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Countess Dracula (Blu-ray)

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Network Distributing
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Peter Sasdy
Ingrid Pitt
Nigel Green
Sandor Elès
Maurice Denham
Patience Collier
Bottom Line: 
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The misleadingly titled “Countess Dracula” is another of Hammer Film Productions’ attempts to deal with obscure historical subject matter in a popular dramatic context, recalling earlier efforts such as “The Stranglers of Bombay” and “Rasputin: The Mad Monk” in so much as the subject of the screenplay starts out clearly rooted in true events, yet soon takes a detour into a-historical melodramatic territory. However, the fact that the word Dracula is used at all in the title kind of indicates from the start how the resultant work was always set to fall between two stools. That title, and the accompanying bravura promotional campaign which followed the film’s release were part of the post-Bray Studio incarnation of Hammer’s attempts to appeal to the usual fan base when in reality “Countess Dracula” is neither the blood-drenched vampire flick that its moniker appears to promise, nor an accurate period reconstruction of the true events that were the original inspiration for the making of the film.

“Countess Dracula” went into production at Pinewood Studios only six weeks after Hungarian émigré director Peter Sasdy brought the idea to the attention of Hammer’s  James Carreras in 1970. Sasdy proposed dramatising an account of the life of the Countess Elizabeth Báthory and her murderous exploits in late 16th and early 17th century Hungary because he, a BBC-trained director who’d also worked for Lew Grade’s ITC on many of its most popular film series of the day, was looking to continue a working relationship with the famous British studio after having fortuitously been brought into its orbit by Hammer’s house producer Aida Young as director on one of its many Dracula sequels, “Taste the Blood of Dracula”. He had seen an article about Báthory in The Times, and working together with his fellow countryman, producer Alexander Paal, to whip up a treatment, thought the story could easily be adapted to the Hammer formula in the guise of an historical drama with added elements of horror.

Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed was a powerful noblewoman in early modern Europe, and allegedly a notorious serial killer who became infamous for supposedly bathing in the blood of adolescent women from the local peasantry she employed in their dozens as maidservants in the castle given to her as a wedding gift by her husband Count Ferenc Nádasdy. Marriage to Nádasdy made Báthory an integral part of one of the most influential families in the Kingdom of Hungary. She was given charge of the business affairs and defence of many of her husband’s estates during a period when Hungary was one of the fault lines in the Hapsburg conflict with the Turkish Ottomans, and while her husband, as commander of the country’s troops, was frequently obliged to be away for long periods fighting in the Thirteen Years’ War. The stories about how the Countess murdered hundreds of victims, exsanguinating them in the belief that she could preserve her youth by bathing in their blood, are almost certainly legends but have nevertheless become part of the popular folklore that surrounds her name. Even so, her arrest and the transcripts of the trial which followed in 1611, did establish Báthory as one of history’s most  notorious and sadistic serial killers -- responsible for torturing, beating, mutilating and starving countless numbers of her victims to death, although how many of these claims were part of a politically motivated frame-up is still debatable. It was only when she apparently began preying on the daughters of the lower gentry (who’d been sent to the castle to receive etiquette lessons) that action was finally taken in response to her sadistic activities: her accomplices were tortured and executed, while the Countess herself received a suitably Gothic punishment for her crimes, that of being entombed in a bricked-up set of rooms in her own castle for the remaining four years’ of her life, with only enough space left for ventilation and the provision of food.

Carreras was enthusiastic about Sasdy’s proposal based solely on the outline he’d worked up with Paal -- and the Hammer MD went about setting up and selling the project to the company’s distributors at Rank in the usual fashion: with a lurid colour poster, quickly drawn up in the morning by Hammer’s graphic arts department upstairs (it featured ‘a blonde and lots of naked women’ Sasdy recalls) which had the title Countess Dracula slapped on it, much to Sasdy’s later unease. This was the sketchy basis on which Carreras sold the idea to Rank’s executives over lunch that same afternoon. After a few more phone calls the deal was set in stone and shooting scheduled to start at Pinewood within the next few weeks, despite there being at this point no script and as yet no cast in place!

