Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Countess Dracula (1971)

Director: Peter Sasdy                                      Writer: Jeremy Paul
Film Score: Harry Robertson                           Cinematography: Kenneth Talbot
Starring: Ingrid Pitt, Nigel Green, Sandor Elés and Lesley-Ann Down

By the seventies Hammer Films was a pale ghost of what it had been in the late fifties. The reason for that is the departure of so much of the talent that had made those classic films. There was a breathless excitement to the films then, garish color and theatrical sets along with a palpable confidence that leapt off the screen. A decade and a half later, however, the studio was resorting to nudity to draw audiences. Though with horror films being given an X rating by the British Board of Film anyway, why not? Countess Dracula is a perfect example of this phenomenon. In fact, the story is so watered down that the main character isn’t even a real vampire. Instead, she must bathe in the blood of virgin women in order to retain her youth. The story is based on the real life Countess Elizabeth Báthory from Hungary who had reputedly killed and tortured hundreds of women between 1858 and 1610 when she was arrested. The real number of victims was likely less than a hundred. Still, rumors began circulating almost at once that she had killed over six hundred women and that she often bathed in their blood.

The film begins as many Hammer films do, with a a prologue and a funeral. This time it’s a simple matter of Sandor Elés arriving on horseback, late for the funeral. The countess, Ingrid Pitt, has lost her husband and Elés is there for the reading of the will. After the credits roll over still, tinted photographs, the procession makes its way back to the castle, killing a peasant in the process. At the reading of the will Pitt is to share the estate with her daughter, Lesley-Ann Down, and Elés is given the stables while the keeper of the castle, Nigel Green, is given nothing. Though Green has been carrying on an affair with Pitt for years, now that she has her freedom she’s not so sure she still wants him. After sending him away in a rage, she cuts the face of a servant but the blood that splashed on Pitt’s cheek has restored her youth to it. The next day, Pitt is young again, and tells Green that she wants the inheritance all to herself and he plans a phony kidnapping of Down before she gets to the castle. Pitt then passes herself off as her own daughter in order to make a play for Elés. But when the effect wears off, it throws her into a panic and she realizes she must continually refresh her rejuvenation by obtaining the blood of young women.

Like so many Hammer films of this era there’s seemingly nothing wrong with the ideas, but the execution can only be described as tepid. Even their early films that were not strictly horror had more suspense and excitement than this. At one point in the film there is even a gypsy carnival that comes to the village, cribbed from numerous Universal horror films, but without James Bernard or a composer of equal stature to bring the scene to life through the music it adds very little to the production. The ending has an interesting twist, but it’s not realized very well. Instead of using it for shock value, it telegraphs the ending and then takes a long time to reach that point. The acting in Hammer films was never first-tier, with the exception of the leads, but this film has no one who fits that bill. Ingrid Pitt is not a good actress and her terror at being old is never very convincing. So much time is wasted in the film that could have been used to better effect showing her gradual conversion at first, and emphasizing her transformation. But that was not done. Lesley-Ann Down had real potential, but her part was not well written. Countess Dracula is not a bad film, per se, especially considering the low expectations one must have coming in. But on the whole it is rather underwhelming.

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