Sunday, October 28, 2018

Halloween Watch: Countess Dracula (1971)

Watched:  10/28/2018
Format:  Amazon Prime Streaming
Viewing:  First
Decade:  1970's

I watched this movie for two fabulous reasons: I wanted to see a horror film with a female scary-lead and take in something from Hammer's awkward phase as they stumbled into the 1970's.

Countess Dracula (1971) is not exactly a vampire movie - it's more of a deeply fictionalized telling of Elizabeth Bathory, which dials back the horror of the real-life Bathory's crimes to something like 1% of the real mayhem caused by the Hungarian noblewoman/ inhuman monster.*  It is true that Bathory was from the same region as Vlad the Impaler, but not a real relation, and I think the "Countess Dracula" name she was slapped with was an after-the-fact name applied.

In our story, the Countess Elizabeth (the remarkable Ingrid Pitt) is an older woman who has just seen the passing of her husband, the Count.  In her day, the Countess was considered something else, but she's now older and bitter - perhaps due to a mostly ceremonial marriage and in part because she doesn't see her own value anymore as youth has faded taking beauty with it. 

Really, the make-up in this movie is pretty darn good for the era, and while there's no question that's old age make-up, they also do a good job of dulling down Pitt's striking features, giving her a haggard, worn look she wouldn't have when she did reach her later years. 

A chance accident as the Countess prepares to bathe leads to her being splattered with the blood of her servant girl.  She discovers, to her delight (and our horror) that the mere touch of the blood restores youth and vitality to whichever areas absorb the blood.  And, times being what they are in a castle and caste system era, the servant girl finds her innards used for the sort of thing Mary Kay wishes they could put in a bottle.

The Countess then poses as her own daughter- who has been off for years receiving her education, throws herself at a young soldier, and stirs the ire of a court nobleman who has hung out for 20 years on the premise that he was next up when the Count kicked it.  And, to her horror, the Countess realizes she needs that sweet, sweet virgin blood every 48 hours or so or she comes back somehow more decrepit each time.

Anyway - lots more girls wind up dead, and complications ensue.  There's some castle and court shenanigans, people are looking for their children, and folks find themselves wrangled into helping the Countess secure her supply, which is bad for everyone.

In some ways, the movie almost works like a noir.  The Countess has a chance at love and sex if she just keeps doing this thing that is incredibly bad, others get wrapped up in it, and no one is happy.  The content is certainly horror, but those going in expecting Pitt to be sinking her fangs into young girls will be disappointed, I suppose.  Made all the more so by the fact that googling "Countess Dracula" turns up pictures from her appearance as a regular 'ol vampire from The House the Dripped Blood.  What's at play here is somehow even more complicated as the castle-court setting creates an atmosphere where those close to the Countess have something to gain by assisting her (and, in fact, the real Bathory was not convicted alone.  She had accomplices.). 

Pitt is actually pretty good here, getting a lot of things to do as her perversions and grasps at happiness pull everything down around her, and getting to play the delightful young woman as well as the bitter, angry older woman on the wrong side of her years.

It may lack some of the sheer horror or excitement of other Hammer films, but I do like the clockwork narrative of the film, and the actors - most of whom I didn't really know - seem to be leaning into it.  And getting to see Pitt vamp it up is always fun.

*for a real Halloween treat, go ahead and google Elizabeth Bathory

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