Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Countess Dracula

Countess Dracula
Directed by: Peter Sasdy
UK, 1971
Hammer, Gothic
Distributed by: Granada Ventures

In March I was at the World Horror Convention in Brighton – Yes I keep mentioning it all the time but it was a fascinating couple of days amongst the company of some equally fascinating people – anyways, whilst we where sat in one of our many interviews, the media guest of honour arrived and gave a brief Q&A. The guest was of course Ingrid Pitt the iconic legend of Hammer Horror championed only by those two bloke’s Cushing and Lee.

As soon as we completed the interview with Dennis Etchison, I shot off back down the main hall to at least get a few moments in the presence of the screen goddess Pitt. Easy to say that I was not the only person wanting to see her and that room was packed tight with spectators, fans, legendary authors and writers in the making.

I found a spot on the stairwell outside and stuck my head round the door, and even though it was a mere momentary brief glimpse I at least laid my eyes to rest on the queen of the damned, Ingrid Pitt in the flesh, another highlight of that fantastic weekend in Brighton.

Thirty-nine years earlier, Pitt, at the height of her career, having become the new star of the UK studios, Hammer and Amicus gave a performance that may be one of her greatest performances ever in Peter Sasdy’s Countess Dracula.

After Countess Elisabeth Nodosheen [Ingrid Pitt] has laid her recently deceased husband to rest, she sets a foul plan in motion when she accidentally realises that virgin blood rejuvenates her aged skin. Well accident and accident, she smacks one of her maids, Terri [Susan Broderick] in the face with a sharp knife, releasing a splash of blood across her wrinkled face. Despite protests, even if they are pretty weak ones, she goes against her lover Captain Dobi [Nigel Green] and set’s her eyes on new found youth which she plans to spend with Lieutenant Imre Toth [Sandor Elès] – a close friend of her late husband and also the inheritor of his stables to Dobi’s dismay. After murdering the young the now rejuvenated and scantily clad Elisabeth starts to make a move on young stud Toth, but in the heat of the moment she claims to be Ilona – her own daughter! Forcing Dobi to do her dirty work yet again – seductively manipulating him with promises of intimacy later… the things men do for love - she has him ride off with a band of soldiers to intercept the wagon containing her daughter Ilona [Lesley-Anne Down] so that she won’t blow Elisabeth’s stolen identity. They do so and keep her hidden in a cabin in the woods where she spends a lengthy time trying to break free from her makeshift prison.

Needless to say the movie really picks up speed from here on. Elisabeth needs blood to stay young and there’s a series of young women lured up to the castle only to meet their untimely deaths, two of the straight from classic Hammer fetishes: one a young gypsy - Nike Arrighi from Terence Fisher's The Devil Rides Out 1968 - who is part of a larger band of travelling gypsies, and the second, Ziza [Susan Broderick] a harlot right out of the Shepherd’s Inn, a good old Hammer pub that figures in the most of their period pieces work, although there’s no Michael Ripper behind the counter this time. Finally Dobi start’s to become jealous of young Imre who’s getting it off with Elisabeth instead of him. Things get worse when Elisabeth and Toth decide to wed, and the final act is set in motion - Dobi starts to interfere, Illona escapes her captors, Elisabeth’s until now faithful nurse starts to turn against her when Illona turns up live and well despite Elisabeth telling her that she’s died… and Elisabeth bathes in blood – giving Pitt an opportunity to flaunt her birthday suit - as she prepares for her wedding night. You know where this is going to go as there have been one to many close calls where young Elisabeth turns into old Elisabeth in the blink of an eye, and once Illona meets Imre there’s no way that he’ll see the wedding though. The movie takes a baleful and ironic turn as the climax is reached, leaving the film with a very typical dark Hammer ending.

Pitt makes the most of her performance here and it’s an impressive piece of work, because she literally changes everything about her when she moves between the old haggard Countess to the young luscious version of herself. Her posture, her movement and even her looks as she's hidden away under layers of mushy makeup and wig. Unfortunately through, she never got to hear her own voice on the soundtrack as it was dubbed with proper British accent. A damned shame as Pitt’s Polish-English growling is splendid and would have added to character.

