• Countess Dracula (Comtesse des Grauens)



    Released by: Anolis Entertainment
    Released on: December 17th, 2014
    Director: Peter Sasdy
    Cast: Ingrid Pitt, Nigel Green, Sandor Eles, Lesley-Anne Down, Maurice Denham, Patience Collier, Peter Jeffrey, Nikki Arrighi
    Year: 1971

    The Movie:

    Countess Elizabeth Nádasdy’s husband has died, but rather than leave his wife everything, he has divided his property between her and their daughter Ilona. He has also left his stable of horses to a beloved army companion’s son, Imre Toth, which angers Captain Dobi. All Dobi has been bequeathed are the Count’s arms and uniforms. Not to worry: Dobi has his mind set on another of the Count’s legacies, Elizabeth, whom he has loved for decades. Soon, however, the Countess discovers that the blood of young women has the power to restore her youthful beauty, and Captain Dobi is the last man she wants to romance. She has her daughter kidnapped in the hopes of stealing the girl’s identity and courting the handsome Imre in her place. Unfortunately, the effects of her bloodbath quickly wear off, forcing her to enlist the aid of Dobi and her nurse, Julie, to procure more victims. They select poor young women from the local village who are unlikely to be missed, including a gypsy dancer, though their crimes fail to go unnoticed. Later, when a prostitute’s blood fails to restore the Countess’s youth, an aging librarian informs her that she must use only the lifeblood of virgins. But the more girls the Countess kills, the less effective their blood becomes, leading to a horrific climax at her wedding to Imre.

    Countess Dracula was a Hammer film four hundred years in the making. Its genesis began in late 16th century Hungary with a countess named Elizabeth Bathory. The wife of a military commander tasked with protecting the nation from invading Ottomans, Elizabeth was often left to her own devices in her large castle estate, which she managed on her own. Around the time of her husband’s death in 1604, an accusation was made against her by a Lutheran minister who claimed she was committing atrocities in her various estates. Yet it was another six years before a complete investigation of her activities (and the disappearance of the girls associated with her) was made. It had long been suspected by local peasants that the Countess had been murdering the women who had answered her calls for work, and they refused to allow their daughters near the castle. But while it has been alleged that Bathory abducted some of her victims, the mistake that led to her downfall was her slaughter of female gentry, who had been sent to her home to learn proper etiquette.

    The investigation and subsequent trial was well documented, and the evidence against the Countess overwhelming. Though accounts have been embellished, the court officially recorded the number of her victims to have been 80, not 600 as is commonly believed. Tales later arose suggesting that Bathory had murdered her victims to bathe in their blood, believing it to contain magical restorative properties. In reality, the Countess appears to have had lesbian inclinations, and her torture of the young women in her employ was a sexual fetish. At the time, homosexuality was illegal and punishable by death in most parts of Europe, and it certainly doesn’t seem difficult to believe that years of sexual repression could account for Bathory's hostility toward beautiful young women. Needless to say, the Countess was convicted of her crimes, but being nobility, she escaped being put to death. Instead, she was immured within four rooms of her castle, where she served out the remainder of her days. After four years without human contact, she died, though her legend lives on, much exaggerated.

    Hammer’s film is hardly an account of the true story of Elizabeth Bathory, though it gets some aspects of the story correct. In general, it’s a fanciful tale of the supernatural, one that owes more than a little to Irish author Bram Stoker. As such, the title is not as misleading as some critics would suggest. The Countess is a Dracula-like figure, one who murders for blood and grows young at its consumption, though that consumption is not through ingestion as it is in Dracula. (The German title, Comtesse des Grauens, actually translates into Countess of Horror, which many would no doubt consider a more appropriate appellation.) Despite the liberties it takes, the film still manages to be a taut horror thriller in the classic Hammer mold, though a little less exploitational than usual. Where it diverges from most other Hammer films is in its look. Rather than taking a set-bound, surrealist approach, director Peter Sasdy aimed for realism. From the various external shots to the massive castle sets and beautiful costumes, Kenneth Talbot’s camera focused on the disparity between the comparatively lavish lives of the aristocracy and that of their impoverished tenants. Much of the film was shot at Pinewood Studios on sets left over from Hal Wallis Productions’ big budget Anne of the Thousand Days, about the short, tumultuous life of Anne Boleyn. The location work, along with Sasdy’s directorial approach and Talbot’s camera, gives the film a relatively unique look among Hammer’s Gothics, one that goes hand in hand with another studio production from the same period, The Hands of the Ripper, which was also directed by Sasdy.

