Sigh. I searched in vain for an alternate title for Peter Sadsy’s 1970 Hammer horror, but alas, none were visible. That’s a shame, because Countess Dracula sounds like a spin-off from the studio’s Dracula cycle, but there’s no stakes, fang-bearing or other vampire elements here. Instead, we have an unusually sober chamber piece, a multiple-character historical-drama based on the story of Blood Countess Elizabeth Bathory, and it’s all some way from the usual Hammer product.
Ingrid Pitt gives a good physical interpretation of the woman who bathed in virgin blood to maintain her youthful appearance; she’s named as Elisabeth Nadasdy here and the setting is 17th century Hungary. Nadasdy enlists the help of her paramour Captain Dobie (the leonine Nigel Green in barnstorming form) to organise a raft of victims in the form of unwary village girls, and also imprisons her own daughter (Lesley-Anne Down) so that she can assume her identity when cavorting around her castle in her youthful form. This fools hotshot Imre Toth (Sandor Eles), who starts a relationship with the countess with little idea that her youthful mask is only seconds away from a transformation into a withered, deadly old crone.
Countess Dracula is one of the more sophisticated Hammer horrors; while the acting is ripe, there’s little of the cartoonish camp which beset Hammer’s 70’s output. Each of the central characters is surprisingly well developed, and there’s a patient build-up to the countess’ wedding, which, needless to say, does not go to plan. Pitt’s voice was redubbed, which is a shame because with some artful make-up, her transformation is actually pretty convincing, and even the of-the-time nudity is tastefully done.
Perhaps lacking is the jump-scares and nastiness that might be expected, Countess Dracula seems to have a growing reputation as a Hammer film that transcends expectations; the fear of getting old and the hypocrisy of the rich are well explored, but Sadsy is content to sit back and let the action flow. And Down is always an underrated presence; readers can draw their own conclusions, but she’s slated to play Margaret Thatcher in a US tv show about Ronald Reagan…