In Vienna, circa 1932, an aristocratic, centuries-old vampire makes an evening appointment with Dr. Sigmund Freud. On the couch, Count Geza von Közsnöm (Tobias Moretti) opens up to Freud (Karl Fischer) about his unhappy marriage to his wife, the equally undead Countess Elsa (Jeanette Hain) — the romance went out of their relationship long, long ago. Dr. Freud, who is unperturbed by the way the Count levitates while unburdening himself, suggests his patient soothe the discontented Gräfin by commissioning a portrait of her, painted by Freud’s handsome young assistant, Viktor (Dominic Oley), who happens to have a beautiful sweetheart named Lucy (Cornelia Ivancan). Entanglements proceed from there, thirstily.
Austrian writer-director David Rühm’s Therapy for a Vampire is a Freudian horror comedy as only a European could conceive it. It operates on the theory that the majority of both horror movies and movies about psychoanalysis are inherently funny. Since they both have subtly humorous underpinnings in the first place, we might as well go ahead and enjoy a few wry laughs along with the bloodsucking.
The world-weary Count (“I feel old and tired. I’ve seen everything”) pines for his lost love Nadila, beheaded in Constantinople. The Countess, with her Louise Brooks hairdo, is unspeakably tired of the same sweet nothings she’s heard for hundreds of years. What she really wants is to be able to see herself in a mirror. Their bored-married-couple sniping at each other is one of the film’s high points. Meanwhile, the Count’s mortal servant, Radul (David Bennent from The Tin Drum), busies himself clumsily procuring “new blood” for his masters. You could think of all this as a gothic romantic comedy, with sophisticated fun at the intersection of witty and morbid.
It takes some skill to balance scenes of frisky marital strife and lustful seduction with shots of a body impaled on a fence or the Countess picking a mosquito off Viktor’s leg and eating it, but filmmaker Rühm handles those grotesqueries with much the same queasy humor that Roman Polanski employed in his own slapstick vampire tale, The Fearless Vampire Killers. German speakers in the audience will probably be amused by the numerous puns, but the rest of us needn’t worry — the playful sight gags are just as plentiful. The actors, mostly veterans of German TV, throw themselves into the campy neck-biting with glee, especially Moretti and Hain as the eternal honeymooners.
Unfortunately, the character of Freud fades into the background at the halfway point. It might have been fun to see him match wits with the vamps on the same heightened level of awareness, but he turns out to be no competition after all. Too complacent. At any rate, Rühm’s spirited send-up could set a dangerous new trend in psychoanalysis — with the right combination of psychologist and patient, the therapy could conceivably go on for decades.
Special kudos to the camera and lighting of cinematographer Martin Gschlacht (Goodnight Mommy; Revanche), poking around the Viennese graveyards and alleyways in velvety tones of black. In one such cemetery as the film opens, we come face to face with a signboard bearing a genuine Freudian aphorism. In translation, it reads: “Once you forgive someone for everything, you’re through with that person.” Words to live by, so to speak.