Countess Dracula [BLU-RAY]
What power does a woman, a noble-born Countess no less, have if she no longer has her beauty? This is the question faced by Elisabeth in Hammer’s frankly fantastic Countess Dracula. The film is loosely based on the stories surrounding Elisabeth Bathory, a 16th century Hungarian Countess who ruled as a shrewd business woman, but is remembered for having supposedly bathed in the blood of virgin girls in the belief that this would keep her looks – and presumably power – in place.
Interestingly, the film begins with Harry Robinson’s tellingly erotic fusion of folk music and querulous strings at the funeral of the Countess’ husband. Cameras hover in the crowd and close in on the shrewish old woman with facial growths and age-puckered eyes. She is one who lives by her status rather than her femininity and while her widow’s costume (designed by Raymond Hughes) lends her an intimidating air, it nevertheless makes her a squat and forlorn figure. Following the funeral, the party journey to the Countess’ castle for the reading of the Will. After a chance encounter, she hatches to plot to keep the inheritance for herself, recapture her lost youth and gain a gallant, if immature, young husband in the form of Imre Toth (Sandor Eles) in the process. To do this, she enlists the help of several servants to procure and dispatch suitable young maidens whose blood she hungrily demands to transforms her sallow skin.
Ingrid Pitt plays Elisabeth in an incredibly brave performance, particularly considering her iconic status as a sexy scream queen. She spends half her time as the old woman (not a hag, for this is not cartoonesque), half as her more familiar and gorgeous guise. Ironically, she shows no vanity in this role and puts equal force into playing the frustrated, angry and emotionally ugly Elisabeth as she does into the coquettish young girl, wailing and tearing her hair as much as fluttering those lovely long eyelashes. Her effort is matched by her acting ability. Though stately, her Elisabeth is a petty, spiteful character who is jealous of those younger than her and at one point shoves her servant’s hand into boiling water in a fit of pique. Even her supposedly kinder words are delivered with barely concealed selfishness, which stands in sharp relief against the caring attitudes of her staff, particularly Jessie Evans as a distraught mother.
Power is the peril of the mirror. While a Countess, the film makes it very clear that Elisabeth feels the weight of expectation. Cinematographer Ken Talbot’s sumptuous long shots of the castle in the background of Peter Sasdy’s tightly-directed spoken scenes remind us that Elizabeth is trying to balance her emotional life with her stately responsibility. She is desperate to be the frivolous young woman she transforms into – vivacious, risqué, flirtatious, sexual. That said, you sense that she never actually was this girl, her giggle a little too high-pitched to be true. It’s not lost youth, but another life that she wants. What’s more, she feels her value – both in her own eyes and those of others – is connected to her body as a vessel, with the community publicly judging local girls and incumbent gypsies alike on the sizes of their breasts, figures and fitness to perform whether in belly dance or hard labour. It’s a narrative on self-worth that is, if anything, even more pronounced in the media today. She simply cannot accept the real love of her wry-humoured henchman and would-be suitor Captain Dobi (Nigel Green) because she is so obsessed with illusion. There is a stunning scene in which even the Catholic rosary refuses to offer her solace and like a small child she often stumbles, crying into the arms of her nurse (a constant Patience Collier) for comfort in her shock. Her looks are connected as much to her sense of individual self as to her gender. Alas, her conflation of beauty, sexuality and indeed class prove to be more simplistic than she assumes as her superficiality does not surmount law or indeed other people.
Countess Dracula contrasts the opulence of the set and costumes against human dignity and our destiny of decay. It is a wonderfully nuanced narrative. There is a terror for all of us in looking in the mirror to see what is reflected back, both in physically and in terms of emotional investment. Not seeing what is hoped for paralyses and can distort the psyche, just as Elisabeth finds out. Her personal prison is ultimately one of her own making.
Dr Karen Oughton is a film critic and journalist, broadcaster and lecturer in media communications. She can also be found presenting film screenings and purveying horror performance.
One of Hammer's most enduringly popular films and a benchmark for 1970s horror, Countess Dracula stars Ingrid Pitt in an iconic, career-defining role as the aged countess who must regularly bathe in virgins' blood to regain her fading youth. Genre stalwart Peter Sasdy directs arguably his best Hammer film, from a script by award-winning writer Jeremy Paul and showcasing a rousing score from composer Harry Robinson. Countess Dracula is featured here in a High Definition transfer from the original film elements in its as-exhibited theatrical aspect ratio.
In medieval Hungary, Countess Elisabeth Nadasdy, an embittered, ageing widow, discovers by accident that virgin's blood causes her skin to become youthful and smooth. Determined to retain her new youth at all costs, the Countess coerces her lover to abduct a string of young virgins to keep her supplied with the blood she now craves to stay beautiful...
SPECIAL FEATURES (Standard Definition unless otherwise specified)
 Audio commentary with Ingrid Pitt and horror experts Kim Newman and Stephen Jones
 Original Theatrical Trailer
 Archive interview with Ingrid Pitt
 50 Years of Hammer – news feature
 Extensive image galleries (High Definition)
 Thriller episode
 Conceptions of Murder episode
 Commemorative booklet