The most infamous woman in history you didn’t know about
Countess Dracula (1971) could be the most underrated Hammer horror film ever made, one I never knew was based on real life female serial killer. This movie was loosely based on the life of a noblewoman named Elizabeth Bathory from the 16th century. She was responsible for the sadistic torture and murder of many young girls, and the rumor is that she bathed in the blood of virgins to remain young. The number of victims has never been formally published, but some accounts say the “Blood Countess” killed up to 650 women. The movie is tame by comparison, which is a surprising thing to say, because it is usually the movies taking things to the extreme. Not so in this case.
The history of Elizabeth Bathory gives this movie a different allure and status in the Hammer horror library. The true, historical context is something unique, although the movie has all the usual Hammer tropes. The set pieces are all good and gothic in appearance. There’s a dark, foreboding castle in the movie like in every other Hammer film and an eerie tone. The costumes are decent and the set pieces are good.
The problem with this movie is the mixed content. The horror and gothic aspects are great, but get ready for another dialogue heavy movie, reminiscent of something from years ago made by Universal. There are also plenty of naked women, which was different from earlier Hammer movies that were carried by stars like Christopher Lee and tried to create a specific tone. Hammer used more nudity and blood in place of old stars in the 70s, which may have contributed to their decline.
The movie alludes to Dracula in the title, but has nothing to do with him whatsoever. It is a fairly one-sided picture, in that the Countess is evil with no redeeming qualities, but she’s the one in most of the picture. There’s no Peter Cushing around to root for and off-set this, so you’re left watching the Countess slice and dice for a living, while the rest of the cast bumble around for a while.
Ingrid Pitt has fun playing the insane Countess. She’s really evil. However, because of her one-dimensional nature, she discovers the bloody fountain of youth and that’s about all that happens. She really does her best to entertain us with her beauty obsession, using a sponge to soak up the blood to apply to her body.
A young Lieutenent Toth is as close as it gets to a sympathetic character. Toth is played by a young Sandor Eles, a virtual unknown. He was a British actor and appeared in many BBC productions. His performance is decent enough, but he lacks the edge and intelligence of Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing character. He’s there to be innocent obviously, and be gallant in the end. That’s it. He’s a victim until then, pretty much.
Nigel Green as Captain Dobi arguably has better lines of dialogue. He gets a better billing in the credits, although he is only in half of the movie. He thinks the Countess is a wacko though, but is twisted into her plot anyway.
Maurice Denham plays Master Fabio, the comedy relief in the movie. His part is totally unnecessary and grating. The comedy doesn’t work, except in ways that reminded me of Monty Python. In the 70s, it was his thing to be the old guy of reason, and he played the same part in several horror movies in a row. He had a small part in The Day of the Jackal (1973), a much better movie.
Director Peter Sasdy doesn’t move this darn movie. Pace it out right, man. There is a scene between Toth and the Countess with some emotion, then the movie breaks into a musical number. What happened to Toth? Where’s his reaction? What’s he thinking? The Countess poses as her own daughter Ilona for most of the movie, which leaves the real thing in limbo. The real Ilona just whines and sits around a cabin while her mother has fun being young. Nothing happens. Lesley-Anne Down has nothing to work with in her role as Ilona until the end of the darn movie.
Nigel Green’s contributions to the middle and end of the movie are the best part. He fetches some virgins from the market, buying them like turkeys, and aids the Countess in becoming a young woman until her blood ritual wears off. He has a great scene with Toth toward the end of the movie, and the two argue. Dobi tells him off, then the Countess tells him off. Toth literally becomes a whipping boy, the most manipulated man in the movie.
The movie gets better and delivers a twist with impact. Dobi is forced to deliver more and more virgins to the Countess, but decides to betray her. He locks up the real Ilona in the tower, ready to pass her off as the latest virgin. This causes the maid and Toth to worry for her life, and they are unable to go on being deceitful accomplices. Lesley-Anne Down finally has a good scene, though her performance still is not very good. Toth helps Ilona escape, but she rushes in to confront her mother like a ninny. The Countess wields a dagger like a supervillain and stabs Toth as he gets in the way, killing him. She ends the movie old and alone, confined to a small cell.
All in all, this is not the best movie around, but it has good spots and reminded me of classic Hammer. Ingrid Pitt and Nigel Green contribute a lot to the movie and carry most of the scenes, but it needed a sympathetic lead. Pitt mostly goes over the top, but Green makes up for it by being understated and grim. Mostly, Countess Dracula is what you expect, a B-Movie with campy acting and an over-the-top script, though we might as well blame real life for that.