Countess Dracula (US - BD RA)
Gabe revisits one of the weaker, but still attractive Hammer films of the '70s...
An aging Hungarian Countess named Elisabeth Nádasdy (Ingrid Pitt) discovers she can reverse her aging by bathing in the blood of young women. While in her youthful state, she falls for the handsome Lt. Imre Toth (Sandor Elès) and impersonates her own daughter to win his affections. Soon, girls in the village go missing… kidnapped and murdered by the Countess and her steward, Julie (Patience Collier) to satiate her horrifying bloodlust. Can Elisabeth live a life of deception with her grotesque lust for blood to stay eternally young or will her ghoulish secret finally be revealed? (From Synapse Film’s official synopsis)
As they continue eking out their Hammer Horror Blu-rays at a rate of about one a year, Synapse Films has finally settled on something of a dud in Countess Dracula. By releasing Vampire Circus (1972), Twins of Evil (1971), and Hands of the Ripper (1971), Synapse made a nice little catalogue of some of the most underrated entries in the Hammer’s ‘post-franchise’ era – a short, but powerful last effort (spanning from about 1970 to 1974) to remain relevant in a cultural landscape dominated by ‘70s sensibilities. Countess Dracula certainly belongs to the period, but doesn’t commit to the same level of ‘old school camp meets new school groove’4578 9i that makes the best of these films so special. It isn’t without its charms, but also not what I’d call an underrated effort.
Countess Dracula also represents another attempt at stretching the Hammer vampire tradition beyond the Dracula series, following the inception of the erotically-charged ‘Karnstein Trilogy,’ made up of The Vampire Lovers (1970), Lust for a Vampire (1971), and Twins of Evil (1971). The use of the ‘Dracula’ title is misleading (possibly revealing a lack of confidence in the project), because Countess Dracula is really a fictional retelling of the historical story of Countess Elizabeth (or Elzbet) Báthory. It may even be the first cinematic version of the story/myth, kicking off a proud tradition that includes Harry Kümel’s Daughter of Darkness (1971), Paul Naschy’s, Night of the Werewolf (1973), Rod Hardy’..., and even Hellboy’s animated adventure, Blood and Iron (2007). The historical context was not a first for Hammer, following Don Sharp’s Rasputin, the Mad Monk (1966) (the non-horror The Viking Queen also has its basis in historical events).
Director Peter Sasdy had better luck with his other 1971 release, Hands of the Ripper – which is not only a better-made film, but one that helped set the precedent for slasher films of the following decade – but Countess Dracula is still a substantial technical upgrade over the goofiness of his next two features, Doomwatch and I Don’t Want to Be Born (aka: Sharon’s Baby). His work here is is only as strong as the beautiful production design, elaborate costumes, and Kenneth Talbot’s occasionally evocative photography allows. The bigger issue is that Countess Dracula is such a slow film with so few of the weirdo highlights that make other Hammer films of the era so entertaining. The plot has a simple, single-minded drive to supply the Countess with more victims and anything that gets in the way, like unproductive scenes of the castle staff bickering, stifles the otherwise brisk pacing. Scenes of Elizabeth’s daughter, Countess Ilona, cooling her heels with the local misfit charged with keeping her away from Elizabeth’s ruse are frustrating and unproductive, offering the audience little chance to sympathize with her. Worse, Sasdy doesn’t relish the bloody violence her demands should entail, nor does he get truly down & dirty when it comes to sexual content, both choices that feel prudish following the wonderful excesses of The Vampire Lovers. Slow-burning the way to the genuinely effective final act is commendable, but these boring subplots do more to diffuse the dramatic tension than to extend it.
There isn’t a lot to recommend here, outside of the attractive production design, but fans of Hammer’s favourite femme fatale, Ingrid Pitt, have a lot to look forward to, in what may be her best performance. Elisabeth’s supernatural ability to change her physical appearance gives Pitt a chance to play two personalities or, more specifically, an older woman pretending to be a younger one. She clearly relishes the option to flaunt both her virulent sexuality and her talents for melodrama. Nigel Green also relishes his role as the film’s other villain, Captain Dobi. At times, he seems like a Christopher Lee stand-in, but really springs to life while sinking his teeth into some dastardly doings.
