti), an ageless vampire growing increasingly fed up with his – ahem – dry existence. The Count goes to the offices of Dr. Sigmund Freud (Karl Fischer) in search of much needed therapy and advice. He’s bored with his wife (Jeanette Hain), and tired of his endless nightly pursuits. He’s also still obsessed with his long-dead lover Nadila, who promised him that she would eventually return and for whom he’s been waiting ever since.
Meanwhile, the Countess has problems of her own. More venal than her husband (who employs a man-servant to obtain blood for him), the Countess still embraces the violence of her vampirism. But she too has her little psychological foibles: absurdly vain, she’s tortured by the fact that she can no longer see her own reflection. Freud has a solution: his young friend Viktor (Dominic Oley), whom he employs in sketching and painting images of patients’ dreams, might be able to depict the Countess. When the Count sees Viktor’s girlfriend Lucy (Cornelia Ivancan), he becomes convinced she’s the reincarnation of Nadila. And so begins a campaign of mistaken identity, screwball hijinks, and dry psychological humor that makes Therapy for a Vampire immensely and uniquely entertaining.
Therapy for a Vampire is perhaps the first vampire screwball comedy, mixing both horror and comedy tropes and cinematic references. It quickly abandons the therapy angle, using it as nothing more than a point at which to introduce the vampires to the human characters. But psychological hang-ups and fantasies – especially male ones – still play a major role. The Count is obsessed with finding Nadila, to the degree that he ignores the strain of his wife and the actual needs of Lucy. Viktor, meanwhile, continues to paint Lucy into his own fantasies, consistently depicting her as a blonde in flowing dresses, despite her annoyance. The Count’s manservant Radul (David Bennent) also falls for Lucy, who loves him only when she’s hypnotized. As the male characters project their fantasies onto Lucy, the film transforms into a narrative about Lucy obtaining power over her own image, and living her own independent fantasy for herself. The Countess forms an intriguing counterpoint: she can only see herself through the eyes of the men around her, all of whom are incapable of providing an accurate picture, and it very nearly drives her insane.
Therapy for a Vampire glosses over its rather feminist undertones by presenting itself in the style of a comedy – references to vampire films, including Interview with a Vampire, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Dracula, and even Sesame Street’s The Count abound. The film pays visual tribute to German Expressionism with its canted angles and Gothic sets, especially referencing Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the original vampire movie Nosferatu, along with the spurting blood originally invented by Hammer Studios’ extensive line of Dracula films. Dependent on its predecessors, the film nevertheless manages to create something new and unique in the vampire genre.
Therapy for a Vampire is not groundbreaking, but it is a ripping good time, a solid piece of entertainment with intelligent psychological and feminist undertones. Freud consistently repeats that vampiric behavior – like sucking blood or turning into a bat – is not normal, but of course it’s quite normal for a vampire. Vampires might not be as fundamentally terrifying as they were in 1931, but they have discovered psychotherapy…and that’s pretty scary to me.
Lauren Humphries-Brooks: A writer and editor with two Master’s degrees in Creative Writing (University of Edinburgh) and Cinema Studies (NYU). Currently freelances as copy and content editor for Cobblestone Press and previously worked as an ESOL Writing Instructor for Hamilton College. She maintains her own website and writes freelance for sites including We Got This Covered, The News Hub, and Man I Love Films. (Twitter handle @)