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Director: Peter Sasdy
Writer: Jeremy Paul
Cast: Ingrid Pitt, Nigel Green, Sandor Eles, Maurice Denham
Length: 93 min
Release Date: May 06, 2014
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1
Audio: English: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0
- Audio commentary with Ingrid Pitt and horror experts Kim Newman and Stephen Jones
- Original Theatrical Trailer
- Thriller: Where the Action Is
- Conceptions of Murder: Peter and Maria, starring Nigel Green
- Archive Tonight interview with Ingrid Pitt
- 50 Years of Hammer
- Commemorative booklet
- Stills Gallery
By the early seventies, Hammer Studios was starting to change their tact in an attempt to shake things up a bit and meet the needs of a changing audience. The studio had garnered a strong reputation for producing their brand of British-made gothic horror, but as a new decade was being ushered in, popularity was on the decline for this type of film. In an attempt to move with the times, the studio entered into an experimental period from which a number of the films produced differed from their usual tried and tested formula—although not too greatly—with a noticeable change in emphasis on female sexuality used as a power for evil. The Ingrid Pitt vehicle—out now on UK Blu-Ray (courtesy of Network)—Countess Dracula (1971) was one such highpoint in the series of female dominated horror films that came out of the studio during this period. This long awaited Blu-Ray upgrade is now available in a nicely restored version from Network, which comes with a veritable package of extras.
Although the studio had cast female villains in a few pictures—for example, The Witches (1966), Die Die My Darling (1965), The Nanny (1965), The Gorgon (1964)—it can be argued that the real staple of Hammer in the earlier days stemmed from male dominated heroes and villains; with women relegated to more passive roles. The seventies new age, with a relaxation in censorship when it came to sex and violence, offered new opportunities, which, as a result, allowed Hammer glamour to take on a new form. Adopting a black widow spider foundation for crafting out female characters, some of Hammer’s deadliest, most sexually powerful creations came from this period. When fans talk about this chapter in the studio’s history, and the bevvy of beauties who graced the screen for Hammer during this time, one name reigns supreme—Ingrid Pitt. Pitt’s role as Marcilla Karnstein in Hammer’s The Vampire Lovers (1970) became to represent the epitome of the female-as-a-sexual-predator in British horror film. It is not surprising that the actress became the ultimate screen siren for a legion of impressionable young male horror fans. The actress’ combination of glamorous looks, free-spirited approach to stripping down, and strong aura of female power on screen won the hearts of many; thus ensuring she would become an enduring icon for the studio. Even less surprising, is that the studio was quick to capitalise on the success of The Vampire Lovers by casting Pitt in her own vehicle—this time as the deadly, and vain Countess Nadasdy in Peter Sadsy’s Countess Dracula (1971).
Countess Dracula is far from perfect; the actress Ingrid Pitt is on record stating even she felt that the film could have been more graphic (Hammer Films: The Elstree Studio Years- Wayne Kinsey (2007) )—as well as being vocal over the fact she disapproved of being dubbed by another actress for this role. Despite this, the film is not without some merit and it is due to Pitt’s performance that Countess Dracula becomes a memorable entry into the Hammer vaults. Pitt’s portrayal of Nadasdy—that borrows from the legendary tale of Countess Bathory—demonstrates a great presence, despite the reported production difficulties (which comprised of ‘artistic differences between’ Sadsy and the production crew). It would seem that Sadsy—who also directed the highly memorable Hands of the Ripper (1971)—wanted to use a subtle approach to building up the narrative, and, as such, it could be argued he failed fully to exploit the source material for maximum horrific value. Pitt, on the other hand, thought there should have been more blood, and reports in her interview with Kinsey that she found motivation difficult when there was little blood on show. For a story that riffs on an age-old tale of one of Europe’s most notorious female serial killers, with an emphasis on bathing in virgin’s blood, it is not surprising that commenters have focused on Sadsy’s tip-toe approach as one of the main sources of criticism on the film.