Like Twins of Evil and Hands of the Ripper, Countess Dracula appeared on Netflix’s instant streaming service in HD around the same time Synapse announced their Blu-ray plans. The time span between the streaming availability of these films and their eventual Blu-ray releases has been long enough that my memory wasn’t quite sharp enough to perfectly compare their image qualities, but I believe that Synapse’s efforts were superior in every case, including this one (unlike some similar studios, Synapse usually remasters their releases in-house instead of reproducing previously existing masters). In terms of a stateside DVD release, Countess Dracula only ever appeared as part of a non-anamorphic double feature with The Vampire Lovers (which was released on Blu-ray via Scream Factory), so even a weak HD transfer would be an upgrade.
Fortunately, this 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer looks as good as Synapse’s other Hammer releases. There are some minor examples of print damage peppered throughout (a few scratches and burns that stick out during cross-fades and slow motion shots, for example), but the overall print is clean and sharp. Grain levels appear accurate and only approach disruptive levels during a handful of the darkest scenes, which otherwise exhibit much more subtle contrast levels than the old DVD. Details are limited by soft focus and diffused light sources (the candles and torches that light the sets are purposefully blurred/smudged during the brighter sequences), but the close-up skin and clothing textures appear quite crisp. The colour palette is rather drab compared to the psychedelic extremes of some of Hammer’s other ‘70s productions, which consisted mostly of earth tones, desaturated greens, and red/orange costumes. A lesser transfer would lose the subtle variations, but here, there is little muddying between similar hues and the brighter elements pop without bleeding.
Synapse continues its fine habit of maintaining the original sound mixes for their Hammer releases, rather than unnecessarily re-mixing things into 5.1. This uncompressed, DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtrack isn’t exactly aggressive, but has plenty of dynamic range and clear, undistorted dialogue. Effects work is minimal, almost exclusively limited to the incidental noises of footsteps, ruffle of clothing, opening doors, et cetera. Occasionally, a spooky wind will enrich the track’s sense of depth. Otherwise, Harry Robertson’s score is the standout aural element. The music flows nicely between soft undertones and boisterous exclamation points without ever distorting at its highest volume levels.
- Audio commentary with actress Ingrid Pitt, director Peter Sasdy, and screenwriter Jeremy Paul, moderated by author/critic Jonathan Sothcott ( The Cult Films of Christopher Lee) – This commentary was originally featured on MGM’s double-feature DVD and is a parade of dueling accents. Sasdy comes very well prepared and ushers us through the production process with a purring Hungarian accent. Paul is similarly prepped and offers a nice counter-mood with his charming English brogue. Pitt’s anecdotes seem slightly more strained, but her pleasant demeanor flows readily through her Polish-infused tones. Everyone seems to be recording in the same room at the same time, but there’s such a prevalent respect for taking turns that there’s disappointingly little interaction, which makes the whole thing a tiny bit cold. Fortunately, the friendliness of the participants outshines any tonal shortcomings and there isn’t an excess of blank space (since Sothcott tends to speak up any time the discussion slows).
- Immortal Countess: The Cinematic Life of Ingrid Pitt (10:50, HD) – An all too brief retrospective look at the cult queen’s short and beloved career. Pitt herself does not make an appearance (she passed away in 2010).
- Archival Audio Interview with Ingrid Pitt (8:30, HD) – A somewhat muffled older audio interview with the actress, who discusses her private life and the majority of her film work.
- Still gallery, set to the film’s soundtrack (7:10, HD)
- Theatrical Trailer
Countess Dracula is an attractive film anchored on an interesting premise (one that hadn’t been already over-explored at the time of release) and a bit of fun scenery-chewing on the part of the lead actress, but none of these things can save it from ultimate blandness. It’s not a bad movie -– it’s just not as good as some of the other under-seen Hammer titles, specifically the other three Synapse Films already released. However, those that like the film (or those that just want as complete of a collection as possible) have another stellar restoration to look forward to, along with a decent collection of brand new extras.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 6th May 2014
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono English
Extras: Director/Writer/Star Commentary, Immortal Countess: The Cinematic Life of Ingrid Pitt, Archival Audio Interview with Ingrid Pitt, Still Gallery, Trailer, DVD Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Peter Sasdy
Cast: Ingrid Pitt, Nigel Green, Sandor Elès, Maurice Denham
Genre: Drama and Horror
Length: 93 minutes
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