Carreras’ interest might well have been motivated by him clocking immediately that the role of Countess Nadasdy offered an ideal way for Ingrid Pitt to continue in her current rise as the face of Hammer in the 1970s, after having had recent success as the star of “The Vampire Lovers”, ushering in what appeared to be a new era of sexually frank glamour being situated at the very heart of the Hammer brand. The uninhibited Polish-born actress, who’d survived childhood in a Nazi concentration camp during the war and escaped East Berlin as a teenager, had ended up first of all in the U.S., and then found herself appearing in low budget films in Spain, until her big break in 1968 suddenly found her starring opposite Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton in “Where Eagles Dare”. This lead to a meeting and a lasting friendship with Jimmy Carreras, which in turn prompted concerted efforts by the Hammer managing director to make her the company’s number one leading lady -- although Pitt’s agent, unduly worried about the actress being typecast in horror films, ended up putting a spanner in the works in terms of her relationship with Hammer, “Countess Dracula” being her only other role for the studio despite small but memorable appearances in many other classic horror pictures of the period, such as Robin Hardy’s “The Wicker Man” and the Amicus anthology picture “The House that Dripped Blood” where she shared the screen with the new, recently cast Dr Who Jon Pertwee (she would later get to appear during Pertwee’s tenure in the BBC series itself).

Pitt’s involvement and star billing in the movie is yet another misleading signal to its audience about what to expect from “Countess Dracula”, suggesting a typical piece of work cast from the same mould as “The Vampire Lovers” or “Lust for a Vampire”, when in fact, although TV writer Jeremy Paul’s screenplay includes a few vague elements of the supernatural and a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde/Dorian Gray-style wrinkle to the plot which sees the Countess get progressively older, uglier and madder each time the effects of the youth-giving blood sacrifice wear off (at usually the most inopportune moments), the film is mostly conducted by Sasdy as a bona fide historical costume drama that at times still mimics the leaden pace and talky theatrical set-up of the studio-bound BBC costume dramas he’d once worked on while still at the corporation. (Jeremy Paul also subsequently continued to work on many a well-known TV drama right the way up to and throughout the ‘90s, including the Jeremy Brett-starring adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales.) The director mostly tones down his depiction of the horrific elements of the story, with the temperature of the film pitched as torrid, romantic tragedy, almost entirely confined to the unusually grand-looking (for Hammer) interiors of the Countess’s baroquely adorned, cathedral-like castle, as though the production were a cloistered period soap opera draped in tapestry, but one which verges on farce as love rivals compete for the attentions of both aged and young incarnations of the Countess. The tale’s structure does, though, allow Pitt the chance essentially to play a dual role: as the withered, grey-haired Countess -- trussed up in restrictive period mourning costume -- and her more youthful, graceful, passionate and carefree counterpart who, while posing as her own daughter newly arrived from Vienna, sets out to relive her youthful past and experience sexual passion once again with the handsome, towering-Buzby-hat-wearing army Lieutenant son of her dead husband’s best friend, played by Hungarian actor Sandor Elès. Pitt is extremely convincing in the role of the ageing matriarch who becomes addicted to the vitality of youth and consequently needs to feed on it like a drug until she eventually poses a threat even to the safety of her real daughter, played by the sixteen-year-old Lesley-Anne Down in an early role that requires her to do little more than be kidnapped and held prisoner in a hut by a mute, troglodyte groundskeeper for the majority of the movie. This might just be Ingrid Pitt’s best role and her best performance, despite the fact that Sasdy had her voice re-dubbed on the soundtrack -- an act which the actress never fully forgave, and punished the director for later by pushing the non-swimmer into hotel pool after encountering Sasdy during a Spanish film festival not long after the film was released!

Always insistent on putting together his own casts, Sasdy was able to draw on his classical background at the BBC to enlist the services of some strong theatre performers and beloved British character actors, lending the work a slightly more upmarket tone to your average Hammer flick of the preceding decade; there’s not a hint of Michael Ripper in sight here, although many a Hammer fan, of course, will feel this not to be a plus point! Instead, an opening scene set during Count Nadasdy’s funeral service, prior to the reading of his will, parades a heavyweight collection of top class performers such as a heavily bearded Nigel Green, who plays Captain Dobi, the castle steward and the Countess’s secret lover who’s expecting to pick up where the deceased Count left off after inheriting a sizable chunk of his master’s estate, only to become torn with jealousy as he watches her become youthful again after accidentally being sprinkled with a peach-pealing virgin servant’s blood and promptly taking up with a younger rival; Peter Jeffrey makes a thankless supporting role as a subservient Chief Bailiff, in charge of the investigation into the missing women who soon after start piling up, worth noting; and there’s Maurice Denham, who, as Grand Master Fabio, turns in a likable performance as the elderly court historian, the only one wise enough to put the pieces of the puzzle together and figure out (with the aid of a few of his library’s tomes on Alchemy) what lies behind the supposed Princess Nadasdy’s remarkable resemblance to her mother (who he is old enough to remember from when she actually was young), and connect it to the possible fate of a number of missing virginal peasant maidservants from the locale.  Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre veteran Patience Collier is also notable as the Countess’s loyally devoted Nurse Julie -- happy to procure her mistress various castle maids and gypsy performers from a visiting travelling circus show, but who finally turns against her when she clocks on that the real Princess Nadasdy has been confined in an upper tower of the castle in order to be disposed of after the Countess has forced Sandor Elès’s Lieutenant Imre Toth into marriage. Elès, an actor who never made it big but whose face crops up in a supporting role in almost every ITC film action series of the 1970s at some point, is, through no fault of his own, perhaps the weak link in a story that adheres to the 1970s trend for ineffectual heroes who are unable to act decisively and who invariably come to a sticky end. After inheriting the deceased Count’s stables, horses and a cottage on the grounds of his estate, Toth spends most of the rest of the movie thinking he is courting the young Princess and only finds out the truth after the devious Captain Dobi tries to have him discovered by the Countess in a drunken tryst with a buxom tavern maid, after which he is completely unable to do anything to thwart the increasingly insane Countess’s plot to force him into marrying her.