    It must seem weird to some that Sasdy’s three films for Hammer were such strong artistic achievements. Outside of the studio, his theatrical efforts, including I Don’t Want to Be Born (1975) and The Lonely Lady (1983), were largely disappointing. Yet his work for Britain’s leading producer of horror films is superlative. That he was tasked with directing Countess Dracula must have seemed a no-brainer to the studio; like the film’s subject matter, Sasdy hailed from Hungary. He also cast Hungarian-born actor Sandor Eles as the film’s young hero, Imre Toth, and Polish-born Ingrid Pitt as the bloodthirsty Countess. Unfortunately, Pitt’s terrific performance is let down by obvious dubbing, a mistake given how natural her thick European accent would have been for the part. (To hear her real voice in all its beauty, check out Hammer’s The Vampire Lovers, 1970, available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory, or listen to her commentary on this Blu-ray’s.)

    Pitt needs no introduction to fans of horror cinema. She was first introduced to the mainstream in the Clint Eastwood film Where Eagles Dare (1968), but it was playing the seductive lesbian vampire Carmilla Karnstein in the aforementioned The Vampire Lovers that made her a star. She followed up her first Hammer film with another, Countess Dracula, where she stepped into a role originally intended for Diana Rigg. After leaving Hammer at the poor advice of her agent, she shot The House That Dripped Blood (1971) and The Wicker Man (1973) before ending her career back at the studio with a small role in Beyond the Rave (2008). (Unfortunately, her scene was cut before release of the serial to Myspace, though it can be found as an extra on the British DVD.)

    Pitt’s costar, Sandor Eles, was no stranger to Hammer either. He had previously starred as Baron Frankenstein’s assistant in The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), where he acquitted himself well. Though mostly a star of British television, he made a couple of notable excursions into cinematic terrain, including Robert Fuest’s chilling And Soon the Darkness (1970) and Michael Winner's Scorpio (1973). Lesley-Anne Down, on the other hand, was a relative unknown when she was cast as Ilona in Countess Dracula. She also had an important role in the final segment of the Amicus anthology From Beyond the Grave (1974), but it wasn’t until the late 1970s that she really found fame, starring opposite Sean Connery in The Great Train Robbery (1978) and Harrison Ford in Hanover Street (1979). In the 1980s she was cast alongside Patrick Swayze in the American television miniseries North and South (1985) and North and South Book II (1986), ensuring her name recognition in households on both sides of the Atlantic. Unfortunately, the remainder of her career was mostly relegated to daytime soaps.

    Rounding out the cast was a superb Nigel Green as Captain Dobi. Tall, dark, and stoic, Green had a commanding presence and was a regular feature in British cinema during the 1960s and early 1970s. His other horror appearances include The Masque of the Red Death (1964), The Skull (1965), The Face of Fu Manchu (1965), and Let’s Kill Uncle (1966). He died a year after the release of Countess Dracula, possibly the victim of suicide, though the jury remains out to this day.

    Countess Dracula is a shining jewel in Hammer’s canon of horror pictures, though it hails from one of their worst two-year periods (the studio also produced When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, The Scars of Dracula, The Horror of Frankenstein, and Lust for a Vampire around the same time). Influenced by French author Valentine Penrose’s The Bloody Countess, the film is a fictionalized account of Bathory’s life, one ripe for greater dissection and interpretation.

    Video/Audio/Extras:

    Anolis Entertainment has released Countess Dracula on Blu-ray in Germany with a transfer provided by ITV Studios. The film is letterboxed in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio in 1080p high definition and is from the same transfer as that used by Synapse in the United States and Network in Great Britain, with the same strengths and weaknesses present there. For the record, there are more strengths than weaknesses. The image is mostly crisp and detailed, with a nice patina of grain. Detail in some shots is dulled by cinematographer Talbot’s insistence on shooting much of the picture with his camera in soft focus. Otherwise, the image benefits greatly from the format. Facial shots are particularly strong, as are many of the external shots, where rocky roads and leafy trees provide the kind of rich detail that is the hallmark of high definition. To see just how strong the transfer is, look no further than Pitt’s old-age makeup. It’s easy to see just what its limitations are: in some scenes, Pitt lacks makeup only on her chin, in others just above her upper lip. These flaws were impossible to see on VHS and only slightly more visible on DVD. As for the colors, the film has always had something of a gray-blue palette, but when other colors—such as red, green, or violet—appear, they’re more vivid than they ever have been. If there’s any complaint about the transfer, it’s that there are a few instances in which the grain becomes blown out, usually in darker scenes but also in one daytime shot that takes place in the forest. In general, however, the grain has a very natural appearance. There is also a minor bit of speckling and print damage around reel changes, but again, these are trifling problems in an overall gorgeous presentation that provides ample showcase for the sets, costumes, and actors.

