Countess Dracula is a British horror film based on the legends surrounding the “Blood Countess” Elizabeth Báthory. It is in many ways atypical of Hammer’s canon, attempting to broaden their output from Dracula and Frankenstein sequels. Filmed in 1970, it was released in January 1971.
The film was produced by Alexander Paal and directed by Peter Sasdy, both Hungarian émigrés working in England.
In 17th century Hungary, Countess Elisabeth Nádasdy (Ingrid Pitt) and her bed companion and steward, Captain Dobi (Nigel Green), are snubbed in a will at the expense of the young and the too old to benefit. The Countess takes it rather better than Dobi as she has recently discovered the secret to everlasting youth, a quick bath in the blood of murdered young women.
Alas, the fridge is empty of such commodities and the effect is disappointingly short-lasting, so she keeps her hold on Dobi whilst enlisting him to furnish her with the required local young ladies. Her rejuvenated young self takes advantage yet further of the situation and embarks on a sexual affair with simpering Lieutenant Toth (Sandor Elès), the son of a famous general who is eager to similarly make his mark.
To stay in her youthful state, it begins to require ever more victims and the trail or bloodless corpses is beginning to arouse suspicion. To throw locals off the scent, she assumes the identity of her daughter, Ilona (Lesley-Anne Down) who has been absent for some time, squirrelled away by her mother in a hut in the forest, lest anyone find it odd that they are a surprisingly similar age.
However, the resident of the castle library, Fabio (Maurice Denham), begins to suspect something dodgy is afoot, not least when he nearly stumbles upon an unfortunate meeting between local buxom harlot, Ziza (Andrea Lawrence), Toth and the Countess, an encounter which Ziza doesn’t fare well in.
Upon finding that actually, only virgins prolong the youthful appearance, yet more attacks take place but it’s all too much for Fabio who realises he must inform Toth – alas, too slow and he meets his end at the hands of Dobi who has been blackmailed into protecting the Countess any way he can.
A slightly hurried marriage is arranged between Toth and Elisabeth but lo’! Ilona makes a surprise appearance. The congregation can only stand aghast as Elisabeth’s ageing/marrying/slaying dilemma begins to unravel before them…
Buy Blu-ray: Amazon.co.uk
Audio commentary with Ingrid Pitt and horror experts Kim Newman and Stephen Jones.
Original Theatrical Trailer
Archive interview with Ingrid Pitt (Tonight, 1999, 6min)
50 Years of Hammer – news feature about the celebrations (Meridan TV, 1999, 2min)
Thriller episode: Where The Action Is featuring Ingrid Pitt (60min). The whole series is also available through Network
Conceptions of Murder episode: Peter And Maria: a 1970 play about mass murder with Nigel Green (25min)
Extensive image galleries (New and in HD)
A particularly strange entry into Hammer’s canon, at a time when their star was still shining brightly. Playing rather more like a historical yarn (more-so than the likes of Rasputin) than a horror film, let alone a vampire film, there is much to admire here but it’s ultimately a disappointing, unsatisfying experience.
Sasdy proved himself to be a director of some style for Hammer’s own Hands of the Ripper from the same year but Countess Dracula suffers from being overly ponderous, seemingly unable to decide on historical accuracy, flashes of flesh or geysers of blood – eventually it panics but too late for a discernible resolution.
Those expecting fangs, fog and fluttering bats will certainly be disappointed – this concentrates on the Countess’ plight, as she sees it, giving all the characters a decent fist of stating their moral standpoint but it becomes unnecessarily wordy and redundant relatively early.
It’s difficult to root for the Countess, killing and preening; Dobi shows real promise as a character but is reduced to a stooge; Toth is a sap of the highest order and needs a good telling off leaving only a librarian and a local tart as characters of real interest.
Though an exotic vision and alluring mysterious both on-screen and in ‘real-life’, only the truly brave of heart would call Ingrid Pitt a good actress, though she is served well by agreeable ageing effects courtesy of Tom Smith, who worked on several Hammer films and later on the likes of The Shining and Return of the Jedi.
Indeed, Pitt herself was a replacement for Diana Rigg who ultimately declined the role. Sandor Elès (The Evil of Frankenstein) presumably makes the cut due to being Hungarian, whilst Nigel Green (The Masque of the Red Death) shows real promise but was sadly cut down at the age of only forty-seven the following year.
Maurice Denham essentially channels Merlin and Lesley Anne-Down ultimately has very little to do – far more interesting is ravishing Andrea Lawrence, who hopped, skipped and jumped from On the Buses to I’m Not Feeling Myself Tonight and Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell.
The rather unconvincing mountains of Eastern Europe are, of course, Pinewood Studios, but the interiors are perhaps the film’s greatest asset, being leftover from the 1969 historical big-budget production Anne of the Thousand Days.
Though there is a reasonable amount of flesh on display, the murders are relatively few on-screen – that said, there are some juicy moments involving a hair-pin and a nicely judged scene of Elisabeth bathing which is more wistful than gratuitous.
Harry Robertson’s score plays well alongside the relative drama on-screen, a mix of sturdy orchestral sweeps and the use of a Hungarian cymbalom (like a harpsichord) to add some flavours of the unknown environment.
The dialogue is largely forgettable, aside from some slutty banter and Ziza uttering a barely credible ‘juicy pair’ line but there is something about the film that lingers in the memory and, though not especially a success, a mark of Hammer’s bravery that this appeared when it did.
Daz Lawrence, MOVIES and MANIA
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