All this aside, as a performance, Pitt gives one of her best—the juxtaposition of a double-sided character allowing her to demonstrate her capability as an actress and her skill and ability to change tact when needed. The story focuses on the recently widowed aging Countess, who after reading her husband’s will is told she must share the estate with her young daughter Ilona (Lesley-Anne Down). The Countess, who runs a tight household and also keeps her illicit lover Captain Dobi ( Nigel Green) on a tight leash by her side, has gained a reputation from the local villagers as a cold and callous ruler. However, the extent of her unscrupulous and selfish behaviour is about to be explored when she stumbles on the fact that exposing her skin to virgin’s blood will take away visible aging. The Countess, once freed from the confines of an elderly physique, quickly casts aside long-time lover Dobi in order to focus on the affections of the much younger Lt. Imre Toth (Sandor Eles)—who has inherited a cottage on the estate grounds. In order to tempt her young lover, the Countess has her daughter captured and hidden from sight so she can carry out her plan of seducing the naive Lieutenant, while posing as Ilona. In order to keep her façade of youth, however, she must continue to kill, and as her world starts to unravel she becomes more desperate in her quest to regain her lost youth.Pitt as the Countess demonstrates a great skill, and if any role stands as a testament to the fact she was a much more nuanced actress than people gave her credit for, it is this one. In order to believe the story, the audience has to accept that the 33-year-old Pitt is posing as her 19 year old on-screen daughter. Clearly the actress is not 19 years old, but she does successfully manage to exhibit—when posing as the younger carnation of the Countess—the energy of youthful glamour, and giddy excitement at her new lease of life. Her alter-ego, on the other hand, the wizened old Countess—with a make-up that reportedly took over three hours to assemble each day, and was prone to damage during filming—is sneering, callous and cruel by contrast. As such, even though there are obvious flaws in casting a 33-year-old actress in this role, Pitt’s sexual maturity and strong characterisation somehow seem fitting for the piece. On this note, it is so easy to get caught up in her beguiling performance that those niggles can be left to one side. It also helps there is a strong supporting cast with Nigel Green as the long-suffering Dobi, who gives a convincing depiction of a man caught up in his misguided love for the Countess; Sandor Eles as suitor Toth is equally solid in his role; and Lesley Ann Down, as the lamentable daughter Ilona, does not get much action on screen, but her sympathetic character does aid to support the notion that her mother is an abhorrent creature who needs to be stopped.
The overall piece, in Sadsy’s capable hands, bears the mark of quality that transcends budget limitations. It is clear that the director put a lot of thought into the tone and mood of the piece. Even though the film is not as graphic as it could have been, it does in essence become somewhat of a dark-hearted thriller with macabre elements, and in light of the performances, works on this level. The atmosphere is further supported by beautiful sets, costuming, and another fantastic dramatic Harry Robertson score.
This restoration by Network presents the film in a faithful cinematic representation—upgraded to high definition 1080p using original film elements. The print does show age related damage in specs and dust, but nothing of major concern. This low-key approach ensures the original look and feel to the piece is maintained, and there is a distinct presence of the original film grain. Colours are well saturated—the film has a sombre palette of earth tones—and on Blu-Ray there is a depth to the tones that are not evident on the previous DVD release.
As with the print, the sound upholds its cinematic quality—presented here from its original mono elements. Sound levels are well mixed, with no evidence of distortion or age related damage. The film comes with the benefit of an imported audio commentary with the late actress Ingrid Pitt and writers Kim Newman and Stephen Jones.
This Blu-Ray edition comes with a nice selection of extras. As well as the aforementioned Ingrid Pitt commentary, there is a supplementary archive interview with the actress talking about her career— working with stars like Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee (who apparently introduced her to golf!), Clint Eastwood, and Richard Burton. The actress also talks of her time in Nazi Germany in a concentration camp—part of her history that the actress avoided talking about until her later years. Pitt, who in many interviews comes across as bubbly and free-spirited, shows a different side to her personality here talking about harrowing times in her life, including her fight with breast cancer, thus making this an important insertion in the set for fans. Also included here, is a news segment celebrating 50 Years of Hammer. One of the most interesting entries into this package of extras is an episode of Thriller, a seventies British TV show, entitled Where the Action is (first broadcast in February 1975), which stars Ingrid Pitt as a sultry and seductive character—Ilse. Topping this off is an episode of 1970 TV series Conceptions of Murder: Peter and Maria, which stars Countess Dracula’s Nigel Green. Also included are a gallery of stills, trailer for the main feature, and a collector’s booklet.
Although Countess Dracula is not one of the most outstanding moments in Hammer’s long history with the genre, it is nevertheless a must for fans. Pitt’s depiction of the vile and self-obsessed Countess, whose lust for youth and beauty drives her to murder, is one of the stars best performances. While not graphic, in the hands of director Peter Sadsy, the film does take on a serious and dark tone, which proves absorbing. Out now on Blu-Ray for UK fans Network also deliver this latest release with a host of fascinating extras.