    There are two audio tracks as well as two commentary tracks. Both of the audio tracks are presented in DTS-HD 2.0, one in German, the other in English. There are also optional German subtitles. The English track is certainly clean enough, and there are no problems with fluctuations as some critics have suggested. The sound mix is steady, never jumping too loudly or dropping too low. Harry Robertson’s beautiful score with its Old Europe influences is well served, and dialogue is never difficult to distinguish. Of the two commentaries, the first, by Dr. Rolf Giesen and Ivo Scheloske, is in German without subtitles. The second, by film historians Kim Newman and Stephen Jones and star Ingrid Pitt, is in English with optional German subtitles. The latter is a fun track dominated by a cheeky Pitt, who is occasionally interrupted by Newman and Jones to point out interesting facts surrounding the production. Pitt revels in telling personal anecdotes related to the film and its stars, usually with humorous flourishes, and one gets the impression that even when she’s decrying the director, it’s all in good fun. It should be noted that this is not the same commentary included on MGM’s DVD or Synapse’s Blu-ray, which featured Pitt, Sasdy, and screenwriter Jeremy Paul.

    If you already own the Synapse BD of Countess Dracula, there’s still reason to purchase Anolis’s release: the extras! Whereas Synapse (thankfully) included the original DVD’s commentary as well as a superb short about Ingrid Pitt, an audio interview with Pitt, a still gallery, and the original British trailer, Anolis has provided alternate extras. They include the same British trailer but also a double-feature trailer for the film’s theatrical release with Vampire Circus (1971). This second trailer doesn’t look particularly good in terms of quality, but it’s interesting nonetheless as a historical document pertaining to the film. Also included is an alternate German-language title sequence.

    There is a new video interview with director Sasdy, hosted by an off-screen Marcus Hearn in 2013; it runs approximately 21 minutes in length and touches on a number of subjects related to Hammer. Sasdy’s accent remains thick, and he’s sometimes a bit difficult to understand, but he’s never uninteresting and reveals just why, after Terence Fisher, he was the best recurring director working for Hammer at the time. He also drops a few surprises and doesn’t pull any punches when discussing what he thinks didn’t work with the film. (Hint: It’s a certain Polish-born actress.) The interview is presented in both 16:9 and 1080p with optional German subtitles.

    Next up is an interview with Ingrid Pitt, recorded at the Festival of Fantastic Films in Manchester, England in 1994. She comes across as outgoing and charming, and she tells numerous anecdotes about her horror film career, beginning with Sound of Horror (1964). As with her commentary, these stories almost always have a humorous bent, and she knows how to work her obviously adoring audience. Due to the nature of the recording — on an old-school VHS recorder — the sound is sometimes difficult to make out, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from sitting through the interview in its entirety. It remains important and should not be missed by fans of the actress or Hammer.

    Rounding out the extras are a number of still galleries that include the usual mix of marketing materials, including the U.S. pressbook, a Hammer Christmas promotional, a Rank promotional, movie posters, lobby cards, and so on. (One image of Pitt from The Vampire Lovers is mistakenly included.)

    The Final Word:

    For the most part, Countess Dracula is a semi-forgotten Hammer film, often neglected in favor of The Vampire Lovers and the studio’s early work. The film looks strong in high definition, with an increase in fine detail and nice color reproduction. Anolis’s Blu-ray may come from the same transfer as Synapse’s, but fans of the film, Hammer, and Ingrid Pitt will want to include both releases in their collections, if for no other reason than to possess the ample extras and different commentaries. The lengthy and in-depth interviews with Sasdy and Pitt contain a couple of real revelations and are worth the price of the German disc alone.


    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!