Tuesday, October 07, 2014

31 Days of Fright: COUNTESS DRACULA (1971)

With Halloween right around the corner it's little surprise that the studios are trotting out their horror flicks for a movie audience looking to be scared silly. DRACULA UNTOLD – a new take on the Dracula legend that might end up dovetailing with Universal's rebooted monster universe – premieres this Friday, but we asked Chuck Francisco to take a trip back in time to the early 1970s for a look at the recent Synapse Films release of COUNTESS DRACULA.

By the 1970s Hammer Studios faced an increasingly difficult cinematic horror landscape, leaving them empty coffered. A red tide of bloodlust swept across the American movie market, breaking over with Romero's Night of the Living Dead in 1968, then growing steadily more splatter-centric as films competed to up the ante. Stuck between the dagger-equipped doors of shifting snuff sensibilities and the lethally spiked backing of the English censors, Hammer was quickly being engulfed in an iron maiden of irrelevance. Far from being an inert body to rest in piece, Hammer unnaturally extended their life by drastically increasing the one element they had unrestricted control over: the nudity quotient.

Branching out from the reliable stable of Dracula and Frankenstein (who no one wished to see in the buff), Hammer decided to water the seed of a much lesser known (at the time) monster, this one actually real. Despite the title, COUNTESS DRACULA details the exploits of Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who believed that bathing in the blood of virginal girls was the key to eternal youth. By most reckonings the true countess tortured and murdered at least 600 girls before meeting a horrific brand of justice that would make Edgar Allen Poe giddy (ok, maybe morose and misanthropic). The writers at Hammer keep the primary thrust intact, but come at it from a slightly different angle.

COUNTESS DRACULA sees the titular Elizabeth, a shriveled old woman (the lovely Ingrid Pitt hidden beneath heavy makeup), recently widowed. We open on her late husband's funeral and are quickly whisked ahead to the execution of his will. Of those gathered to receive the good stuff, only one is an outsider: the upstanding Lt. Imre Toth (Sandor Eles, who was also in personal favorite THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN). Toth is the son of the late count's army BFF, and is bequeathed all of his horses, the stables, and the adjacent cottage. This angers Captain Dobi the castle steward, who himself receives only a paltry amount. Played by leonine British actor Nigel Green (Hercules in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS!), he has been in amorous waiting for the lady Elizabeth to be single and open to his advances for twenty years. Green's performance is the deepest and most engaging of the film.

After an angry outburst against a servant slings a splash of blood on her face, the countess comes to realize that the blood of young girls will return her to youthful vitality. Now, with the help of her maidservant and Dobi, Elizabeth conspires to compulsively kill young girls to remain youthful, kindle a romance with Lt. Toth (whom she is enamored by), and arrange the kidnapping of her daughter in the countryside so that she can continue impersonating her. It's a complex spider web of deceit, and all of the moving pieces guarantee that the plot will come crashing down around the characters in spectacular fashion (which it absolutely does), but not before there's plenty of lovely nudity to titillate and tease.

While this isn't as maligned a title as something like CAPTAIN KRONOS: VAMPIRE HUNTER, it does nonetheless belong to that later Hammer era which is generally looked down upon in a poor light. This has always seemed odd to me, as the films themselves continue to come with far more lavish gothic trappings than their budgets would ever belie, and the style is always substantive. COUNTESS DRACULA has gotten more adoration recently in retrospect, and deservedly so. This is a solidly tense love triangle murder fest, with interesting and quirky characters, lavish sets and costumes, and all the nudity you could shake your stick at (just don't do so in public).

On the technical front, Synapse Films offers up a vividly color saturated transfer which retains the rich film grain texture that pings the nostalgia pleasure points of all true genre film lovers. A superb feature detailing the cinematic life of Ingrid Pitt (who only recently passed away in 2010) is the best of the special features offered. Also included are a commentary track featuring Pitt, director Peter Sasdy, screenwriter Jeremy Paul, and author Jonathan Sothcott, an archival audio interview with Pitt, reversible cover art, and more. This release is a DVD/Blu-ray combo pack, so you can enjoy it in pretty much any setup at your house unless you're still rocking a solo VCR somewhere.

COUNTESS DRACULA has a very specific Hammer fan niche to which it appeals. Those folks should race to pick this up before it's bled dry out of print, as should anyone who enjoys the stylish vibrancy of Hammer horror or those who are still exploring all that the studio has to offer. If you're generally not a fan of Hammer then this is certainly a pass, though I earnestly suggest you give earlier films from their house another go.

Chuck Francisco is a columnist and critic for Mania.com, writing Shock-O-Rama. He is a co-curator of several repertoire film series at the world famous Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA. An avid beer brewer, rock climber, and video gamer, you can hear him drop nerd knowledge on weekly podcast You've Got Geek, and follow him on twitter @CyanideRush. He recently wrote about Nazi Zombies, Spaghetti Westerns and American Hippies for Exploitation Retrospect #52 (available from our website).

COUNTESS DRACULA is available at Amazon.

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