Monday, June 19, 2006

Countess Dracula - review


Director: Peter Sasdy

Release Date: 1971

Contains spoilers

Having nothing at all to do with the Dracula cycle, this film takes its cue from the historical Erzsébet Báthory. In this case Countess Elizabeth, as it is anglicised, is played by Ingrid Pitt. There is some name confusion, the film does not credit a surname but imdb have listed her with the surname Nodosheen (the name of her unseen late husband, in the movie). Yet the film makes it quite clear that she is a Báthory and historically Erzsébet retained her familial name rather than take her husband’s, owing to the fact that her family where much more powerful than his.

As this is about Báthory you will not see a single bite in this movie and the Countess is very much alive. This is about bathing in blood to regain youth. It is also, I’m afraid, deathly boring. Not because of the type of vampire we are dealing with, i.e. not a supernatural entity, but because of the direction, the script and the acting. We should also note that Pitt was dubbed through the entire film.

The film starts with a funeral, attended late by Imre Toth (Sandor Elès) a young Lieutenant who has been summoned to the funeral at the request of the dead Count, owing to the fact that he is named in the will. The funeral party rides back to the castle and a peasant grabs the side of the coach begging the Countess for work. He is whipped off by Captain Dobi (Nigel Green) and run over. As they enter the castle a peasant woman shouts “Devil woman”

At the reading of the will the young Lieutenant, whose father had saved the Count’s life, is given all his horses, the stables and a small cottage. Fabio (Maurice Denham), the historian, is given the library, Dobi is given some suits of armour and weapons and the bulk of the estate is split between the Countess and her daughter Illona (Lesley-Anne Down), who has not returned yet from Vienna where she has lived since she was a young child.

The Countess returns to her room for a bath, where Dobi confesses his love and says he has waited twenty years for her. He is sent out as she wishes to bathe but the water is too hot, so she admonishes the maid, scolding her hand and then hitting her and causing the maid to cut her own face, the rather fake looking orange blood splashing across Elisabeth. She realises that the blood has made her young where it has touched her and by the next day the maid has vanished.

As her daughter is due to arrive she arranges for the coach to be attacked, under the watchful eye of Dobi, and Illona to be abducted and hidden – leading to several pointless scenes of Illona held prisoner through the movie. Elizabeth then takes Illona’s place and seduces Imre. She plans an illicit meeting with him, but ages during it and runs off and arranges for her maid Julie (Patience Collier) to get her another victim, this time a fortune teller with a visiting circus, whom she stabs in the neck with a rather long hair pin.

As things go on Elizabeth (in the guise of Illona) becomes engaged to Imre, and both Dobi and Julie are led deeper into her web of murder and deceit. Julie wants her mistress to be happy and Dobi is promised sexual favour, although his motivation seems to be more misplaced love. Each time Elizabeth ages she looks older than the last and seems utterly demented when she is in her old form. She kills a whore, Ziza (Andrea Lawrence), but the blood does not work. However all has been observed by Fabio and he tells the Countess that virgin’s blood is needed. Despite helping the Countess he is then observed, by Dobi, on the verge of spilling the beans. He is hanged and the murder is set up to look like suicide and then evidence planted to tie him to the murder of the fortune teller (the only body so far found).

Imre, however, is shown the truth of Illona/Elizabeth by Dobi and he is blackmailed by Elizabeth into still marrying her. Thus they are all held in the castle when the bailiffs, having found the other bodies, ‘investigate’ the crime. Dobi has brought another victim back and, as women are banned from the castle until the killer is found, sneaked her in. It is Illona. However Elizabeth does not need her before her wedding. At the wedding she ages and attacks the nearby Illona, who was being spirited away by Julie but insisted on investigating the wedding ceremony, Imre gets in the way and is killed. The film ends with Elizabeth in a dungeon awaiting the hangman (Báthory was actually walled into a room of her castle) with a peasant woman outside hissing “Countess Dracula”.

Well I was bored when I first watched this, bored when I revisited it for the review and bored as I wrote the synopsis, hence it not being as exacting as most of the other Hammer reviews so far. This is the biggest flaw in the movie. Báthory was a serial killer and if half of what is commonly held about her is true, then her story would make a fascinating and disturbing movie of sadistic proportions. In this case it is a yawn fest, there are courtly intrigues which are simply not intriguing and a plot about replacing her daughter that leaves the audience cold.

Other than Pitt there is a failure to provide any outstanding performance and we are so cold to the principle characters that we could not care what happens to any of them. Half the fault of this is the script. For example we know Dobi is driven by his love for Elizabeth and we also know he tries to talk her out of her path but then the obstacles he throws in her path are so half-hearted they are pointless. The film goes to great pain to ensure we know that Fabio is aware of what is going on; he is taken into the ‘inner circle’ and yet, out of nowhere betrays them. Worse, he is murdered by Dobi who then, virtually straight away, reveals to Imre the very thing Fabio was killed for trying to reveal. It doesn’t add up, whichever way you look at it. Pitt, however, is great when turned back into old Elizabeth crying dementedly, spiteful, dour and thoroughly despicable. When young she portrays a more care-free character, but one who is, beneath it all, a complete bitch.

The costumes are laughable. Actually that is unfair; it is just that Imre’s giant hat sticks out as a truly memorable moment for all the wrong reasons. There is the occasional flash of skin and a belly dancing routine but those fail to titillate as we are already in torpor.

One of the nudity scenes actually becomes painful to watch. Dobi takes Imre into the Countess’ rooms to see what he is marrying and finds Elizabeth, stood naked in her bath and washing with blood. Now the sight of Miss Pitt in all her glory, circa 1971, should be enough to make grown men weep but the scene is utterly spoilt. As she realises that they are there, Elizabeth covers her body in an almost comic fashion, hiding her modesty and the scene becomes almost reminiscent of a Carry On, with the actions bringing the antics of Barbara Windsor to mind. This scene, in my opinion, was not one that should have been used for either titillation or seaside-postcard comedy. The scene should have been one of horror, tinged with ice-cold stateliness. Elizabeth, at this point, has killed four women (a paltry kill rate is you consider that Erzsébet is supposed to have killed over 600 in her ‘career’) and she is a Countess. Actually her nudity should have been hidden in blood anyway, lots of blood, not just a little to give the hint and she should still have been a commanding figure, angry maybe but ultimately dismissive of the intrusion – as the director, too late, tried to make her when she put her robe on and Imre tries to reject her. It seems a shame that the atrocious film Eternal (2004) should have included a scene of blood bathing and made it visually superior to this in every way.

This truly is the low of Hammer vampire movies and I am giving it a very poor 2 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

1 comment:

Mark said...

Truly terrible (the movie, not the review).

Great potential gone to waste.