When I was a wee lad, well maybe a not-so-wee six footer of 14 to 15, back in the early 1970s, I used to sneak into my local Odeon, hoping my recently broken voice would not give me away as I asked for an adult ticket for the Saturday late night horror double bill.
Hammer’s Countess Dracula (1971), which has just been reissued on Blu-Ray by our good friends at Network Distributing as part of their British Film series, was one of those movies, and I was delighted to have the opportunity to become reacquainted with the wicked Countess Elisabeth Nasdasdy. Building upon her Hammer debut as Carmilla in 1970’s The Vampire Lovers, Ingrid Pitt stars as the aged Hungarian noble who discovers that bathing in the blood of virgins restores her youth.
The story is based upon the legends surrounding the real life Countess Erzebet Bathory who is alleged to have tortured and killed at least 600 young women, which sounds like a bit of a tall order for the population of a Hungarian village in the 17th century.
Driven by lust for Imre Toth (Sandor Eles), a young cavalry officer, Elizabeth arranges for her daughter Ilona (a young Lesley Anne Down fresh out of drama college) to be abducted and takes her place to court the young blade. This regally hacks off her steward Captain Dobi (the magnificent Nigel Green at his eye popping best) who has a bit of a thing for her. To keep young and beautiful, Elizabeth needs more and more victims as the effects of each blood bath wear off faster leaving her older and uglier each time. With Elizabeth’s lust and Dobi’s subversive plotting, things inevitably take a really ugly turn for the worse when Ilona is brought to the castle on the eve of her mother’s wedding to Toth.
Pitt is brilliant in what is essentially a reworking of the Jekyll and Hyde concept. As Elizabeth, she is initially stately and dignified, but soon descends into psychopathic raving madness as the need for more and more blood surfaces. As Ilona, she is girly and coquettish, though as Pitt was around 33 at the time of filming it is a bit of leap of faith to believe that she could pass for the 19-year-old Ilona. There isn’t a lot of Hammer’s familiar Kensington gore, but the make up and prosthetics used to manage Elizabeth’s increasingly hag-like returns to old age are really effectively done.
Aside from Pitt, there are no Hammer regulars in a cast that is packed with well-known theatrical names like Patience Collier, Maurice Denham and Peter Jeffrey. A precedent that continued with further 1970s off canon Hammer period shockers like Hands of the Ripper (1971) and Demons of the Mind (1972). Eles and Down are your standard pair of wet young Hammer leads who are completely outshone by the older cast members.
This was director Peter Sasdy’s second film for Hammer after Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969) and is something of a departure from the frequent Dracula/Frankenstein/Mummy sequels and reboots that had been churned out through the late 60s. It does however continue Sasdy’s signature theme of family disintegration established in Taste and continued with his final Hammer project Hands of the Ripper.
The movie has the look of an expensive historical epic, thanks to a canny piece of negotiation by Hammer exec Michael Carreras which secured the sets from the Tudor epic Anne of a Thousand Days which had just wrapped at Pinewood studios before filming on Countess Dracula began (Hammer later redressed them to shoot Twins of Evil). The costume design by Brian Owen Smith is simply gorgeous, although I suspect most of it was scrounged from other productions and the Berman’s dressing up box. Amongst the assorted gypsies, Turks and peasants I think I saw a couple of King’s Troop Royal Artillery uniforms in the tavern scene.
A really good looking period horror with nice camera work, atmospheric lighting, a bit of Kensington gore and the odd bit of nudity, together with some classy theatrics; I give countess Dracula a 555/666.
Trivia: According to the commentary Diana Rigg was also considered for Countess Dracula. Ingrid Pitt reprised the role as Bathory to narrate Cradle of Filth’s concept album Cruelty and the Beast (1998).
Countess Dracula was released on Blu-Ray 8 September by Network Distributing price £14.99.
The Blu-Ray is packed with extras including:
- Audio commentary by Kim Newman and Stephen Jones with the late Ingrid Pitt
- Theatrical trailer
- Image galleries
- TV interview with Ingrid Pitt
- 50 years of Hammer’s Bray Studios local TV news feature
- Where the Action is: an episode of Thriller from 1975 featuring Pitt as the femme fatale who traps a pro gambler (Edd Byrnes, the required American lead) into spending the weekend gambling for his life at the secret hideaway of Daddy Burns (2nd American James Berwick) Written by Brain Clemens it is actually very entertaining
- Conception of a Murder: Peter and Maria: An episode of the 1970 series of short plays about real life murderers, this one featuring Nigel Green and Yootha Joyce. Maria comes home from work to discover that not only has Peter has been up to his old tricks again; he is also a serial killer. It is a nicely acted piece with just the two leads, shot in a single set
Review by Simon Ball
Connect with Simon: @RealShipsCook or here.