I know some of you are as burned out on vampires as I am, but don’t let the title of Countess Dracula put you off. Despite its title, it’s not really a vampire story (save on a metaphorical level). But in a way it’s scarier than traditional vampire tales because it has its roots not just in reality, but in history.
At an unspecified medieval time, in an unnamed European country, Countess Elizabeth (Ingrid Pitt) has recently been widowed. She doesn’t seem terribly cut up about the loss of her husband. What she is mourning is the passing of her youthful beauty, especially now that handsome military captain Imre (Sandor Eles) has come to stay at her castle to hear the reading of the count’s will.
Growing steadily more bitter and frustrated over Imre’s lack of interest in her, Elizabeth soon finds a way to win him, through a most unexpected source. While beating a servant girl for a minor infraction, Elizabeth gets spattered with the girl’s blood and discovers that the blood of young women can restore her youth. One dead servant girl later, Elizabeth is young and gorgeous once more, and goes after Imre. Unfortunately she discovers that not only are the de-aging properties of the blood temporary, but when her wrinkles and other signs of aging return, they are increasingly worse. Desperate to regain her youth and Imre’s love, Elizabeth sends her castle steward and former lover Captain Dobi (Nigel Green) out to get more young women to slaughter, all the while passing herself off as her own daughter Ilona (Lesley-Anne Down), whom she’s had kidnapped and held captive so she won’t blow Elizabeth’s secret.
You’re probably thinking that this won’t end well.
If you, like me, have a passing interest in Weird Shit Throughout History, you probably recognize that Countess Dracula’s story much resembles that of Elizabeth Bathory, a sixteenth-century Hungarian noblewoman. Depending on whose accounts you read, Bathory tortured and killed (or had her servants kill) between several dozen to over 600 victims, all young women (daughters of peasants or lesser gentry). The accounts of using blood as a beauty treatment didn’t arise until many years later (Bathory’s tortures were more mundane but still horrific, including burning, beating, and starving the women, as well as dousing them with water on subzero nights and leaving them outside to freeze to death), but it’s these tales that have given her the nickname of the Blood Countess.
Countess Dracula touches on the Bathory legend just enough to give the story a kick. It also benefits from its portrayal of the nobility as predators and the common folk as prey. At the film’s start, when Elizabeth and Captain Dobi are leaving the count’s funeral, they are accosted by a peasant who begs for an employment opportunity the late count had promised him; their carriage runs him over and neither Elizabeth nor Dobi blink an eye. Likewise, Elizabeth sees a steady stream of young women as her due; Dobi’s reluctance to help her comes not out of moral qualms or pity for the women, but because Elizabeth has rejected him in favor of Imre.
The movie has a lot going for it. Typically gorgeous Hammer photography, excellent sets borrowed from Anne of the Thousand Days, and an excellent (albeit dubbed) performance by Ingrid Pitt. As vicious as her character is, it’s hard not to pity her when she loses her briefly regained beauty and becomes ever more aged and ugly. And though the movie’s fairly tame by today’s standards, there’s still plenty of bared bosoms and red-paint blood to keep things lively, and a memorable scene of Elizabeth giving herself a sponge-bath beauty treatment with blood.
Yet the movie also feels like a missed opportunity. More could have been done with the story’s historical background. And more could have been done with the relationship between Elizabeth and her daughter Ilona (who’s conveniently been away for years), as Elizabeth is willing to sacrifice her own daughter to gain restored youth and the suitor that by rights would wed her daughter. Instead we get many annoying scenes of the beautiful but deeply stupid Ilona making feeble escape attempts and crying hysterically.
It’s well worth watching, though, for Pitt’s performance and a peek at real-life horrors that are worse than any tale of fanged vampires.
The DVD, which is a double feature with Hammer’s The Vampire Lovers, is a good one. In addition to a lovely transfer, it features a commentary by director Peter Sasdy, screenwriter Jeremy Paul, and Ingrid Pitt (who is quite knowledgeable about Bathory), as well as a trailer. I recommend it for fans of Hammer films and Ingrid Pitt, and for those who have a passing interest in crazy historical stuff.