COUNTESS DRACULA (director/writer: Peter Sasdy; screenwriters: from the book “The Bloody Countess” by Valentine Penrose/ story devised by Alexander Paal & Jeremy Paul; cinematographer: Ken Talbot; editor: Henry Richardson; music: Harry Robinson; cast: Ingrid Pitt (Countess Elisabeth Nadasdy), Nigel Green (Captain Dobi), Sandor Elès (Imre Toth), Maurice Denham (Master Fabio), Patience Collier (Julie), Lesley-Anne Down (Ilona), Peter Jeffrey (Captain Balogh), Nike Arrighi (Gypsy Girl), Susan Brodrick (Teri, Chambermaid); Runtime: 94; Rank/Hammer; 1970-UK)
“It’s a Hammer production, so you know what to expect (or you should!).”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
It’s a Hammer production, so you know what to expect (or you should!). Despite the title, it has nothing to do with Dracula or precious little to do with vampirism. This is the second feature of the Hungarian-born director, Peter Sasdy (“Taste the Blood of Dracula (69)“), and this feature follows in the elegantly styled and flamboyantly romantic tone of his first film. It’s lusciously photographed in Technicolor, but its production values suffer because of the overall leaden acting and cheap sets and weak direction.
Sasdy tells in a visually intensive manner the 16th-century historical story of the pernicious Hungarian widow, Countess Elisabeth Bathory — who used to bathe in the blood of slain virgins in an attempt to become young again. It was never said that she met with success, but that won’t stop Hammer from embellishing its tale.
The film opens as the will to Countess Elisabeth Nadasdy’s (Ingrid Pitt) late husband is read. The Count leaves his library to the castle scholar, Fabio (Denham). The Count leaves his uniforms and arms to Captain Dobi (Nigel Green), whom he knew was his wife’s lover. The Count leaves his loyal servant, Julie (Patience Collier), permanent lodging in his house and a large sum of money. The Count leaves to the young hussar, Imre Toth (Sandor Elès), the son of the late general who saved his life and was his best friend, a house on his property and his stable and all his 50 or more horses. To his wife and daughter Ilona (Lesley-Anne Down), he divides the estate in half.
The nasty Countess yells at the chambermaid (Brodrick) for making her bath too hot and when she drops the peelings of a fruit on the floor, she slaps her and the maid cuts her face as the knife is pushed against it. This causes a splatter of blood to cover the Countess’s cheek, but she notices she looks younger on that spot.
The Countess conspires with Julie to be taken to the maid’s room where she kills the maid offscreen, as Julie decides to go along with her boss’ mad scheme out of a twisted sense of loyalty. Surprisingly, the Countess finds that her youth is restored when she washes herself in her victim’s blood. This leads her to masquerade as her daughter Ilona. The Countess’s late hubby’s major domo, Dobi, the one who loves her no matter what, gets thugs to kidnap Ilona on the horse carriage she’s taken to the castle, and they then hold her captive in a hideout. The Countess then gets the lovesick Dobi to agree to go along with her posing as Ilona, as she’s obsessed with becoming young and snaring the handsome Imre. The hussar, thinking she’s Ilona, falls in love with her youthful beauty and courts her, and soon a marriage is arranged. But the Countess finds she needs a constant supply of virgin girls, as her youthful look doesn’t last long. When her youth fades, the Countess looks like an ugly old hag with hideous marks over her face. Dobi’s third sacrificial offering to the Evil One is the local whore, but soaking herself in her blood doesn’t work. She was someone Dobi set the dumb Imre up with to show the Countess he can’t be trusted. This comes after their second success with a gypsy fortune teller (Arrighi), who had the bad fortune of having a hairpin stuck into her neck by the Countess.
The wormy scholar Fabio is spotted snooping around the castle, but he’s more interested in his books than the victims. To save himself from Dobi, he tells the Countess about the secret book in the library — which says only the blood of virgins will do. Fabio’s rewarded with money for his help and for his continued silence, but before he can betray her Dobi hangs him and makes it look like a suicide. But the police captain, Balogh (Peter Jeffrey), believes it was murder and makes all the servants leave the castle. The peasants were treated like peasants at all times, while the nobility seemingly gets away with murdering several of the worthless peasants. In one such revolting incident, the Countess runs over a peasant in her cart and doesn’t even stop to look at the dead body.
Meanwhile, Imre finds out the truth about his bride; Ilona escapes; and, the cunning Dobi justifies his helping the Countess to get married to someone else because it will only benefit him in the long run — it’s inevitable that she’ll run out of virgins and have to go back to him because no young man would want her looking so old. Dobi is willing to accept her as she is, though he would have liked sleeping with her once when she was young and glowing.
Warning: spoiler to follow in the next paragraph.
Imre feels he has no choice but to go through with the wedding because he’s being blackmailed and realizes that Dobi will kill him if he tries to bow out. But he gets Julie to help the child she raised from birth, Ilona, escape and wait for him by the stables. At the wedding ceremony the Countess reverts back to her old and ugly self at the altar and when she spots her daughter there, who is too stupid to follow orders and not attend the wedding, the Countess tries to knife her and rejuvenate herself with her virgin blood. But Imre intervenes and he gets knifed to death, instead of her. The last scene has the withered Countess looking out from behind bars in a dark dungeon, as the film ends with her discontented look frozen in time.
The film was noteworthy for showing how corrupt those times were. Also, Ingrid Pitt gave a pretty fair performance as both a lustful young sexpot and as an obsessed woman worried about her age, who is prepared to kill anyone so she can get what she wants. These minor plusses do not override how stagnant the film still felt and how bloody awful were the other co-stars — Sandor Elès and Lesley-Anne Down. He was stiffer than a corpse. She couldn’t have been more bland, it was as if she was a robot trying to talk.
REVIEWED ON 8/11/2002 GRADE: C
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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