Continuing our Halloween month of Hammer Horror with their often-misunderstood take on the Countess Bathory legend.
There are many reasons why Hammer Films entered such a sudden decline – at least in commercial terms – in the 1970s, but one that shouldn’t be underestimated is their habit of flogging a dead horse – or a dead Count, more accurately. Between 1958 and 1966, Hammer made three Dracula movies, one of which didn’t even feature the title character; but from 1968 to 1974, they made six movies featuring the Count. Add to this the release of Twins of Evil under the title Twins of Dracula in some territories and Countess Dracula, and it really starts to feel like overkill, especially as the character was in the public domain and also the subject of films by everyone from Paul Morrissey and Jess Franco to Al Adamson at the same time. Worse still for Hammer, these rival productions often offered a new take on the story while Hammer’s films still starred Christopher Lee in the title role, a character that he had been playing since 1958. No matter how good any of the individual Hammer Draculas were at this point, there was the whiff of the old-fashioned about them even before audiences could be persuaded to part with their money. Yet clearly, Hammer felt that the D-word was their golden ticket to success – perhaps understandably, given how popular the films had previously been. It might be the unexpected box office success of Dracula Has Risen From The Grave in 1968 that prompted the relentless productions that followed, but very soon the company was chasing an audience that – for them – was quickly declining.
At no point did the Hammer obsession with Dracula seem quite as misguided and destructive than in 1971, when a film that had no connection whatsoever to the series – indeed, wasn’t even a vampire story – had the name grafted on in the woefully incorrect belief that it would increase public interest. It’s unfortunate that Countess Dracula is saddled with such a misleading and, let’s face it, trashy title, because it suggests a very different film from the one that exists, and has probably dissuaded more viewers than it encouraged. Anyone attracted by the title would probably be rather disappointed with the actual film, which – as well as being notably short of vampires with no connection to the Dracula legend – is far removed in style from the usual Hammer film. In fact, by gothic horror standards, it’s barely a genre film at all.
Instead, Peter Sasdy’s film takes the true* story of the bloody Countess Bathory, who bathed in the blood of young virgins in the belief that it kept her young and – despite hedging its bets by having her youth actually restored – plays more like a historical drama than a full-blooded Hammer horror for much of the time. As such, it’s become a film that many a Hammer fanatic has been dismissive of, some even calling it one of the company’s worst films. I would suggest that they are wrong, their opinions based on a reluctance to accept any deviation in the Hammer style that prevents them from seeing the film on its own merits. Of course, that stupid title has set them up for something that they won’t get, and we can’t underestimate the effect that such misleading advertising might have on how a film is judged. More than most Hammer films, Countess Dracula seems forever doomed to be viewed as something that it isn’t, and critically assessed accordingly.
For while Countess Dracula is no undiscovered masterpiece, it’s certainly a fascinating story and one that has a seriousness and a sense of period style that makes it one of the more respectable films from the studio. That might not seem a selling point, admittedly. But the film does show an attempt to do something new after several years of essentially sticking to the same formula (sometimes with great success, other times not) – something Hammer would be forced to do more and more during the 1970s as the carefully crafted formula of the previous decade started to seem old-fashioned and predictable. It’s also the film that consolidated Ingrid Pitt as a Hammer icon, which is rather interesting – after all, she only made two films for the studio (and only four horror films during the whole decade). Yet she is often spoken of as the female equivalent of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee by fans and critics, something that more prolific female horror stars failed to achieve. It perhaps speaks to her screen presence and the fact that she was the first truly evil Hammer Horror villainess – her predecessors in films like The Reptile and The Gorgon were more tragic victims than malicious monsters. Ironically, the film’s subsequent reputation may have suffered through her presence – not because her performance is bad, but because she brings a Hammer Horror connection to a film that stars no one else associated with the studio. People associate Ingrid Pitt with Hammer in large part because of this film, but it’s her association with Hammer that makes people pre-judge the movie and expect something that they don’t get. What a conundrum.
Pitt plays Countess Elisabeth Nadasdy, a rich, powerful and angry ageing widow who is enraged to find that her late husband’s estate will be shared jointly between herself and her daughter Ilona (Lesley-Anne Down). Despite the efforts of her lover Captain Dobi (Nigel Green) to soothe her, she remains bitter, and after striking a servant girl, finds her face spattered with blood. To her amazement, when she wipes the blood away, her winkled skin has become young again. She quickly summons the girl back, and before long, the girl has disappeared and the Countess is miraculously restored to youth. She arranges for her daughter – en route to the castle after being convenient away from home since childhood – to be kidnapped, and takes her place. She’s soon attracted dashing young army lieutenant Imre Toth (Sandor Eles), much to Dobi’s dismay. But her youth is not permanent. After a short time, she returns to her former state, only older and uglier than before. More young women need to be secured to provide a regular supply of blood for the Countess to bathe in, and the conspiracy takes in Dobi, devoted maid Julie (Patience Collier) and suspicious historian Master Fabio (Maurice Denham), even as suspicions rise about the increasing number of missing girls.
The Bathory story has been filmed a number of times with varying degrees of success. The most impressive version appears in Walerian Borowczyk’s Immoral Tales, and of course, this film doesn’t match the sheer audacity of that movie in terms of sexuality or violence. But within the confines of what we might expect of an early 1970s period drama, it is still a fairly impressive work. While the film steps fully into the occult with the idea that bathing in virgin blood really does restore youth, it maintains a sense of realism that is unusual for Hammer – the scenes of the castle, the streets below and the inns have an authenticity to them that is impressive, and the cast is unusually strong. Hammer often had rather weak and underwritten supporting players, but here more or less everyone is on top form, with Green especially impressive as Dodi. Ingrid Pitt has been both over-praised and undersung as an actress over the years. Here, she is dubbed, which to many people suggests poor delivery of lines but is more likely to cover up her accent (Pitt was furious at the decision, with good reason – if her voice was good enough for The Vampire Lovers, why not this?). Despite the dubbing, she certainly gives a strong physical performance, and her switch in character from the crotchety old woman to the vivacious and cruel younger version is impressive, even if it is hard to swallow that, even after she’s bathed in blood, anyone would be convinced that she is nineteen – she was already in her mid-thirties when this film was made. Nevertheless, the scene of her emerging from her bath, covered in blood, remains an iconic moment of Hammer eroticism in a film that is – unusually for the period, the storyline and the production company – otherwise light on the sort of gratuitous nudity that was popping up in Hammer movies of the time.
Peter Sasdy was another Hammer director who only ever seemed as good as the material he was given. Fortunately, he seemed to get some great scripts to work with during his time at the studio – his Hammer films are among the company’s best work and manage to rise above what we might expect, given that they have some of the company’s most crassly exploitative titles like Taste the Blood of Dracula and Hands of the Ripper. Here, he directs the film as though he is making Shakespeare, and brings an unexpected classiness to the story. Unfortunately, this is sometimes at the expense of action. If Countess Dracula has a major fault, it is in the pacing. This is a rather talky film – never boring, but rarely exciting either. It perhaps doesn’t fully work as a horror movie, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good film. It’s just not the film you might have expected.
But really, Hammer fans should perhaps cut Countess Dracula a little slack. No, it’s not typical Hammer, but then neither are many of the company’s best films of the 1970s. As a costume drama with a horror edge, it’s actually rather impressive and certainly seems to be a film that improves on repeated viewing, freed from the weight of expectation and false advertising.
* We are aware that there are conflicting versions of the Bathory story and that much of what the general public know of her may be inaccurate to a lesser or greater amount.
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