Countess Dracula (1971)
R2 - United Kingdom - Network DVD
Review written by and copyright: Jari Kovalainen (9th November 2007).
The Film

At the end of the 16th century, the Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Báthory was accused of torturing and killing hundreds of young women, despite being part of the Royal Family. There was a legend that she even bathed in the blood of her victims and eventually the myth reached its peak; was she a vampire? From this story, British “Hammer Films” found an idea for their “Countess Dracula (1971)” film by director/co-writer (story) Peter Sasdy (e.g. “Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)”). The film is also set in Medieval Europe.

The film opens at a funeral, followed by the reading of the will. The husband of Countess Elisabeth Nodosheen (Ingrid Pitt - e.g. “The Vampire Lovers (1970)” and “The Wicker Man (1973)”) has died and some of the closest people in the family are now hearing the Count´s last wish. The elderly Countess is not crushed by the sorrow, though, since her steward and lover Captain Dobi (Nigel Green - e.g. “The Ipcress File (1965)” and “The Skull (1965)”) has followed her over 20 years. He´s on her side also now. The flame towards her late husband probably faded a long time ago and the Countess herself is now old and wrinkled. Then something unexpected happens; due to an accident in the castle, some blood from her chambermaid spills onto the face of the Countess. Instantly, she feels its youthful effect in both spirit and looks. The chambermaid mysteriously “disappears”. It won´t be long when Captain Dobi will meet the young edition of the Countess; a blonde and busty beauty. The transformed Countess won´t waste any time, so soon her eyes are fixed on an equally young and handsome Lt. Imre Toth (Sandor Elčs - e.g. “The Evil of Frankenstein (1964)”), the heir of the famous staples from the late Count. By taking her daughter Ilona´s (Lesley-Anne Down - e,g, “The Bold and the Beautiful (2003-)” TV-series) identity (the real Ilona is bluntly kidnapped), the Countess will seduce Lt. Toth and the passionate romance begins. This magical youthfulness has still one grave side effect; it´s not lasting very long. Now the Countess needs the constant supply of young women to keep her young; blood will be her new drug and being young her only obsession.

With the films like “The Vampire Lovers (1970)” and “Countess Dracula (1971)”, “Hammer Films” tried to revive their horror-formula by introducing the stunning new “star” Ingrid Pitt. The familiar gothic-mood was there, but now there was also a more generous approach to sexuality and nudity. While sadly the story of Hammer-horror was nearing its end (their last horror-film was “To the Devil a Daughter (1976)”), “Countess Dracula” is a worthy film from the company. It´s entertaining, moody and full of excellent performances. Polish born Pitt is surprisingly effective in her “dual role” as a bitter old Countess (in full facial make-up) and the free-spirited beauty - getting more and more sinister when the story progress. You really believe that there are two different characters, not just “Pitt in the old woman make-up”. There are a few selected “nude shots” of Pitt in the film in addition to the gifted acting, but who´s there to complain? Things get a bit more “exploitative” with other cleavage and breasts-shots that are spread out in the film (women are either part of the Royal Family, servants or whores in the this film, it seems) and I have to admit that some of them felt a bit too unnecessary.

On the other hand, those who´re waiting for the “gore” will most likely be a bit disappointed, since although the “real Countess Elizabeth” might have tortured her victims, the Countess uses more quick and clean methods. Only a few death scenes (e.g. one with hat needle is quite effective) are shown on-screen and some of the “blood baths” are more sexually orientated (read= to show the body of Pitt) than pure horror. That being said, the film lacks some tension and a few opportunities to provide scary scenes are missed. Horror is not always there, nor blood. Scenes with the kidnapped Ilona also felt quite repetitive in the end. In addition to Pitt, actor Nigel Green is just great in his role; witty and slightly sarcastic. “Hammer” films are often filled with great supporting actors (in smaller roles also) and e.g. Maurice Denham (e.g. “Night of the Demon (1957)”) playing Master Fabio and Patience Collier (e.g. “The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981)”) playing trusted Julie are memorable in the film. It´s safe to say that the actors don´t disappoint in this film. “Countess Dracula” is a good film, but not the great one. As a period drama the film works almost better than as a “horror-film”, but it can provide a few solid scares.

Video

The film was originally released in the UK by “Carlton Visual Entertainment”, when it was included in the “Hammer House of Horror: The Vampire Collection” box set (with “Twins of Evil (1971)” and “Vampire Circus (1972)”). “Network DVD” has re-released the “Special Edition” of the film, which adds more extras but I believe is using the same transfer. It´s presented in Anamorphic 1.78:1 and while it´s clean and decent looking, it´s generally on the softer side. Black levels are quite good, but in some of the scenes the colours felt a bit pale and skin tones unnatural. The compression is not always spot-on. The transfer is the uncut British version (US-version was apparently cut to get the PG-rating).

