After an interminable amount of time, the Ingrid Pitt files is back and do we have a doozy for you.
My dislike of 70’s Hammer is not something I’m shy about. But every once in awhile I have to be reminded not to speak in absolutes. Because I LOVE Countess Dracula madly and unequivocally. It’s my favorite Ingrid performance and I’m gonna gush over it now. You have been warned.
Let’s start at the beginning.
The old Count has died and a young and handsome Hussar, Imre Toth (Sandor Eles, a quite good looking dude who did a bunch of British TV), arrives in the middle of the funeral. He gets ogled right away by the widowed Countess Elizabeth (Ingrid in A LOT of make up), who is super old.
The funeral party moves to the castle. On the way, a peasant begs the Countess for a job. She doesn’t even look at him, but castle steward Captain Dobi (the formidable Nigel Greene) beats the man, resulting in the peasant being run over by the carriage.
This is the first example we will see of how shitty life was in Eastern Europe back in the day. Because Eastern European nobles were special breed of not nice and the oppressiveness of living as a serf (not a peasant) where you were only slightly different then a slave (there is a scene where people are bought and sold) is always just on the edges of life and ends up being actively exploited by the wealthy by the end of the story.
At the reading of the will we have our group character introduction. We meet Captain Balogh (Peter Jeffrey in another of his “how the hell did they get that accomplished of an actor in THIS movie? Whatever. I’m glad they did” roles) who is basically our police detective. We also meet Master Fabio (Maurice Denham, clearly enjoying himself), the keeper of the old Count’s impressive library, and Julie (Patience Collier), nurse to the Countess’s daughter. Mentioned, but not present, is said daughter, Ilona. She has been living in Vienna to keep her safe from the Turks. As the story starts we learn the old Count sent for her and she is on the way back to the castle.
The reading of the will is where we first see the cracks in the household. Dobi, who has been castle steward forever, gets some weapons and armor and laughs bitterly about it. The stables and horses he’d been hoping to inherit were willed to Imre, the son of an old friend of the Count. Elizabeth is bequeathed half the estate, with the other half going to Ilona as Countess (which just gets my history nerd hackles up. Splitting the estate between two women? Do you WANT the demesne to collapse? Because that’s how demesnes collapse).
Elizabeth is not happy and in the ensuing kvetch-fest between she and Dobi in her bedroom we learn that Elizabeth and Dobi have been lovers for a very long time. But when Dobi suggests they can finally be together, Elizabeth rebuffs him in favor of Imre.
Then comes the infamous moment that recreates the legends: In the course of pushing around a servant girl, the Countess gets blood on her face and the part that was splashed gets younger. Elizabeth demands that the servant be brought in. We don’t see what happens, but we do see the equally famous shot of the young, beautiful Elizabeth in the blue robe as the virgin blood works its magic.
Elizabeth introduces herself to the household as Ilona (whom she has had kidnapped and locked in a cabin in the forest). Fabio is instantly suspicious and begins prodding around for information.
Elizabeth throws herself into romancing Imre, expecting Dobi and Julie to just clean up the messes she makes. The problem is, they do. Dobi does so begrudgedly, Julie with a motherly but vacant smile.
The bodies pile up. Dobi is starting to lose patience. Julie is fretting over the real Ilona (who almost manages to escape multiple times in the most emotionally frustrating part of the movie. She’s… so… CLOSE), Fabio gets closer to the truth and Elizabeth puts it all on the line by asking Imre to marry her. He agrees.
But Elizabeth won’t have much happiness. The body of one of her victims is discovered, which starts an investigation. Dobi has finally reached his breaking point and sets up Imre to look like he slept with a tavern wench. Unfortunately, Imre was too drunk and couldn’t perform. On top of that Fabio has figured out what Elizabeth is doing and offers to tell Imre, only to be found dead in the library.
Dobi shows Imre Elizabeth bathing in blood and Elizabeth twists the situation to force Imre to marry her a.s.a.p. Elizabeth demands Dobi find her a virgin. He agrees in a very resigned way and brings Ilona to the castle. Julie’s loyalty instantly sways to the girl and she tries to help Ilona and Imre escape the castle. Imre refuses to go but agrees to help Ilona leave.
The wedding of the Countess and Imre is happening when Ilona insists on looking in before she escapes (she is a female in a horror movies, you can’t expect her to use her brain 100% of the time). At that moment, Elizabeth turns old and rushes at Ilona with a knife. Elizabeth is stopped and arrested and she and Julie are thrown in prison.
Countess Dracula is unique in the Hammer annals for a number of reasons. First and foremost among them is that it was made by a Hungarian director who wanted to tell a Hungarian story. Hammer was a British company, as anyone reading this probably knows, so their movies ended up very British: conservative and structured almost to the point of stiffness.
