In medieval Europe, the aging Countess Elisabeth rules over her kingdom with the help of her lover, Captain Dobi. One night she inadvertently discovers that bathing in the blood of young virgins makes her young again.
She gets Dobi to start bringing her virgins with the promise that she will marry him. When she reverts back to a younger age than Dobi, however, she wants someone of her own age and poses as her own daughter to fall in love with the young soldier who was to marry her.
What do you do when a posh man with a fake set of fangs, a tatty black cape and more make-up than a drag queen convention becomes boring and unfashionable? Well that was the dilemma facing Hammer at the end of the 60’s when the Dracula series had pretty much run its course. Well the answer is a pleasing one – get Ingrid Pitt in the buff on the screen and pretend she’s the new threat facing Eastern European villagers the world over. Technically not a vampire film, this is based on the infamous story of Countess Elizabeth Bathory, a rich aristocrat from Hungary who is believed to have killed around 300 young girls in an attempt to look younger. The similarities with vampirism are evident enough, the only difference being that the countess here just murders her victims instead of sucking their blood.
Admittedly the film is pretty slow and plodding. As with most of Hammer’s films, the film keeps to the same couple of locations and it gets a bit tiresome after the third visit to the dining area, the servants quarters or the courtyard. Characters are always prime to a good Hammer flick and here is no exception. Ingrid Pitt’s Countess Elisabeth is a ruthless, selfish bitch who never for once thinks of anyone else during the film, be it her wannabe lover Captain Dobi, her loyal servants and advisors in the castle or even her own daughter.
The way Pitt switches between the role of the older, fragile Elisabeth and the ravishing temptress is one of the highlights here. The scene with Ms Pitt giving herself a bloody sponge bath is one that will certain linger in the mind too and is one of Hammer’s more iconic images of its “sexing up” of horror. It’s actually Nigel Green who steals the show here as Dobi. He’s a man obsessed with love and although you can never reason for his actions (kidnapping and murder to name a few), he’s always done it for Elisabeth. The way she cruelly brushes him aside in favour of younger men is pretty harsh on the old fella.
I get the feeling that this film could have done with the talented touch of Terence Fisher in the director’s chair. That’s not to say he’s a bad director, he just doesn’t seem to get the look and feel of the film right, especially for a Hammer film. It’s got a great set (a leftover from a Universal film I believe) which expands on the usual Hammer vision but despite the bigger set, the film itself seems content to keep itself confined. Sasdy seems to be holding a lot back. Whether it was the studio, the censors or the script, the film seems to imply a lot more than actually happens. Yes, Elisabeth does kill a few virgins but there’s not a great deal of scope in the whole thing. It’s all very low key, something that the film should have tried to expand on. No further proof is needed than the final third of the film which ends in a damp squib. Fisher’s talent at creating atmosphere out of nothing is sorely lacking here too.
Countess Dracula is a solid Hammer effort held back by a lack of depth to the whole thing. It’s talky and largely uneventful but come on, they don’t make them like this anymore so what’s stopping you from watching Ms. Pitt take a sponge bath?