You might be slightly mislead by the title. It’s actually based on the legend of Elizabeth Bathory, a real-life 16th century Hungarian countess who is considered to be the most prolific female serial killer in history – although the precise number of her victims is disputed. A story surrounding the countess is that she bathed in virgins blood, believing it to retain her youth. Although this story is wholly unreliable it didn’t stop Hammer Horror using it as the basis for this 1971 film, mixing the legend with court intrigue, dark fairytale and – ignoring the censors – nudity.
70’s genre sex-symbol starts off in heavy make-up to play an aged, recently widowed version of the countess whom is carrying on an affair with the castle steward Captain Dobi (Green). An accident causes her to have a servants blood splashed onto her face, and this magically restores the youthful appearance of the affected patch of skin. The countess kills and bathes in the blood of the serving girl and this wholly transforms her to her youthful looks. For cover, she pretends to her her own daughter and starts sleeping with a young friend of her deceased husbands (Eles).
Conveniently her own daughter (Down) is kidnapped and dedicates most of the rest of the film to weeping in a woodsman’s cottage and making increasingly feeble attempts at escaping.
Needing a continuous supply of fresh blood to retain her appearance, the countess carries on killing. Dobi and the Countesses Nurse (Collier) discover the truth and for their own reasons help the countess lure new victims.
For a film with a high body count, Countess Dracula is surprisingly light on blood and genuine horror. A lot of the Countesses crimes either happen off screen or are cut away from, leaving the actual gruesome detail to the imagination. Aside from the little blood, there are no jumpy moments or creepy suspense and aside from a sinister soundtrack there is little to get the pulse racing. It’s almost horror themed, rather than an outright horror film. Indeed, much time is dedicated to the inter-personal rivalries of the Countesses associates, her own decadent indulgences and her attempts to hide her secret. It mostly works, helped by a sharp script – although this does lose focus late on and the overall direction of the story is predictable.
With frequent stars including Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, the classic Hammer Horror films had a well-earned reputation for being well cast and featuring strong performances, and Countess Dracula is no exception. Pitt plays the young and old Countess well and plays each differently enough to make them feel like two separate characters and Nigel Green’s performance and screen presence are standouts. Once he discovers the truth Eles has a good line in looking like a kicked puppy and generally the supports all play their various parts well.
The Verdict: Countess Dracula is predictable, sure, and never quite gripping but if you’re ever in the mood for a slightly camp mix of melodrama, court intrigue, nudity and grizzly legend, then you could do a lot worse.