But their Eastern European movies (this one through and through and to a lesser extent Rasputin) feels much livelier and has more energy.
Multiple things bolster that feeling. The music is lighter and has an exotic feel. The sets, leftovers from the film Anne of the Thousand Days that Hammer bought cheap, are bigger, accommodate more light and are more ornate. The costumes and jewels are some of the finest in a Hammer film, period. Director Peter Sasdy could make them so impressive so inexpensively because of his connections at the BBC. They stuck to the styles portrayed in Medieval Hungarian artwork and this gave the film a very distinct look.
But the life comes out the most in the performances.
Ingrid is loving the hell out of making this movie. She does best when her characters are allowed to be playful. Her joy becomes infectious. I love the scene where Elizabeth and Imre bounce down the hallway looking at portraits of her ancestors. She titters, she flits, she’s in love and she’s enjoying every moment of the new life she’s stolen. I pair this movie in my head with The Gorgon for a couple reasons, one of which is that the leading ladies in both are radiant because they love what they’re doing.
Sandor Eles matches her beat for beat as, basically, a good-natured Medieval Bro who can’t believe his luck and isn’t smart enough to question it. His naiveté as he navigates court life feeds Elizabeth’s vigor as much as virgin blood does.
But this isn’t a happy go lucky love story, and the *ahem* young lovers need to be anchored to reality by Dobi and Julie. These two are both victims of what life can do to a person.
I’m hard pressed to think of an actor who fits a role better than Nigel Greene fits Dobi. Dobi has long served nobility. He has witnessed their cruelty, enabled it and taken part in it. When Imre sees a serf being treated cruelly, it gives him pause. Dobi strides by as if it was part of the scenery. His complaints about the situation he’s in are essentially that he’s not getting what he wants out of the deal because after years and years in these circles you learn to take care of yourself. His is a traditional male part. He is bellicose, no bull shit, no tact, soldier for life, the man who gets things done. He is the machinery that keeps the ruling elites comfortable.
In a situation like the one in the movie, you can become Dobi – a cog in a machine – or you become like Julie. She is also an enabler but more of a doormat who has mentally and emotionally shut down so she doesn’t have to face the things she’s done to make others happy.
But Elizabeth is also part of both worlds and this juxtaposition makes for a very interesting character. There’s a lot of Ingrid’s interpretation of Carmilla from The Vampire Lovers in the Countess. There’s irrational euphoria that turns on a dime into bloody rage in a very childlike way. When Elizabeth grows old she throws a temper tantrum and Julie has to comfort her. The Countess is a brat who wants what she wants when she wants it even if people have to die. This gives the violence in the movie a jarring quality that makes it more shocking than a bucket of blood would.
The other way I would compare this with The Gorgon, and probably the #2 reason I love this movie so much (Ingrid is the first, in case you haven’t figured that out), is because all these characters are broken people. They are shades of gray. The typical Hammer Horror film has its characters definitely divided into the good and evil columns. Not so here. Imre is a good dude who is kind of a dumb ass with no spine and he lets his sex drive put him in a heap of trouble. Elizabeth’s marriage was crappy (yeah, she may have been bad, but we don’t know how much her husband contributed to that. The fact that he contributed to it is a sure bet though). She wanted some joy in her life but she could only think of harmful ways to gain it. As much as he hated every second of it, Dobi just wanted the woman he loved to be happy. He was a hard, cruel man but a surprisingly devoted lover. Julie wanted her baby back and allowed herself to be treated like a dog for vague promises that she accepted as passively as orders to kill.
This movie is also fascinating because of the gender swap it entails. In this story, the woman is the one chasing tail and the men are long suffering and knowingly doing bad things for a person they irrationally love to the detriment of themselves and others. They let themselves be trapped for reasons known only to themselves. Also, even when Imre shows nothing but disgust and despair after finding out Elizabeth’s secret, she still forces him to go through with the wedding thinking that the marriage will be okay. Shades of men in scores of movies uttering, “you’ll learn to love me.”
Before I finish I’ll address the elephant in the room: Ingrid was dubbed. For whatever reason, they dubbed over Ingrid’s voice in this movie. It makes no sense for a variety of reasons. We already knew what her voice sounded like so it’s just weird that she doesn’t sound like her. Not to mention the story is Eastern European and she has an Eastern European accent. I, personally, don’t like dubbing to begin with and I really hate it here. It distracts from the performances. It especially bugs me when I know the actor well (I have the same problem with Christopher Lee in Hercules in the Haunted World). It took me a few watches to not get distracted by it. Whatever the story around it is, I hate it.
Anyway, Countess Dracula is a fun and unique Hammer entry that showcases Ingrid at her best.
And I totally just realized that this movie has the same plot as The Leech Woman. Only with significantly less racism. And better production value. And no Ingrid, of course.