Thursday, 12 February 2015

Countess Dracula (1971)

Countess Dracula was Peter Sasdy’s second Hammer horror film, the company having been quite pleased with his initial effort, Taste the Blood of Dracula. In fact Hammer were so pleased they allowed the Hungarian-born director to choose the next project he did for them. This was to be a movie based on the infamous real-life Hungarian Countess Erzsébet Báthory, generally believed to be the most horrific female serial killer in history. Báthory was accused of the murder of hundreds of young girls and the legend grew up that she bathed in their blood in order to keep her youthful good looks. Erzsébet Báthory is likely to have been one of the main inspirations for central European legends of the vampire.

This was obviously a perfect subject for a horror movie. Sasdy and producer Alexander Paal came up with a treatment which Hammer liked and Jeremy Paul was given the task of writing the screenplay.

Sasdy had done a lot of television work for the BBC including quite a number of successful  adaptations of literary classics. He brought with them a number of key people with whom he had worked at the BBC, including costume designer Raymond Hughes and production designer Philip Harrison. Having worked on very tight BBC budgets they knew how to make a production look lavish without spending very much money. As a result Countess Dracula looks more expensive and more sumptuous than the average Hammer production even though it was made on the usual very parsimonious Hammer budget.

Sasdy brought a rather different and fresh approach to the Hammer gothic horror film and Countess Dracula has a distinctive feel compared to the other Hammer female vampire movies of the 70s. 

The actual facts of Erzsébet Báthory’s life and crimes will never be known with certainty but this movie tries to take a fairly serious historical approach to the subject. In the movie the countess (played by Ingrid Pitt) is an ageing woman who discovers quite by accident that the blood of young girls can restore her youthful appearance. She is a woman who is unwilling to accept the idea of growing old gracefully and once she discovers this secret she is determined to remain youthful forever. Unfortunately the effects of the treatment are only temporary, which means she is going to need a constant supply of virgins (the girls must be virgins or the treatment will not work). To ensure her supply of virgins she enlists the somewhat reluctant help of her steward (and old lover) Captain Dobi (Nigel Green).

The countess is determined to stay young because she has found a new lover, a dashing young hussar officer, Lieutenant Imre Toth (Sandor Elès). This of course does not please Captain Dobi but he is so hopelessly in love with her that she has no difficulty persuading him to aid her.

A possible complication is the imminent arrival of the countess’s daughter Ilona (Lesley-Anne Down). To Erzsébet Báthory her daughter is merely a potential rival so she has to be removed from the scene. Of course it will eventually be impossible to hide the fact that so many young women have been disappearing without trace, and the tensions between the countess, Captain Dobi and Lieutenant Toth are also bound to come to a head.

Ingrid Pitt has to play the countess as both an old woman and a young woman and she does a fine job. The makeup effects work well although Pitt felt (with some justification) that the young countess should have been made to took more convincingly 17th century. Hammer however clearly wanted Pitt to look as glamorous as possible and in box-office terms they were no doubt correct.

Nigel Green was an actor whose self-destructiveness prevented him from achieving the major stardom that his talents deserved. He gives a wonderfully entertaining bravura performance but he also brings out the subtle nuances of Dobi’s emotional and sexual enslavement to the evil countess. Maurice Denham is a delight as the elderly scholar Master Fabio who knows what the countess is up to but whose own motivations are rather murky. The supporting cast is extremely strong and this adds to the feel of quality that this movie possesses.

The sets are magnificent. This is probably the best-looking Hammer movie of the 70s, and it not only looks good it also looks authentically exotic and middle European. The costumes are superb - Nigel Green really does look splendidly imposing in his Hungarian uniform.

Synapse have done a fine job with their Blu-Ray/DVD combo release of this film. The transfer is excellent, there’s a terrific audio commentary featuring director Peter Sasdy, star Ingrid Pitt and screenwriter Jeremy Paul, a documentary on Ingrid Pitt’s career and an audio interview with the iconic horror star.

In the early 70s Hammer tried to breathe new life into their gothic horror cycle with some extremely interesting movies that broke free of the rigid Hammer formula. And they did so rather successfully, in artistic terms at least. Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde, Hands of the Ripper, The Vampire Lovers and Vampire Circus were all splendid movies and Countess Dracula is one of their most successful efforts from this period. Highly recommended.

No comments: