Although the 1970s was considered the decade where England’s Hammer Films where on the downhill slide, the gothic horror specialists continued to churn out period vampire films despite the worldwide movie-going public’s changing tastes. Sensuality and nudity was the notable ingredient in 1970’s THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, an idea brought to Hammer by outside producers Harry Fine and Michael Style and based Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu's novelette Carmilla. The rather erotic subject matter made a perfect vehicle for Polish-born beauty Ingrid Pitt, who was being molded as their latest femme fatale (already in her 30s, a bit older than their average pinup starlet), and the film did significantly well. Shortly thereafter, Pitt was offered the even more challenging role of COUNTESS DRACULA, a film that had nothing to do with traditional vampirism or Dracula, but its subject matter and setting certainly fit well with the Hammer’s traditional horror roster. A film that has many a Hammer fan sitting on a fence as to its general appeal and overall quality, COUNTESS DRACULA now makes its U.S. Blu-ray debut courtesy of Synapse Films.
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 17th Century Eastern Europe, Countess Elizabeth Nadasdy (Ingrid Pitt, THE WICKER MAN), returns from her husband's funeral to be greeted by handsome young Lieutenant Imre Toth (Sandor Eles, THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN), for the reading of a will. After an accident involving a servant girl, the Countess discover a youth elixir through contact with her blood, and after fully 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 short period of time. In the meantime, with the help of her loyal same-age suitor Captain Dobi (Nigel Green, THE FACE OF FU MANCHU), she has her real daughter (Lesley-Anne Down, FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE) imprisoned and hidden away before she arrives at the ancestral castle so that she can parade around as her during the youthful transformations. The Countess continues to have young women brought to the castle to soak up the red stuff and later makes a startling discovery that only a virgin's vintage will do! And now that that her glamorous alter ego had fallen for Imre, a gala wedding in the castle is planned, but the naive groom is in for one disastrous surprise.
Independent producer Alexander Paal (who had worked with Hammer back in the 1950s) put together the story with director (and fellow Hungarian) Peter Sasdy, based on an idea by Bathory expert Gabriel Ronay, and television writer Jeremy Paul concocted the actual screenplay. Shot at Pinewood Studios, the production values are helped largely by sets borrowed from ANNE OF A THOUSAND DAYS (1969) (though some of the outdoor standing scenery seems to have been in 1968’s CARRY ON… UP THE KHYBER), and the scenic and haunting Black Park (also utilized in a number of other Hammer classics) which is used for the forest and coach scenes. Like Hammer’s earlier effort RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK (1966), this film takes a notorious historical figure and adds a supernatural spin to the proceedings. Ironically, the real Countess is said to have done far more atrocious things to her victims than anything the character does in the film, so the Hammer's version is far less grounded in reality and far less graphic than some of the European takes on the same legend made during the same decade (such as Jorge Grau’s THE LEGEND OF BLOOD CASTLE/THE FEMALE BUTCHER and Walerian Borowczyk’s IMMORAL TALES). But Hammer was never known for excessive violence (especially considering how far more grisly horror films became by the mid 1970s), so the film works fine as a beautifully crafted period drama with enough splats of blood and horrific elements (it can be quite chilling), and there’s also enough glimpses of nudity to make even ardent Hammer fans blush. Since Pitt’s character has to bath in blood, the actress is not shy about taking her clothes off and she has an absolutely stunning figure. Things get more gratuitous as the Countess’ victims are often found topless and Andrea Lawrence (who was also in Hammer’s FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL) plays a village whore brought to the castle, upping the naked factor with her screen time (the image of the bosomy Lawrence is mistakenly passed off as the Countess in the U.S. ads and on the posters).
Indeed a lavish-looking Hammer production, COUNTESS DRACULA benefits from another stellar performance by Pitt. Through old-age make-up and her true loveliness, she essentially plays two characters caught between hopeless romance 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 in Hammer's filmography. Excellent support is given by Maurice Denham (PARANOIAC), Patience Collier (PERFECT FRIDAY), Peter Jeffrey (THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES), and especially the great Green, who sadly died shortly after the film's release. Nikke Arrighi, the beautiful French-born lead actress in Hammer’s THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, has a memorable cameo as an exotic fortune-telling gypsy who becomes fodder for the Countess’ blood-letting. Director Peter Sasdy carries over the innovative style he exercised in the masterful TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA, and the moody music by Harry Robinson (who also scored THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, LUST FOR A VAMPIRE and TWINS OF EVIL) is a real high point.
Previously available on DVD in the U.S. on a dual-sided Midnite Movies set with THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, COUNTESS DRACULA has now been given deluxe Blu-ray treatment from Synapse Films. With MGM’s previous DVD releasing being a non-anamorphic transfer, their newish HD master has been utilized here (the Lion roars after the Rank Organization logo) and looks quite the pretty picture on the Blu-ray format. The new 1080p video preserves the film in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, boasting more picture information than the old DVD. With lovely colors, the image is crisp in detail, has excellent fleshtones, nice contrasts and deep black levels. Grain is evident in some scenes, as is some fleeting speckling on the source print, but neither is at all distractive and needless to say, COUNTESS DRACULA has never looked better on home video. The English audio is presented in a DTS-HD Master 2.0 channel mix, which sounds absolutely fine, and there are optional English subtitles included. A standard DVD containing the same HD transfer and the same supplements has also been included in the package. Note that when 20th Century Fox released COUNTESS DRACULA here theatrically in 1972, they cut it in order to secure a "PG" rating (as they did to its co-feature, VAMPIRE CIRCUS). Although the packaging says "PG" (much like MGM’s initial press run of DVDs) this is the uncut British version with the nudity and gore intact.
Carried over from the 2003 MGM DVD is an impressive and informative commentary with Pitt, director Sasdy and screenwriter Paul, moderated by writer Jonathan Sothcott (sadly, both Pitt and Paul have passed on since the time of the recording). 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 (her displeasures and disappointment while making the film have been documented in various interviews over the years). A new featurette, “Immortal Countess: The Cinematic Life Of Ingrid Pitt” (10:47) has been produced for this release by Daniel Griffith and Ballyhoo Motion Pictures. It includes interviews with Hammer historian Ted Newsom, Pitt biographer Robert Cotter, Little Shop of Horrors editor Richard Klemensen and actor/director Mark Redfield (THE DEATH OF POE), all who justify her icon status, despite the fact she only appeared in a handful of films. The documentary discusses her early life, early films (THE SOUND OF HORROR), her first major film role (WHERE EAGLES DARE) and her memorable work for Hammer. A lengthy still gallery reveals many rarely seen production photos and behind-the-scenes shots, as well as posters and lobby cards. An archival audio Interview with Ingrid Pitt (8:30) has the actress talking about her uncredited role in DR. ZHIVAGO and her work in the horror genre to a British journalist (and she professes her love for Great Britain, which is where she was living at the time). The original British trailer rounds out the extras. On the other side of the reversible cover is the very erotic artwork depicting the German poster for the film. (George R. Reis)
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