Countess Dracula (1971) Review (Network Blu-ray)

Network Distributing, in April 2013, began a five-year plan to release over 450 vintage British films as part of their “British Film Collection”, with titles from studios such as Ealing Studios, Associated Talking Press, London Films, ABPC, British Lion and Hammer Studios, among others. Many of these titles have been unavailable to buy prior, and will feature new transfers and a selection of features.

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Legendary director, and Hammer mainstay, Peter Sasdy (Hands of the Ripper) wiped the blood from the lens and dusted the spider-webs from the tripod to create this classic gothic horror film, based on the tale of Elizabeth Bathory, a Hungarian historical figure who it is said bathed in the blood of virgins in order to maintain a youthful complexion and restore her to a young age.

Made during the later and less-beloved years of Hammer Studios, Countess Dracula remains a cult classic to this day. Though Hammer’s heyday was the late-fifties through to the end of the sixties, with later titles not hitting the same mark that previous years has seen, this is still one that is spoken of warmly by fans, and one that I truly enjoyed upon seeing it for the first time.

A tale of delusion, betrayal and obsession, Ingrid Pitt (The Vampire Lovers, The Wicker Man) all but plays two characterisations of the same person here, an old, withered and cantankerous lady who becomes a young, vivacious and beautiful woman with energy and a sensual provocative aura. Her performance is excellent, and Pitt brings a ton of infectious fun to the part, not to mention the fact that she isn’t exactly hard to look at. Pitt was 34 at the time of filming, and looked fantastic as Countess Elisabeth Nadasdy.

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Intending to inherit the entirety of her late husbands will by acting as both mother and daughter named within the document, Countess Elisabeth manipulates the infatuated Captain Dobi (Nigel Green) into carrying out her evil deeds. Helped in her mission to remain youthful by her servant, Julie (Patience Collier), Countess Elisabeth also plans to marry the young Lieutenant Toth (Sandor Eles), much to the displeasure of the besotted Captain. Willing to sacrifice her own daughter, Ilona (Lesley-Anne Down), the Countess manipulates those around her in order to get what she wants, and remain young eternally. When the locals begin to sense something terrible is happening, and the Countess attempts to marry Lt. Toth, the story comes to a head and her secret is uncovered.

Shot at Pinewood in London on sets originally designed for Anne of the Thousand Days (1969) it’s obvious why the set designs were typical of various gothic tales that came out in the sixties and seventies, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t look good, because it does. The dark corridors, the sweeping staircases. The hundreds of candles and big iron chandeliers amidst adornments of suits of armour. It all goes to creating a really classic backdrop.

The cast is an experienced one too, and they all do a marvellous job. Besides Pitt, who steals the show as the lead, Nigel Green (Zulu), as Captain Dobi, Sandor Eles (The Evil of Frankenstein), as Toth, Maurice Denham (Animal Farm) as Master Fabio, Patience Collier (Perfect Friday) as Julie, and Lesley-Anne Down (The Great Train Robbery) as the Countess’s daughter Ilona Nadasdy, all do a splendid job at bringing quality to the screen, with a well penned script from writer Jeremy Paul. It is also worth noting how inspired and well-done the direction was here, especially in the scenes where the Countess changed from being young to old. Special Effects designer Bert Luxford (200 Motels) deserves remembering for his work on helping Pitt transform from a wrinkled, wart-chinned old lady to a glowing and pure-skinned young woman.

I did feel like some potential went unmet within this film, specifically the premise of the Countess bathing in virgin’s blood, a scene we never actually witness and is only hinted at. I feel like there was a missed opportunity of a film-stealing and iconic gothic horror scene if Pitt were to bathe in a bath of blood during the film. This, along with the film playing out a little like a historical drama more than it does a gothic horror film, much of the time, meant it slipped below being excellent and settled on just being a very good Hammer title that I will surely revisit in the future. Absorbing, mysterious and with an overtone of doom that was a signature of Hammer’s films, this is one I was pleasantly surprised with. Pitt alone, arguably Hammer’s best ever leading-lady, is reason enough to give this a watch, her delusional and magnificently malevolent Countess is a joy to watch.

Network have done a terrific job with their release of the film, and it is a truly magnificent thing to see that they are releasing some of the well-remembered, and somewhat-forgotten, classics from Hammer on Blu-ray. It looks lovely with its brand-new HD transfer, and the sound is clear and crisp. The special features on the disc are also an excellent mix. An audio commentary from Ingrid Pitt, Kim Newman and Stephen Jones, archive interview with Pitt, a theatrical trailer, episodes of Thriller, and Conceptions of Murder, Extensive image galleries, and a featurette about 50 Years of Hammer. The commentary is especially engaging, with insight into the film given by the interviewees.

Countess Dracula is available on Blu-ray, from Network, now.

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