Thursday, June 5, 2014


    Hammer's COUNTESS DRACULA has seemingly been one of those later efforts by the studio that's always had a bit of shaky reputation among the studio's fans, with taglines such as "boring" and "cheap looking" associated with it. Although marketed as vampire type movie (especially in the U.S. where Fox referenced blood drinking in its ad campaigns), it's actually of Hammer's excursions into historical type horror such as RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK - and like RASPUTIN does play up the horror elements in favor of historical fact.
    Based upon the story of Countess Elizabeth Bathory a 16th century Hungarian noblewoman who was accused of torturing and killing perhaps hundreds of young girls - including the oft repeated legend that she bathed in their blood to retain her youth (which would help tie her into the Dracula mythos and is what forms the basis for this Hammer film version). For many years this was unavailable on home video in the U.S. and thanks to some tantalizing stills of star Ingrid Pitt rising blood splattered out of her bathtub (which were oft repeated in several 1970's/80's horror magazines and books) it gained a reputation among young horror fans that perhaps made it invariably a letdown upon first viewing - probably seemingly at the time to play out like a costume drama with a bit of nudity and some blood thrown in.

    Much better then its somewhat ill-deserved reputation, hopefully Synapse's recently released blu-ray/DVD will help restore its standing amongst the Hammer folk. Filmed at Pinewood Studios it has a set design look unlike any other Hammer film and thanks to some left over sets from ANNA OF A THOUSAND DAYS it has a fairly sumptuous look for latter period Hammer (although Ingrid's bedroom/grotto looks like something from the Playboy mansion). In addition its helped immensely by excellent performances by its leads in the (very beautiful) form Of Ingrid Pitt (although sadly dubbed) and the always welcome presence of British character actor Nigel Green. We love Nigel Green around here and he sadly passed away soon after the release of COUNTESS DRACULA. Usually he played stern figures of British authority such as the heroic Colour Sgt. in ZULU (1964) or Gen. Wolseley in KHARTOM (1966) and even played a rather unlikely Hercules (but still highly entertaining one) in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963).

    The Polish born Ingrid Pitt had survived a Nazi concentration camp as a child and later escaped from the communist in Berlin by swimming across the river Spree. A much better actress then she was ever given credit for she had appeared in the rousing WWII adventure WHERE EAGLES DARE (1968) and later cemented her horror queen status in THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970) and THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1971), along with a part (most of which ended up being cut and subsequently lost) in the classic THE WICKER MAM from 1973.
    Pitt plays the aging & recently widowed Countess (here refereed to as Countess Elisabeth Nadasdy) who discovers after viciously slapping a young maid and having her blood splash upon her face discovers that bathing in the blood of virgins restores her youthful beauty. Finding the process only temporary she soon enlists the help of Captain Dobi (Greene) and her nurse Julie (Patience Collier) to help her procure local young girls. After an unsuccessful blood bath from a tavern wench she discovers that the blood of virginal women is required for the process to work (and plus requires naked sponge baths).
   Compounding her problems is the impending arrival of her daughter Ilona (played by a young and very beautiful Lesley-Anne Down) which the Countess solves by having the daughter kidnapped so that the elderly Elisabeth can pose as her and court the young Lt. Toth (Sandor Eles from THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN), plus keep all her late husbands inheritance for herself. The cast is rounded out by many familiar British faces including Peter Jeffery (Inspector Trout from DR. PHIBES) and Maurice Denham (THE DAY OF THE JACKAL) as a somewhat befuddled librarian.

   Pitt is really outstanding in this as she's able to invoke sympathy for a truly repellent character (in an early scene her coach brutally runs over a man and she ignores it) and does an excellent job portraying an older women who's intensely bitter that she is a no longer attractive. When she reverts back to her older persona you can't help but feel her anguish. If there is a drawback its perhaps at 34 years of age she was a bit to old to play the younger reincarnation of the Countess and the blu-ray does show-up the somewhat dodgy make-up effects on her old persona (which gets progressively uglier with each time back to her original look).
   Green as the loyal Capt. Dobi and the Countess's jilted lover (he's attracted to initially older Pitt) almost over shadows her as he stomps about throwing out some of the films best lines such as when a mother asks him the whereabouts of her missing daughter (who has become a victim of the Countess) and Greene jokingly replies "How should I know where she is, try the whorehouse !".

    Hungarian born director Peter Sasdy was one of later period Hammer's better directors, helming one of the outstanding entries in the Dracula cycle with 1970's TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA, along with 1971's excellent psychological horror HANDS OF THE RIPPER. As with his other works for Hammer COUNTESS DRACULA continues the common theme of his other films in that the sins of the elders come back to haunt the young which manifests itself in COUNTESS DRACULA's climax.
    Also with an excellent score by Harry Robinson and cinematography by Ken Talbot which all combined with Nigel Greene and a naked blood bathing Ingrid Pitt all add up to a bloody good time (especially with Synapse's beautiful blu-ray presentation). Pitt was enraged at the time when she found out her voice was dubbed and vowed never to work for Hammer or Sasdy again. Dinah Rigg was originally offered the lead part but declined because of the required nudity.

The real "Blood Countess" Countess Elizabeth Bathory de Ecsed 1560-1614

1 comment:

  1. I agree - a movie well worth watching. Ingrid Pitt carries the movie right along, even if she isn't using her own voicebox. I didn't realize Nigel Green died soon after this. I like him too. Hammer Time indeed!