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Review: Countess Dracula (1971)

Countess Dracula (1971)

Directed by: Peter Sasdy

Premise: A reworking of the story of Elizabeth Bathory. An aging countess (Ingrid Pitt) discovers that the blood of young women restores her youth. She begins to prey on the local girls while romancing a young suitor.

What Works: Countess Dracula is a very good example of the gothic horror films produced by the Hammer studio. This particular picture mixes the period melodrama with gothic storytelling and Hammer’s edgier, exploitative tendencies, and all in the right proportion. Countess Dracula is very well shot, using lighting and shadow very effectively and giving the castle sets a creepy vibe. This film is broader in scope and look than many other Hammer films. In fact, Countess Dracula’s production value gives it a look equivalent to the high profile costume dramas of the late 1960s and early 70s, such as Anne of the Thousand Days or The Lion in Winter. Countess Dracula is also much better written and acted than other Hammer films. The story plays out like a Greek tragedy, and like the plays of Sophocles and Euripides and it taps into human flaws and desires and explores what happens when those motivations run unchecked by reason. The vanity and avarice of the characters give the film a human touch that penetrates the distance that a lot of costume dramas tend to create. This distance is traversed in part because of the performances by the main actors. Ingrid Pitt chews up the scenery as the countess and although she is not a full-fledged vampire, her performance in this film as important to female vampire cinema as Gloria Holden in Dracula’s Daughter. Nigel Green and Sandor Elès also make significant contributions as the castle steward and the young suitor, respectively. The two actors play it straight, focusing on the political machinations of the plot and their scenes give the film its credibility. And although Countess Dracula sports these more respectable traits, it is not without the horrific and seedy qualities of a Hammer picture. It is tame by today’s standards but Countess Dracula does contain a significant amount of sexuality and gore for the time in which it was made. In 1971 this film might have been very shocking; it is less so now but grit of the sets and the occasional splashes of blood force the desire underpinning this story to the surface and make it visual. As a result, Countess Dracula has aged much better than other Hammer films and other costume dramas of the period.

What Doesn’t: This is a Hammer film and like many pictures by the studio Countess Dracula slips into melodrama to reinforce the dramatic beats. This is to be expected from Hammer films and it is part of their charm. But viewers who are unfamiliar with Hammer films or with 1960s and 70 cinema may have trouble appreciating what the film is or how to enjoy it. These films require a certain taste on the viewer’s part that is acquired by a familiarity with the Hammer film library.

DVD extras: Packaged with The Vampire Lovers.

Bottom Line: Countess Dracula is a very good Hammer film and a very entertaining gothic horror drama in its own right. Although elements of it have aged, on the whole it is still very watchable and an important piece of vampire cinema.

Episode: #359 (October 16, 2011)