Bathing in virgin blood

More an allegory than shock machine

Published: Nov 08 2018, 01:01:am

Tuesday, November 21, 1972.
COUNTESS DRACULA.  Co-written by Alexander Paal, based on Valentine Penrose’s 1962 book Erzsébet Báthory la Comtesse sanglante. Music by Harry Robinson. Co-written and directed by Peter Sasdy. Running time: 93 minutes. Mature entertainment with the B.C. Classifier’s warning “may be disturbing to children.”
CREDIT DIRECTOR PETER SASDY with remarkable restraint. According to a Hammer Films fact sheet, Sasdy co-authored the story of Countess Dracula, and it's a safe bet that he knew the facts in her case.
    Countess Elisabeth Nadasdy, the woman known as "Hungary's female vampire," was a real person. Born in 1560, married in 1573 and widowed in 1590, she is said to have been beautiful, and was proved to be a sadist.    
     Around 1600, she got the notion that bathing in the blood of young virgins would preserve her youth and beauty and, over a 10-year period, is said to have slaughtered some 600 of them. Hungarian authorities were finally moved to take action in late 1610 and, during a two-month trial the next year, 60 ritual murders were proven. Elisabeth's entire household — a collection of self-proclaimed witches, torturers and sex maniacs — was executed and the Countess walled up in her own castle. She died in 1614.
    Sasdy credits Valentine Penrose’s 1962 book Erzsébet Báthory la Comtesse sanglante (Bloody Countess) as his source. Given such a fine bit of history to work with, he might well have turned out an epic of perverse sex and gore-encrusted sadism. The fact is that he didn't, and Countess Dracula is a better movie for it.
    Sasdy is more interested in the horror film as allegory than as shock machine. His script concentrates on the tragedy rather than the terror implicit in Elisabeth's story. To do so more effectively, he compresses her tale into something less than two weeks, and changes the essential nature of her household.
    His film opens at the late count's funeral, with the mourners gathering for the reading of the will. There are some surprises in store. Not unexpected arc the provisions for Julie (Patience Collier), the faithful nanny, or Master Fabio (Maurice Denham), the elderly family historian. What is surprizing is the bequest of the Nadasdy stables to young hussar Imre Toth (Sandor Elés), the son of an old friend of the count.
    So, too, is the insulting gift of his used uniforms to his castle steward Captain Dobi (Nigel Green). And, finally, all that remains is to be divided equally between his wife Elisabeth (lngrid Pitt) and their daughter llona (Lesley-Anne Down), a young woman who has grown up in far-away boarding schools and who has yet to arrive home.
    Dobi, it seems, has already accustomed himself to wearing the dead count's rank with his wife, and the will makes it clear that the Countess's infidelities have not gone unnoticed. Into this closed world has come the  hussar Toth, a young, ambitious man suddenly made rich.
    By accident the Countess discovers that a bloody facial has amazing cosmetic powers, and, taking her discovery to its logical extreme, she cold-heartedly orders up a bath.
    Magically the years fall away and, in a fit of inspiration, Elisabeth sends retainers to kidnap her still-travelling daughter. With llona out of the way the mother is determined to play the part of her daughter.
    Director Sasdy unfolds his story with Shakespearean intensity. Dobi, who has courted the Countess for so long, is suddenly confronted with a dream of youth come true. But Elisabeth, with her beauty restored, begins a flirtation with Toth.
    Over her new-found happiness hangs a Damoclean sword: her bloody restorations collapse within 48 hours.
    If Sasdy has been restrained with his plotting, he has been even more so with the bloodletting. Explicit violence, once a hallmark of Britain’s Hammer Films product, has been toned down, almost to a whisper. The effect is to focus attention on the unfolding plot and some real character development.
    The expected Hammer production values are firmly in place, a fact that almost always guarantees a superior product for the just-plain horror fans. Countess Dracula offers something more, though. A Freudian fairy tale on the horrors of aging, it's an effectively offbeat bit of cinema art.
*    *    *
NEVER APOLOGIZE FOR LIKING horror films. Especially never apologize for liking Hammer’s horror films.
    Fear, more than love, more than hate, is man’s most powerful emotion. Cinema, as an art form and as an entertainment, is a direct appeal to the emotions.
    Thus it follows that horror films have a remarkable potential as both art and entertainment. England’s Hammer Films are responsible for creating some of the best examples of both.
    In 1956, London’s Hammer House was the scene of a renaissance of the horror film. A former maker of short subjects, the firm determined to do remakes of two classics from 1931, Universal Studios’ Dracula and Frankenstein.
