Peter Sasdy, 1971
Starring: Ingrid Pitt, Nigel Green, Sandor Eles, Maurice Denham
Based on the story of Erzsébet Báthory, the "blood Countess" who bathed in the blood of hundreds of virgins to keep herself young, Countess Dracula tells of an aged noble who has discovered that the blood of virgins will make her young again. After her husband's death, she discards her old lover, the faithful Captain Dobi, for the newest member of court: the lovely Imre Toth. The cruel, selfish Countess becomes obsessed with him, stopping at nothing to appear young and beautiful. Her daughter Ilona is due to return home from abroad, but the Countess assumes the younger woman’s identity to cover for her altered appearance. This, of course, leads to problems for the real Ilona, who must be kidnapped and hidden away. But the castle historian grows suspicious and the local villagers soon notice that their daughters are disappearing at an alarming rate.
Countess Dracula is a later Hammer effort, certainly one of their last gasps, and while it’s enjoyable, it’s far from one of their best. The unfortunate title is a cheap attempt to tie the film to Hammer's Dracula series — or possibly to its Karnstein trilogy — but Countess Dracula is far more of a historical melodrama than it is a Gothic horror film. Bafflingly, most of the running time is spent on the Countess’s romantic drama — particularly her love triangle with Dobi and Toth — and slight political intrigue in the sense that that she is a single woman trying to maintain control of the court and her own fortune.
I think this is a real missed opportunity, because the story of the historical Countess Bathory is far, far more gruesome and horrific. Responsible for the torture and deaths of hundreds of young girls around the Hungarian countryside over a period of 20+ years, Bathory is undoubtedly history’s most famous female sexual sadist. She’s even in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most prolific female murderer. While Pitt’s portrayal of Countess Nadasdy is certainly cruel, there are only a few shots of her committing acts of violence. Compared to later era Hammer films like Hands of the Ripper or even To the Devil a Daughter, it’s oddly restrained and, more than anything, frustrating.
The supernatural twist — where the Countess is magically transformed into a younger woman when submersed in virginal blood — is also never further explored or explained, which is a little confounding. It’s equally strange that none of the other characters experiment by taking a dip in a bathtub full of virginal blood, despite the fact that several of the major characters are of advanced years. For instance, it would solve a lot of Captain Dobi’s problems with the Countess if he could suddenly be young again too. These sorts of plot holes and lazy writing peppers the film, leaving many questions unanswered or unexplored.
Even more frustratingly, it’s also unclear who the film’s real protagonist is. Countess Dracula doesn't have a proper focus and struggles with making the Countess evil and sympathetic in turns, with focus also thrown on Imre Toth and the Countess’s daughter Ilona. But Ingrid Pitt is always enjoyable and gives the dual roles — the old and young Countess — plenty of charm and color. It was Pitt's last film for Hammer Studios, which is unfortunate, as it clearly marks the end of an era. It’s also a little strange not to see the cast packed with Hammer regulars, but there are solid supporting performances from Nigel Green (The Masque of the Red Death) and Sandor Elès (And Soon the Darkness).
Despite its flaws, Countess Dracula is still enjoyable and actually makes a solid double feature with the somewhat superior Rasputin, another of Hammer’s efforts that straddles the line between historical drama and Gothic horror. Like most Hammer films, Countess Dracula is a lovely production full of vivid color and lush costumes. It greatly benefits from borrowing sets from Anne of a Thousand Days, which helps to gloss over the film’s lower budget. Countess Dracula is available as part of the MGM Midnite Movies double feature with The Vampire Lovers, or on Blu-ray. Both releases contain some nice special features including commentary from Ingrid Pitt. If you aren't a seasoned Hammer fan, skip this one, but otherwise it is at least worth a rental. There's nothing quite like seeing Ingrid Pitt give herself a nude sponge bath in a tub full of blood.