Blu-ray: ‘Countess Dracula’

Hammer Studios struggled to remain relevant in the seventies as their lurid Gothic style was upstaged by the transgressive horrors in films like Night of Living Dead, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Witchfinder General, which pushed the boundaries of movie conventions, screen violence, and subject matter. Their answer was to simply push their natural tendencies in R-rated territory. In other words, more explicit blood and boobs. Their most notorious examples were a series of erotic vampire films with female predators who use their bodies and their wiles to seduce their prey.

Title aside, Countess Dracula (Synapse) is not a vampire at all. The screenplay is inspired by the legend of Elizabeth Bathory, the Hungarian countess who murdered hundreds of girls in the late 16th century, ostensibly to bathe in the blood of virgins to keep her youth, or so the legend goes. This isn’t a faithful retelling, however, but an original take on the legend with a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde dimension to it. Polish-born actress Ingrid Pitt, fresh from playing the bloodsucker Carmilla in The Vampire Lovers (1970), made her second Hammer appearance as the Countess Elisabeth Nádasdy, though you wouldn’t recognize her when she enters the film under ridges of prosthetic wrinkles and old age make-up. She’s an aging widow burying her husband (how many Hammer films have so set the atmosphere by opening with a funeral?) and bitter over how he has split the inheritance between her and their daughter Ilona (a very young and innocent-looking Lesley-Anne Down), who had been sent to Vienna years before. There is no mention of why she was sent away–it was ostensibly for her education in the cultural center of Europe–but Elisabeth’s disdain for human life (she doesn’t flinch when her carriage cripples a peasant in a horse-drawn hit-and-run) and the controlled fury of greed and envy she shows at the reading of the will suggests it may have been for the girl’s own protection, just one of the unspoken suggestions woven through the film.

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