There’s no time wasted in establishing the vile ways of the Countess. Even before the title rolls she sizes up Lieutenant Toth as they stand by the side of her husbands grave, and on her way home from the funeral she runs over a farmer who has been promised work by her late husband leaving him to die surrounded by his now indefinitely doomed family. There’s no doubt in mind that this is an evil woman we are dealing with.

There’s a lot of subplots used in Countess Dracula that don’t really lead up to any major effect on the main narrative, like the recurrent questioning of where Terri can be – Terri the maid Elisabeth slew first, and that unspoken rivalry between Dobi and Toth, nor the investigation that Chief Bailiff Captain Balogh [Peter Jeffrey] initiates when the bodies of the drained women are found lead to anything. It’s more filler than anything else, and in many ways a waste of great characters. There is so much more that Lesley-Anne Down and especially Nike Arrighi could have done here, not to mention Peter Jeffrey and Maurice Denham.

Even though Countess Dracula is a pretty decent and very entertaining Hammer film – mostly due to Pitt’s splendid performance – there’s a very obvious feeling frustration and confusion within the movie. At the time Hammer where rapidly loosing ground and quality, resulting in their movies declining popularity. Despite the nudity and quasi-erotic tone that Ingrid Pitt brings to the piece, there’s never really enough to make the movie stand out amongst contemporary pieces. Even the rather conservative British soft core sex comedies of the time where raunchier, even if the Hammer films where trying their damndest to push the envelope. And considering what was going on in other European genre flicks at he time, they really didn’t have a chance to get in on the erotic horror scene at all.

Although on the up side, Countess Dracula is one of the better pieces from this time period, and on of few titles that actually stands on it’s own two legs. Much like the Roy Ward Baker’s The Vampire Lovers 1970 - which also see’s Pitt in multiple roles – it merely uses the Dracula franchise, at the time five of them and three more to come, in name only. Where The Vampire Lovers found it’s inspiration in the writing of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, Countess Dracula, with it’s misleading title, is obviously inspired by the legend of Erzsébet Báthory. But it really is missing that iconic moment of naked Countessa immersed in a bath of blood. Instead we get Pitt taking a rather silly sponge bath which kinda works, but is terribly pale compared to stuff like the Báthory segment of Borowczyk’s Immoral Tales 1974 or Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness 1971.

Another thing I feel is missing, is the potent and often fantastic scores of James Bernard. Instead there’s a rather weak score by Harry Robinson, which tries to emulate Bernard’s signature sound without really hitting the mark.

For some odd reason Hammer decided to market Countess Dracula as their first film based on a true story… which is kind of odd as it’s not true, there where previous movies based on authentic legends and secondly it diminishes the magnificent performance Christopher Lee gave in Don Sharp’s Rasputin: The Mad Monk 1966. Then again one can never really understand the complex relationship between Hammer and it’s legendary stars like Lee and Cushing. They often give the impression of being somewhat unsatisfied with the work, but still kept on returning for more on a regular basis. Lee is back with the recently resurrected Hammer for their forthcoming The Resident.

Never the less, Hammer continued churning them out in a pace that obviously left them blind to the fact that where they once where innovators, they where rapidly becoming stagnant and colourless. But if you want to see a splendid swan song to a great cinematic heritage, make sure to set a date with Countess Dracula.


Dolby Digital Mono, English dialogue no subtitles.

This collectors edition is jam-packed with a lot of goodies such as a thoroughly entertaining Audio Commentary with Kim Newman, Stephen Jones and Ingrid Pitt. News feature on the 50 years of Hammer celebration, and a talk show interview with Ingrid Pitt both from 1999. An episode of Conceptions of Murder (Peter and Maria) starring Nigel Green, an episode of Thriller (Where the Action is) starring Ingrid Pitt and the theatrical trailer for Countess Dracula. There’s also a booklet with essays and articles on the movie and the Bathory legend.

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