An aging Hungarian Countess named Elisabeth Nádasdy (Ingrid Pitt) discovers she can reverse her aging by bathing in the blood of young women. While in her youthful state, she falls for the handsome Lt. Imre Toth (Sandor Elès) and impersonates her own daughter to win his affections. Soon, girls in the village go missing… kidnapped and murdered by the Countess and her steward, Julie (Patience Collier) to satiate her horrifying bloodlust. Can Elisabeth live a life of deception with her grotesque lust for blood to stay eternally young or will her ghoulish secret finally be revealed? (From Synapse Film’s official synopsis)
Peter Sasdy’s Countess Dracula (1971) represents another attempt at stretching the Hammer vampire tradition beyond the once popular, now waning Dracula series, following the economic success of the studio’s erotically-charged “Karnstein Trilogy,” made up of Roy Ward Baker’s The Vampire Lovers (1970), Jimmy Sangster’s Lust for a Vampire (1971), and John Hough’s Twins of Evil (1971). Not too surprisingly, invoking Dracula’s name in the title is misleading and possibly reveals a lack of confidence in the project. Countess Dracula has nothing to do with Christopher Lee’s Prince of Darkness, rather, it is another retelling of the real-life historical figure, Countess Elizabeth (or Elzbet) Báthory. Báthory was a Hungarian noblewoman who tortured and murdered uncounted, though likely hundreds of women and girls. Unproven rumors that she drank and bathed in her victims’ blood were added to her legend and are the basis for most pop culture versions of the story. For whatever reason, the ‘70s saw a mini-boom in Eurohorror Báthory movies, including this film, Franco Brocani’s Necropolis (1970), Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness (French: La Rouge aux Lèvres, 1971), Walerian Borowczyk’s Immoral Tales (French: Contes Immoraux, 1974), and Carlos Aured’s Curse of the Devil (Spanish: El Retorno de Walpurgis; aka: Werewolf vs. the Vampire Woman, 1973), which revealed that Paul Naschy’s popular character, Count Waldemar Daninsky, was cursed to become a werewolf because one of his ancestors had burned Báthory at the stake. She returned as the villain in Night of the Werewolf (Spanish: El Retorno del Hombre Lobo; aka: The Craving, 1980), directed by Naschy himself.
Sasdy had better luck with his other 1971 release, Hands of the Ripper – which is not only a better-made film, but one that helped set the precedent for slasher films of the following decade – but Countess Dracula is still at least substantial technical upgrade over his more budget-starved features, such as Doomwatch (1972) and I Don’t Want to Be Born (aka: Sharon’s Baby, 1975). The mediocrity of his direction (itself a big step back from Taste the Blood of Dracula , which Sasdy had made only the year before) is bolstered by beautiful production design, elaborate costumes, and cinematographer Kenneth Talbot’s evocative photography allows. The bigger issue is Countess Dracula’s sluggishness and lack of the type of unique highlights that make even the mediocre Hammer films of the era so entertaining. The script was written by Jeremy Paul, who worked almost exclusively in television and who would never produce another feature screenplay after Countess Dracula. His plot is efficiently simple, striving mostly to supply the Countess with victims. Anything that gets in the way of that stifles the otherwise brisk pacing. Scenes of Elizabeth’s daughter, Countess Ilona, cooling her heels with a local misfit who has been charged with keeping her away from Elizabeth’s ruse are frustrating and unproductive, offering the audience little chance to sympathize or even really care. Slow-burning the way to the genuinely effective final act is commendable, but these boring subplots do more to diffuse the dramatic tension than to extend it.
If there’s one thing besides the production design/cinematography to look forward to it is Hammer favorite actress Ingrid Pitt’s fantastic – possibly even career best – performance. Elisabeth’s supernatural ability to change her physical appearance gives Pitt a chance to play two personalities, a crone-like older woman and that same woman pretending to be a young femme fatale. She clearly relishes the option to flaunt both her virulent sexuality and her talent for melodrama. Nigel Green also excels as the film’s other villain, Captain Dobi. At times, he suffers as a Christopher Lee stand-in, but really springs to life while sinking his teeth into some dastardly doings. Sadly, Sasdy fails to depict the bloody violence that the Countess’ demands should probably entail, as well as the down & dirty sexual content that Pitt’s vamping begs for. Both choices that feel prudish following the wonderful excesses of The Vampire Lovers or even his own Hands of the Ripper.
In terms of a stateside DVD release, Countess Dracula only ever appeared as part of a non-anamorphic double feature with The Vampire Lovers (which was released on Blu-ray via Scream Factory). It also briefly popped up on Netflix in HD. Synapse Films’ 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer looks as good as the studio’s other Hammer releases. There are some minor examples of print damage peppered throughout (a few scratches and burns that stick out during cross-fades and slow motion shots, for example), but the overall print is clean and sharp. Grain levels appear accurate and only approach disruptive levels during a handful of the darkest scenes, which otherwise exhibit much more subtle contrast levels than the old DVD. Details are limited by soft focus and diffused light sources (the candles and torches that light the sets are purposefully blurred/smudged during the brighter sequences), but the close-up skin and clothing textures appear quite crisp. The color palette is rather drab compared to the psychedelic extremes of some of Hammer’s other ‘70s productions, which consisted mostly of earth tones, desaturated greens, and red/orange costumes. A lesser transfer would lose the subtle variations, but here, there is little muddying between similar hues and the brighter elements pop without bleeding.
Synapse continues its fine habit of maintaining the original sound mixes for their Hammer releases, rather than unnecessarily re-mixing things into 5.1. This uncompressed, DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtrack isn’t exactly aggressive, but has plenty of dynamic range and clear, undistorted dialogue. Effects work is minimal, almost exclusively limited to the incidental noises of footsteps, ruffle of clothing, opening doors, et cetera. Occasionally, a spooky wind will enrich the track’s sense of depth. Otherwise, Harry Robertson’s score is the standout aural element. The music flows nicely between soft undertones and boisterous exclamation points without ever distorting at its highest volume levels.
Commentary with actress Ingrid Pitt, director Peter Sasdy, and screenwriter Jeremy Paul, moderated by author/critic Jonathan Sothcott (The Cult Films of Christopher Lee) – This commentary was originally featured on MGM’s double-feature DVD and is a parade of dueling accents. Sasdy comes very well prepared and ushers us through the production process with a purring Hungarian accent. Paul is similarly prepped and offers a nice counter-mood with his charming English brogue. Pitt’s anecdotes seem slightly more strained, but her pleasant demeanor flows readily through her Polish-infused tones. Everyone seems to be recording in the same room at the same time, but there’s such a prevalent respect for taking turns that there’s disappointingly little interaction, which makes the whole thing a tiny bit cold. Fortunately, the friendliness of the participants outshines any tonal shortcomings and there isn’t an excess of blank space (since Sothcott tends to speak up any time the discussion slows).
Immortal Countess: The Cinematic Life of Ingrid Pitt (10:50, HD) – An all too brief retrospective look at the cult queen’s short and beloved career. Pitt herself does not make an appearance (she passed away in 2010).
Archival audio Interview with Ingrid Pitt (8:30, HD) – A somewhat muffled older audio interview with the actress, who discusses her private life and the majority of her film work.
Still gallery, set to the film’s soundtrack (7:10, HD)
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.