Despite occasional flashes of grand guignol macabre (piles of blood-drained naked female bodies discovered cluttering a secret cubby hole in the castle vaults, and the Countess attacking one of her victims with a lethal nine-inch hairpin greedily plunged into a jugular), Sasdy for some reason draws back from the all-out gore-fest he delivered with “Hands of the Ripper”, despite the gruesome Báthory legends giving him ample leeway to go full throttle. In fact Ingrid Pitt recalls during her commentary chat with critics Kim Newman and Stephen Thrower how Sasdy and Alexander Paal were continually at war over the issue of sensationalism, with Paal demanding more gore and nudity while Sasdy seems to treat the Countess Nadasdy’s blood rites unduly coyly in the finished article, at one point picturing her gently daubing her face with a slightly claret-splattered sponge when it would make more sense to have her wallowing in gallons of the red stuff. It’s almost as if the director was determined to react against the indignity of having the “Countess Dracula” title forced upon him by Carreras, instead concentrating on having his director of photography Kenneth Talbot douse the exquisite set dressings and costumes of his former BBC crew members Philip Harrison and Raymond Hughes (who also managed to commandeer the standing sets at Pinewood from the opulent Tudor drama “Anne of a Thousand Days”) in the glossy soft-focus fine sheen of a ‘respectable’ period production, with composer Harry Robertson abetting the illusion by providing one of his most romantic, string-drenched scores, atypical of the usual Hammer barnstormer. The film was something of a flop at the time, not really fitting into one category or the other, yet it has gained some degree of appeal in retrospect as an example of the Hammer brand attempting to stretch itself and attach its name to something a little more polished than usual. It now stands as a flawed but charmingly old-fashioned historical potboiler anchored by Ingrid Pitt’s bravura performance, and is, in that regard, still worth indulging.

The Network Blu-ray edition features a sympathetic HD transfer, still with a few speckles and the odd grainy shot intact, but generally streets above previous pallid-looking DVD transfers for colour and clarity. The main extra is the ported 2006 commentary from the previous Network DVD of this title, which sees Ingrid Pitt in feisty form recalling her experiences during the shooting of the movie, including the three-hour make-up regime required by Tom Smith’s striking ageingmakeup effects. Kim Newman and Stephen Thrower occasionally get a word in edge-ways but at one point are told   ‘you should be looking at this instead of chatting!’ during Pitt’s performance as the Countess has a climactic confrontation with her daughter in the final minutes of the film.  The original theatrical trailer for the movie is included, which, of course, tries to sell it as a Dracula/Vampire Lovers type affair while tagging it as ‘Hammer’s Horrific Historic Masterpiece!’ Very extensive image galleries catalogue a series of stills which include production photos, behind-the-scenes shots, a portrait gallery and promotional images from around the world. Several archive 1980s news features that incorporate interviews with Ingrid Pitt are also made available, one which takes place at Down House during Bray’s renovations and another in which Pitt is interviewed in a TV studio about her memoir. Network have also raided their TV archive vaults for more examples of Ingrid Pitt and Nigel Green’s work: Pitt stars in a 1975 episode of Brian Clemens’ “Thriller” anthology series, “Where the Action Is”, about a twisted millionaire gambler who kidnaps and forces casino players into taking part in a very high stakes round of poker; while Nigel Green gives a compelling performance opposite Yootha Joyce in Clive Exon’s “Peter and Maria”, an episode of the writer’s 1970 true-crime series “Conceptions of Murder” in which Green plays a Ripper-like serial killer confessing his crimes to his bewildered wife. All in all a strong package that makes a film often perceived as one of Hammer’s weaker offerings into an enticing purchase.


Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night! 

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