31 Days of Horror: Film 31: Countess Dracula (1971)

It’s time for the 31 Days of Horror: 2014 Edition. For those of you who weren’t around for last year’s journey, the plan is to watch at least 31 horror movies I’ve never seen before and review them all. So sit back, strap in, and enjoy my journey down the rabbit hole.

There was something so much more entertaining about Hammer Films’ productions when the lack of a ratings system caused them to hold back just a bit on their more lurid aspects. When the ’70s rolled around and the company was free to indulge in gratuitous nudity, it feels like their storytelling ambitions, production values, and general craftsmanship suffered. I can imagine a memo going around the company asking why bother with setting up a beautiful shot to highlight atmosphere when you can just show a topless woman? It’s easier and more cost-effective. Countess Dracula, while a passably entertaining film, is a good example of this downward trend.

Set in an unnamed medieval village, it’s actually not a vampire film—at least not in the traditional Hammer use of the word. Following her husband’s death, Countess Elisabeth Nádasdy (Ingrid Pitt in old age makeup), is left frustrated. Her husband split up his considerable fortune between her, their teenaged daughter Ilona (Lesley-Anne Down) who has been living abroad for several years, and Imre Toth (Sandor Elès), the adult son of his best friend. Part of the reason for this is that her husband truly had affection for Ilona and Imre, but also to punish Elisabeth for cheating on him for years with Captain Dobi (Nigel Green).

Elisabeth accidentally makes the discovery that bathing in the blood of young women can restore her youth. She has Ilona kidnapped and held captive before she can return home and presents herself to the townspeople—and Imre, in particular—as her daughter. But while she seduces Imre, she discovers that she needs to bathe in blood more and more often to maintain her youthful appearance. With the help of Captain Dobi, she abducts and murders young women from the village. But how long can she keep up the ruse? And how many young women can disappear before the authorities finally listen to the rumors about the evil countess?

The case of real-life Countess Elizabeth Báthory—who actually did bathe in the blood of young women in the late 16th century—has been the inspiration for several horror films over the years. Countess Dracula doesn’t find any new or interesting ways to approach the story. This lack of imagination isn’t the film’s most disappointing aspect. The oddly subdued performance by Pitt and the workmanlike approach of director Peter Sasdy are the real letdowns. While the hammy supporting cast lives up to the Hammer standard, almost everything else about the film feels cheap and thrown together—indicative of the decline of the once powerful company.

There is fun to be had with the film with some welcome humor—sadly, a lot of it is unintentional. For instance, no one seems to bat an eye when the 33-year-old Pitt claims to be a teenager. And where did Elisabeth get a sponge the size of a manhole cover in a rural 16th century village? And why did her late husband have so many helpful books about blood sacrifices in his library? It’s not a sign of a well-made film that my mind wandered to such thoughts.

Maybe I’m being too hard on Countess Dracula. Green does have fun chewing the scenery as the jealous Captain Dobi and there is some nice location photography. But overall, it’s a disappointing film that is silly in its attempts to link to Hammer’s Dracula films. This one is for ultra-loyal Hammer fans only.

You can contact me at obsessivemovienerd@gmail.com and read all the extraneous crap that goes through my head by following me on Twitter.

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