Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Countess Dracula (1971)

          English horror-movie factory Hammer Films earned its reputation by blending sensationalism with sophistication, because the company’s signature girls-and-gore formula was generally delivered by way of credible acting, intelligent writing, and lush production design. The lurid aspects are dominant in most Hammer pictures, but in Countess Dracula, the sleazy stuff is subordinate to a well-constructed narrative based on a notorious historical figure. Furthermore, Countess Dracula is arguably the best-looking movie Hammer ever produced, with cinematographer Kenneth Talbot using painterly lighting effects and soft lens filters to create romantic imagery. So even though Countess Dracula has abundant bloodshed and nudity, it’s one of the rare Hammer movies that a serious-minded cinephile can watch without much guilt.
          Inspired by the legend of Elizabeth Bàthory, a Renaisssance-era Hungarian countess who reputedly bathed in the blood of young women whom she ordered killed—believing this practice maintained her beauty—Countess Dracula imagines what might have happened if a character like Bathory truly discovered a magical formula for recapturing her youth. Ingrid Pitt, the glamorous European star of Hammer’s salacious hit The Vampire Lovers (1970), stars as Countess Elisabeth Nàdasdy. At the beginning of the movie, Elisabeth is an aged but elegant noblewoman whose husband recently died. During the reading of her husband’s will, Elisabeth becomes fascinated by Lt. Imre Toth (Sandor Elès), who inherits part of the Nàdasdy estate because his father was a friend of Elisabeth’s husband. Concurrently, Elisabeth awaits the homecoming of her daughter, Ilona (Lesley-Anne Down), who is now of marriageable age after many years away at school. Through circumstance, Elisabeth accidentally gets the blood of a young woman on her cheek, and is shocked to see the skin of her cheek magically restored to a youthful sheen. Then Elisabeth conspires with her put-upon lover, estate functionary Captain Dobi (Nigel Green), to gain a steady supply of women so she can restore her entire body to youth and thereby court Imre while pretending to be Ilona.
          As should be apparent, the plot of Countess Dracula gets a little convoluted, but writer Jeremy Paul does a great job of keeping motivations straight and predicating everything on the desire that craven people have for increased social position and wealth. In this way, Elisabeth’s monstrous plan becomes a metaphor representing both unchecked ambition and the villainous abuse of power. In fact, only the supernatural element of Elisabeth’s physical changes really tips the movie into the realm of fantasy. Director Peter Sasdy generates a number of memorable images, including the scandalous shot of a nude Pitt washing herself with a blood-soaked sponge, and he ensures that performances are consistently rational and restrained. Like most Hammer movies, Countess Dracula suffers from humorlessness, so some stretches get monotonous and stilted. But in the mean, Countess Dracula is among the best things the company made in its heyday—sexy, sinister, and smart.

Countess Dracula: GROOVY

1 comment:

Will Errickson said...

Yes! And boy oh boy do I love some Ms. Pitt from this era....