Compared to the R1 “The Vampire Lovers/Countess Dracula” double feature by MGM, the UK transfer might be Anamorphic, but non-Anamorphic R1 still looks slightly sharper and detailed (of course with widescreen-sets, you need to use the “zoom” function if you want it to fill the screen properly). In addition to a non-Anamorphic-transfer, the R1 has e.g. compression issues of its own, so it´s far from perfect. R1 is 1.66:1 (adds a slither more picture on the top and on the bottom), while the UK-release is 1.78.1 (slightly more picture on both sides). This was confirmed, when I did minor comparing with the two transfers. “Dual layer” disc is coded “R2”, and the film runs 89:08 minutes (PAL). There are 12 chapters.

Audio

English Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono-track is the only audio choice and there are no subtitles of any kind. The track has minor hiss, but the dialogue is clear and while the track is not the “crispest” I´ve heard, eventually all sounds fairly good. It seems that the dialogue is dubbed, so it´s not perfectly in sync. For the British film the dubbing seems a bit of an odd choice, but fortunately it doesn´t hurt the film that much (a minor annoyance, still).

Extras

-Audio commentary with actress Ingrid Pitt - moderated by authors/critics Kim Newman and Stephen Jones kick off the extras. Like the film, none of the extras offer any subtitles. Note, that this audio commentary is different from the one in the R1 DVD. Pitt is talkative and remembers the production fairly well, but at the end of the day the commentary still stays a bit “dry” when it comes to information. Pitt praises most of her co-actors, tells about the “real Countess Elizabeth” and about her “old” make-up (which took several hours to finish). While she speaks warmly of the founder of “Hammer Films”, James “Jimmy” Carreras, she clearly disliked the director Peter Sasdy. She calls him “hateful” and even “disgusting”, so I´m sure there wasn´t a warm relationship between Pitt and Sasdy on the set. Pitt admits that she´s a “take one” actress, who doesn´t like to rehearse much and is quite open towards her nudity (“Jimmy wanted my body naked”). She also keeps (in a half serious - half humorous way, I assume) pointing out “how beautiful” her body is in the film. Pitt also reveals that many sets were borrowed from the “Anne of the Thousand Days (1969)” production. The actress now regrets passing some of the projects back in the days - blaming her agent at the time, but seems to be happy of her career in “Hammer Films”. Newman and Jones are doing a pretty good job with feeding questions and keeping the conversation going. They often fill the blanks from Pitt and sometimes by-pass some of the more “eccentric” stories by Pitt. Moderators also know most of the actors and the crew, finding connections with films and British TV, which surprises even Pitt herself. Near the end, Newman tries to add his (unnecessary) humour to the mix, so I preferred listening to Jones myself. A decent audio commentary, which is still lacking some anecdotes and wider information.

-“Tonight interview with Ingrid Pitt” -featurette (6:33 minutes) is a segment of the British “Tonight” TV-show from 1999, where Pitt is being interviewed around the time when her “Life's a Scream: The Autobiography of Ingrid Pitt” book was released. Like in the audio commentary, most of her co-actors are “wonderful”, but this time she also tells something about her difficult times (surviving from the Nazi Concentration camp and later on from breast cancer). Interview is barely scratching the surface, but it´s a nice addition to the audio commentary since it´s more personal.

-“50 Years of Hammer” -news segment runs 2:05 minutes and is also from 1999. In this plain news report, Hammer-celebration event is covered and e.g. Ingrid Pitt briefly interviewed.

-“Conceptions of Murder (1970)” episode called “Peter and Maria” is included next, running 25:04 minutes. This one season, 6 episodes TV-series explores famous murder cases in a teleplay format. Nigel Green plays the German series killer Peter Kurten - “The Vampire of Düsseldorf”, while Yootha Joyce plays his wife Maria. This fourth episode of the series was originally aired 9 October, 1970 and is directed by Derek Bennett. To my knowledge the full series is not released on DVD yet.

-”Thriller” episode called “Where the Action Is (1975)”, running 64:12 minutes is another TV-episode that is included in the extras. In this episode, Ingrid Pitt plays Ilse, the girlfriend of the strange millionaire “Daddy” Burns (James Berwick). Burns is a serious, obsessive gambler and by kidnapping Eddie Vallance (Edd Byrnes), Burns finally founds an opponent worthy of his skills. This sixth episode from the “Season 4” was originally aired on 8 February, 1975 in “ATV Network” and it´s directed by Don Leaver. Note, that 16-disc (6 seasons, 43 episodes) “The Complete Series” box set of the anthology “Thriller”-series has been released by “Network DVD”.

-Original theatrical trailer runs 2:57 minutes.

Overall

“Countess Dracula” is a solid “Hammer”-production, but doesn´t rise to the level of a real horror classic. “Network DVD” has added great extra-features for this “Special Edition”, but the transfer is lacking a bit.

For more info, please visit the homepage of Network DVD.

The Film: Video: Audio: Extras: Overall:

 


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