Countess Dracula SE Review
Countess Dracula is one of Hammer’s more peculiar attempts to revive their formula for audiences of the 1970s. Despite the title, it has nothing to do with the good Count, who was being rested for a while until a large enough sum of money could be found to entice Christopher Lee back into the fold. Rather, it’s loosely based on the life of Countess Erzsébet Báthory, a Hungarian aristocrat who was responsible for the deaths of a large number of women. In the hands of Hammer, this is an excuse for a lush period drama with a majestic pair of central performances from Ingrid Pitt and Nigel Green.
There are so many dubious legends attached to the life of Erzsébet Báthory that it’s not easy to unravel fact from fiction. What is certain is that she was bisexual, that she killed at least twenty children and young women between 1585 and 1610, and that she had sadistic inclinations which involved sexual mutilation and torture. She also appears to have had some fetish about blood. However, the famous stories which were spread about her bathing in the blood of virgins in order to retain her youthful looks are based solely on anecdotal evidence. None of these stories were entered in evidence at her politically motivated show-trial and had they been current, they would surely have been mentioned. As the extract from a servant’s testimony below suggests, stories equally as lurid were included:
... a 12-year-old girl named Pola somehow managed to escape from the castle. But Dorka, aided by Helena Jo, caught the frightened girl by surprise and brought her forcibly back to Cachtice Castle. Clad only in a long white robe, Countess Elizabeth greeted the girl upon her return. The countess was in another of her rages. She advanced on the 12-year-old child and forced her into a kind of cage. This particular cage was built like a huge ball, too narrow to sit in, too low to stand in. Once the girl was inside, the cage was suddenly hauled up by a pulley and dozens of short spikes jutted into the cage. Pola tried to avoid being caught on the spikes, but Ficzko manoeuvred the ropes so that the cage shifted from side to side. Pola's flesh was torn to pieces.
Needless to say, Hammer doesn’t worry overmuch about historical accuracy in their version of the story – and quite right too, because the legend is more fun than the rather sordid facts. In Countess Dracula, Ingrid Pitt plays Countess Elizabeth Nodosheen who, following the death of her husband, begins a tyrannical rule with the assistance of a veteran soldier, Captain Dobi (Green). After striking a servant, she discovers that blood makes her youthful and she embarks on an affair with the dashing young Lt. Toth (Eles). But after a while, the youthful effect fades and Elizabeth discovers that only increasing the amounts of blood will do the trick. Meanwhile she has to somehow prevent Lt. Toth from discovering her secret.
This last plot detail is the main weakness of Countess Dracula, lending an element of bedroom farce as the changes between youth and age become more frequent. It’s also the part of the film which allows most space to the woeful performance of Sandor Eles and that’s when the attention of the viewers is most likely to wander. Eles, given the boring young lover role, manages to do nothing with it and for much of the time it looks as if Ingrid Pitt could eat him alive. It’s also unclear why this intelligent woman should have any time for such a dork once they’ve enjoyed a roll in the hay. Her choice is made particularly strange considering the genuine chemistry that is generated between her and Captain Dobi, played by the marvellously charismatic Nigel Green. Some of the best moments in the movie are the confrontations between the two of them as Dobi has to reconcile whatever ethical instincts he has with his lust for the Countess and, of course, for her money. Green was one of the finest British actors of his generation and this is one of his most entertaining performances – and his busbee is astonishing.
The supporting cast is packed with familiar faces such as Maurice Denham and Peter Jeffrey, all of whom give creditable performances, but the film belongs to Ingrid Pitt. She was always one of Hammer’s best female leads – indeed, her only real competition is Barbara Shelley – and this is her finest moment. She dominates every scene she’s in, whether caked in ageing make-up or allowed to look as young and gorgeous as she really was. Pitt radiates passion and sexual promise, revelling in her cruelty with a slightly frightening determination to satiate her own desires.
Given the strength of Pitt’s performance, it’s a shame that the film isn’t better than it is. The story offers numerous possibilities for erotic sadism –Harry Kumel demonstrated this in his own take on the legend, Daughters of Darkness as did Walerian Borowczyk in Immoral Tales - but Peter Sasdy films it with a flatness that never fulfils the subject’s potential. The cinematography has a bland TV movie quality so the impressive sets and costumes – left over from Anne of the Thousand Days - go for nothing. It’s also curiously restrained for this period of Hammer’s history and the sensuality of blood – surely the vital ingredient – is completely missing. Peter Sasdy’s first film for Hammer, the excellent and unusual Taste The Blood of Dracula suggested a visual flair which isn’t much in evidence in his second.
The film was originally released on DVD by Carlton back in 2002 as part of their Vampire Collection boxed set and it was subsequently made available on Region 1 by MGM. This new Special Edition offers a reasonably good transfer and some entertaining extra features.
Framed at 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced, Countess Dracula looks quite pleasant on this new disc. The strong point of the transfer is its colours which are beautifully natural. The detail varies from good to mediocre due to a softness which sometimes overtakes the image. Grain is constantly present but this isn’t a major distraction and artifacting isn’t a problem. The mono soundtrack is excellent with no hiss or distortion.
The first extra is a highly entertaining commentary track from Kim Newman, Stephen Jones and the wonderful Ingrid Pitt. This isn’t as fact-packed as some of the Newman/Jones commentaries because Ingrid Pitt keeps jumping in with juicy anecdotes about her time on the film. She speaks slowly and it takes a while to get used to her accent but it’s worth it because she’s such a likeable and funny presence on the track. Incidentally, she hasn’t mellowed with age much – she still claims to hate director Peter Sasdy – and her indiscretion is often fascinating. Incidentally, her honesty becomes slightly painful at one point when the subject turns, inadvertently, to her time in a concentration camp during the war.
Next up we have a complete episode of the TV series Thriller from 1974. “Where The Action Is”, written by Brian Clemens, is an engrossing, twisty yarn with fine performances and the usual dated quality which is so charmingly nostalgic for those of us who watched these on TV as children. It’s highly reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s story Man From The South but expands upon it to good effect and ends up as something not unlike Sleuth. In addition to this is a half-hour drama from the 1970 series Conceptions of Murder called “Peter and Maria”. This stars Nigel Green and Yootha Joyce and is very short but quite gripping thanks to the acting. Both of these TV episodes are presented in 1.33:1 and have adequate picture quality which represents their vintage nature. The Thriller episode is, of course, available in the complete release of the series from Network but this is the first time that anything from Conceptions of Murder has been available on DVD.
And it doesn’t stop there. Network have also dug around in the vaults and found a six minute ‘Tonight’ interview with Ingrid Pitt from 1999 and a news feature on fifty years of Hammer. These are short but hugely valuable for Hammer fans and I always love to see them.
Add to this the original trailer and you have a very impressive package indeed which bodes well for Network’s continuing re-releases from the catalogue which used to belong to Carlton. The only real niggle I have is the lack of subtitles, something Network should address if they want to open up their releases to the widest possible audience.