    They studied the old pictures closely and, it must be assumed, came up with a set of guidelines. Hammer films have consistently followed through on five important points.
    To begin, the audience is plunged into a closed world, a period setting beyond the memory of the living where horrible things were believed, and often happened.
    The period is maintained through scrupulous use of sets and props that are every bit as solid as the acting that goes on in front of them.
    Hammer casts, of course, are all thorough professionals, playing their roles with the same conviction they'd give to Shaw or Shakespeare. They play from scripts that are usually low-key and intelligent. Finally, there are the Hammer hues, a sometimes murky, sometimes misty muting of the colour tones to give the final product a dreamlike quality that adds just the right touch of distance between the audience and the fantasy.
    As a formula it worked. The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and the Horror of Dracula (1958), starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, were the beginning of something big. Both Lee (as Dracula) and Cushing (as Dr. Frankenstein) have reprised their parts again and again in sequels. 
     There have been other projects — modern thrillers (such as 1965’s The Nanny, with Bette Davis), prehistoric epics (1965’s One Million Years B.C., with Raquel Welch), and  the recent [1971] On The Buses comedies —  but period horror pieces remain at the core of the company's success. In 1967, the company's craftsmanship was recognized with Queen’s Award to Industry honours.
    The guidelines, while constant, are not static. Hammer consistently breaks new ground within its genre. At times it has explored the allegorical meaning of historical horror (1966’s Rasputin, the Mad Monk; Countess Dracula).
    At other times, contemporary themes have been subtly woven into period plots (for example, the generation gap in 1970’s Taste the Blood of Dracula). More and more, the basic sexuality of the vampire myth has come under scrutiny (1970’s Vampire Lovers).
    Serious enthusiasm for the Hammer product exists in England and on the Continent. Unfortunately, it is not shared by the North American distributors or big name critics, with the result that its films slip in and out of this country virtually unnoticed and undiscussed.
    It's a situation that's existed for nearly a generation, so it's unlikely to change. But that won't stop Hammer from being the most important innovator in the fright-film field.
    A Canadian, director Alan Gibson, recently completed Hammer's first attempt to use its most popular character in a non-period setting: Dracula, A.D. 1972. Gibson is about to start work on an item tentatively called Dracula is Dead and Well and Living in London, a spy thriller. Veteran Dracula player Christopher Lee stars in both.
    Don't apologize if you're looking forward to seeing them.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1972. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Set in “swinging London,” Alan Gibson’s Dracula, A.D. 1972 was released in late 1972. Although it wasn’t particularly successful, it counts among its fans director Tim (Beetlejuice) Burton, who said in a 2015 interview that it was one of his favourite films. It was followed a year later by The Satanic Rites of Dracula, which had been filmed as Dracula is Dead and Well and Living in London. Both pictures starred Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing reprising their most familiar roles, Dracula and his nemesis Van Helsing. (A Mel Brooks comedy called Dracula: Dead and Loving It made it into release in 1995, with Leslie Nielsen wearing the cape and fangs. But that’s another story.)
    The London, Ontario-born Gibson, who learned his craft in British television, made his feature film debut directing Crescendo, a 1970 psychological thriller, for Hammer Films. Dracula, A.D. 1972 was his third feature and second under contract to Hammer. Unfortunately for Gibson, the studio was facing serious financial problems. In the U.S., the taste for gothic horror was proving less popular than such present-tense shocks as 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist (1972). In 1974, Hammer released just five pictures, including the ninth and last of its Dracula series, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, a co-production with Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers. In 1975, it released none at all. To all intents and purposes, it was over. Founded in 1934, Hammer Films ceased production in 1979. Gibson returned to TV direction, working until his death in 1987 at the age of 49.

Today’s Drac Pack:  Additions to the Reeling Back archive inspired by Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula include: Blacula (1972); Blood for Dracula (1974; aka Andy Warhol’s Dracula); Countess Dracula (1971); Dracula Sucks (1978); Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979); Son of Dracula (1974).

See also: Other Dracula-inspired feature films previously posted to Reeling Back are: Dracula (1979) and Billy the Kid versus Dracula (1966).