The vampire film, like its fanged protagonists, continues to be the rare cinematic sub-genre that refuses to die. Just a few years ago, vampires were struggling to preserve a trace of relevance, weakened by the blood-thinning persistence of the Twilight cycle and failed attempts to give the genre an arty gloss like Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive and Neil Jordan's Byzantium. Just as suddenly, attempts to revive stories of bloodsuckers and the people who feed them were radically refigured by Scarlet Johansson's alien/vampire hybrid in Under the Skin and renewed by the satirical power of the Spinal Tap of vampire movies, What We Do In the Shadows. Perhaps the only ways we can keep the bloodsuckers relevant is by either transforming them into something entirely different or by having a laugh at their expense.
The new Austrian film Therapy for a Vampire (the original title translates as The Vampire on the Couch) takes the latter approach. A modest comedy whose humor rests on the near-obsessive detail of the vampire film, Therapy is set somewhat incongruously in 1932, as Dr. Sigmund Freud is persuaded to take on a new patient, Count Geza Von Közsnöm (Tobias Moretti). The Count, who speaks vaguely of marital strife, can only make appointments at night and, unnoticed by the doctor, tends to hover slightly above the analytical couch when discussing particularly annoying subjects. Alas, those hoping to learn more about the superego of the undead will be disappointed to discover that Freudian analysis is only a minor plot point. (The real Freud was far more distracted in 1932 by the impending threat of Nazism and the cancer of the jaw that would kill him seven years later.)
Despite the title, the film more closely resembles the romantic farces that we associate with Vienna in a slightly earlier period, stories of mistaken identity and amorous confusion: Count Von Közsnöm is bored with his wife and obsessed with a previous dead lover. His wife Elsa is tormented by the fact that, as a vampire, she can no longer see her own reflection. Viktor, a painter (and non-vampire), is in love with his girlfriend Lucy (the very charming Cornelia Ivancan) but so obsessed with a very different physical ideal that he is unable to paint an accurate portrait of her. After seeing one of Viktor's paintings, the Count recommends that Elsa have Viktor paint her portrait; he also becomes convinced that Lucy is the reincarnation of his long-lost love Nadila. Viktor wants his girlfriend back, Von Közsnöm longs for Lucy/Nadila, and even the Count's servant gets in on the act thanks to a mix-up over a delayed hypnotic command. Everyone loves Lucy.
Written and directed by David Rühm, Therapy for a Vampire is a modest comedy that balances its generic vampire elements with a lot of confused identity jokes and just-short-of-slapstick physical comedy. (One running joke is based on a traditional belief that vampires are obsessed with numbers, which makes it easy to escape Von Közsnöm's clutches — just spill something, and he's down on his knees counting like a supernatural Rain Man.) There are a few bloody scenes, but also a lot of horror effects that wouldn't be too out of place in a 1940s Universal outing — levitation, space-defying editorial tricks and vampires converting to animals via silhouette. The performers work their way through Rühm's theatrical contrivances with a great deal of enthusiasm but an admirable avoidance of campiness.
Although it's nowhere near as stylish, I was reminded at times of Polanski's 1967 Dance of the Vampires (released in truncated form as The Fearless Vampire Killers). That film is perhaps the only other to acknowledge the farcical quality of the vampire mythos, its social rules and compulsive-to-the point-of-meaningless discipline. The marital discord between the Count and his wife (played with callous charm by Jeanette Hain), which turns into open warfare by the end of the film, is a sly observation of the downside of eternal life: Forever is a long time to keep putting up appearances.