By the early 1970s, England's Hammer Films needed to rejuvenate their gothic horror cycle and were ready to supplement their successful Christopher Lee Draculas with a new series of vampire stories. Outside producers Harry Fine and Michael Style brought Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu's novelette Carmilla to Hammer's attention, and the rather erotic subject matter made a perfect vehicle for Polish-born beauty Ingrid Pitt, who was being molded as their latest femme fatale. THE VAMPIRE LOVERS was a big success, and shortly thereafter, Pitt was offered the even more challenging role of COUNTESS DRACULA.
In THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, Pitt plays Carmilla (also using the name Mircalla and Marcilla), a centuries-old vampire who has retained her youth and beauty. Governed by Countess Karnstein (Dawn Addams) and a mysterious Dracula-like fellow known as the Man in Black (John Forbes-Robertson), Carmilla becomes a houseguest of General Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing) and his young niece, Laura (Pippa Steele). Laura grows increasingly ill and eventually dies, while a local doctor (Ferdy Mayne) discovers bite marks on her bosom. Carmilla then seems to vanish into thin air.
Next stop for Carmilla is the home of Mr. Morton (George Cole), and his innocent daughter Emma (Madeline Smith). Carmilla becomes obsessed with Emma, wanting her to love only her, and when Mr. Morton leaves town for a while, the seductive vampiress turns the whole house upside down. Not only does Emma fall victim to Carmilla's prolonged bloodletting and seduction, but so does the governess (Kate O'Mara) and the butler (Harvey Hall). When Mr. Morton returns, he is convinced that the ailing Emma is suffering from vampirism, but General Spielsdorf has coincidentally brought back Barton Hartog (Douglas Wilmer), who had hunted down the bloodthirsty Karnsteins years ago. With the help of young heroic Carl Ebhardt (Jon Finch), the men set out to uncover Carmilla's crypt and destroy her once and for all.
THE VAMPIRE LOVERS carried Hammer into the 70s with a gothic, poetic masterpiece of erotic horror and doomed love. The stunning Ingrid Pitt is one of the screen's finest vamps, and her portrayal of Carmilla is sympathetic and passionate, while cold and calculated at the same time. Her strong performance is supported by a wonderful cast and the atmospheric direction by veteran Roy Ward Baker, delivering his first full-fledged horror film. Peter Cushing's role is small but momentous, as his familiar vampire-slaying antics play a key role here. Cushing's involvement was reportedly demanded by American International Pictures (AIP) who co-produced the film, and released it in the U.S. with an "R" rating, and it's one of the first, if not the first, horror film to land such a label. Two sequels were produced (LUST FOR A VAMPIRE, TWINS OF EVIL), and although Pitt did not return in either one, she did come back as COUNTESS DRACULA for Hammer.
MGM's new DVD transfer of THE VAMPIRE LOVERS comes off as a great success. For once, the title is shown in its original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio (with anamorphic enhancement), finally giving the film the composition it clearly lacked in past video transfers. The picture is virtually flawless, as the pristine source material manifests rich, distinct colors, strong clarity and nice detail. Darker scenes are never too dark and always clear, while day-for-night shots look like nighttime without having their images obscured. The mono sound is clean, with dialog, music and sound effects all emerging clearly. This DVD of THE VAMPIRE LOVERS also restores an often censored frontal shot of a fully nude Ingrid Pitt getting out of a tub, and this is the first time this has been witnessed on home video. MGM's DVD also restores several graphic and essential decapitations and stakings that were cut from the U.S. theatrical print, which ran only 89 minutes. The DVD presents the film at its full 91 minutes.
With the excellent transfer at hand, MGM has also opted to give us a commentary with director Baker, star Pitt and writer Tudor Gates. Moderated by Jonathan Sothcott, this is a wonderful treat for Hammerheads and horror historians alike. Although Pitt was very ill when the commentary was recorded, she is still very passionate about her role and what this film meant to her career, while the ever-spry Baker and Gates provide a lot of info on Hammer head Jimmy Carreas, the producers of the film, as well as sequence which was eliminated against their wishes. Sothcott keeps things interesting by asking about specific cast members and other topics concerning the film. Features for the VAMPIRE LOVERS are rounded out by the original AIP theatrical trailer, as well as passages from Carmilla (12 minutes) read by Ingrid Pitt herself, accompanied by a video montage of rare color photos from the film. A great idea, and nicely executed.
Actually the first title on this set, COUNTESS DRACULA is Pitt's follow-up to THE VAMPIRE LOVERS and last film that she did for Hammer. Very different from that film, COUNTESS DRACULA is based on real-life tyrannical figure Elizabeth Bathory who reportedly murdered some 650 females to utilize their blood for vanity purposes. Set in medieval Hungary, Countess Bathory (Pitt), returns from her husband's funeral to be greeted by handsome young Lieutenant Imre Toth (Sandor Eles), for the reading of a will. Through an accident with a servant girl, the Countess discover a youth elixir through contact with her blood, and after bathing in it, is able to retain her lustrous beauty. Posing as her own daughter, the Countess starts a romance with Imre, but discovers that her youthful appearance disappears after a while. She continues to have young women brought to the castle to soak up the red stuff and later makes a startling discover that only a virgin's vintage will do!
Helped largely by sets borrowed from ANNE OF A THOUSAND DAYS (1969), COUNTESS DRACULA is a lavish-looking Hammer film with another stellar performance by Pitt. Through old-age make-up and her true loveliness, she essentially plays two characters caught between hopeless love and murderous obsession, and even though her voice was dubbed by another actress, Pitt is exceptional. Under-appreciated by Hammer fans for many years, the swift switch from old hag to young beauty can be rather unconvincing, and sometimes the plot lingers, but COUNTESS DRACULA is still very entertaining and a unique entry. Excellent support is given by Maurice Denham, Patience Collier, Peter Jeffrey, Lesley-Anne Down and especially the great Nigel Green, who sadly died shortly after the film's release. Director Peter Sasdy carries over the innovative style he exercised in the masterful TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA, and the music by Harry Robinson (who also scored THE VAMPIRE LOVERS) is a real high point.
Although COUNTESS DRACULA had been released on VHS a number of times in the U.K., it only saw a home video here via a laserdisc from Image Entertainment that quickly went out of print. While not as impressive as their transfer for THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, COUNTESS DRACULA still looks excellent, letterboxed in a non-anamorphic 1.66:1 ratio. The Eastman colors look quite nice and black levels are deep. Detail is sharp, with occasional grain and murkiness, but overall, the transfer is excellent. Like on THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, the mono audio here is above average. Note that when 20th Century Fox released COUNTESS DRACULA here theatrically in 1972, they cut it in order to secure a "PG" rating. Although the packaging says "PG," this is the uncut British version with brief nudity and gore intact.
COUNTESS DRACULA also has an impressive and informative commentary with Pitt, director Sasdy and screenwriter Jeremy Paul, again moderated by Sothcott. Both Sasdy and Paul freely discuss the film and were obviously very decisive about the kind of Hammer horror they wanted to create. Pitt doesn't speak as much as the two gentlemen, but she does display a vast knowledge of the real Bathory and obviously wishes the film explored the factual accounts more than it did. The other extra for COUNTESS DRACULA is a full frame theatrical trailer, which happens to be the superior British trailer.
MGM is the first studio outside Anchor Bay to release Hammer films with audio commentaries, so this disc marks a landmark release of sorts. A lot of care an preparation obviously when into restoring the films and producing the extras, so kudos to MGM for giving us one of their best horror DVD releases yet. (George R. Reis)
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