Countess Dracula/The Vampire Lovers (1970)
By: Mr Intolerance on October 8, 2010  | 
DVD
MGM | Region 1, NTSC | 1.66:1 (Non-Anamorphic) | English DD 1.0 | 184 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Credits
Director: Peter Sasdy; Roy Ward Baker
Starring: Ingrid Pitt, Nigel Green, Sandor Eles, Maurice Denham, Lesley-Anne Down; Ingrid Pitt, George Cole, Kate O'Mara, Peter Cushing, Dawn Addams
Screenplay: Jeremy Paul; Tudor Gates
Country: UK
External Links
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One of MGM's value-for-money Midnite Movies 2-fer packs, here's one from Hammer Films that while it doesn't deliver in terms of both films, certainly makes up for in sexy, atmospheric and bloody horror in The Vampire Lovers what it lacks in the rather insipid and bloodless historical drama (with vague touches of the supernatural), Countess Dracula.

Countess Dracula

Erzsebet Bathory (1560-1614) was nothing less than a human monster. In her castle at Csejthe, she killed over 650 young women, bathing in their blood, which she believed gave her immortal life and eternal youth. She was protected for a long time from punishment for her crimes by her birthright as a royal woman – it even prevented her execution, leaving her to spend the last three years of her life walled up in a cell in that very castle, despite being one of the most vicious and merciless killers in history, and one badly in need of bloody retribution. She has been immortalised in print (Valentine Penrose's The Bloody Countess is probably the best account of her bloody career), song (Venom's "Countess Bathory", Bathory's "Woman of Dark Desires", Dissection's "Elisabeth Bathory", and the entire album by Cradle of Filth, Cruelty and the Beast, to name but a few – she's a bit of a poster girl for black metal and death industrial bands), and film (as in this Hammer historical drama, as well as a number of other more recent films, including being referenced in, among other places, Eli Roth's Hostel 2). Her cruelty is legendary, probably matched only by that of Gilles de Rais, Vladimir Tepes (the historical basis for the legend of Dracula) and the Marquis de Sade. Her atrocities were manifold and grotesque, and still hold the public imagination to this day. It seems only natural that the biggest horror studio of the 60s and 70s would attempt to film her story. It's therefore quite a shame that the tale of "The Bloody Countess", or "The Beast of Csejthe" was told so poorly here, and with such very little of the abject horror that her trial in 1611 brought to light. Even as an exploitation film, it's very light on, most likely thanks to the BBFC and the threat of their interminable precuts of Hammer's output, but Peter Sasdy's insomnia-curing direction wasn't helping matters much, either.

As a matter of fact, leading lady and Hammer icon Ingrid Pitt (born as Ingoushka Petrov, now a writer, and if you'll believe what you read, a one-time former karate sparring partner with Elvis!) was vocal in her consternation at the film's lack of cruelty (not to mention at her Polish accent being dubbed over, when it would have added some touch of veracity to the proceedings), distributor Rank weren't happy either for the same reason (Hammer having by 1970 become a watchword in sadistic excess, UK-style, and they most certainly did not deliver here), and the audiences remained unimpressed, voting quite conclusively with their wallets. The production of Countess Dracula appeared to have been a case where everything should have gone right – a charismatic star on the rise, a fine director, a well-researched script, an incredible tale to be told – but for some reason did not. The script, researched by Gabriel Ronay, a recognised scholar of Bathory, floundered at every turn, too little violence, too little of anything a Hammer audience would want to see – turning such rich, if horrifying, source material into little better than a political and domestic historical melodrama. Sasdy's direction further mystified through its far-too stately pace, and even the fine camerawork and Ingrid Pitt giving it her considerable all couldn't reanimate this corpse.

The film attempts to give a sort of overview of Bathory's life and crimes, with a vague hint of the supernatural as the title might suggest, a little reminiscent towards the end of The Picture of Dorian Gray, but fails to engage its audience in any way beyond the most superficial. Sure, it looks great – lush sets and costuming, the aforementioned camerawork is especially noteworthy – but the actual execution of the film is ultimately soporific, and could be used by Hammer detractors as a pretty reasonable argument for not liking their films. It's not a horror film, kids, and really is less than the sum of its very considerable parts. Countess Dracula is a failure on many levels, and in terms of telling a story of authentic horror, a pretty ignominious one.

The Vampire Lovers

The original tag-line for the film: If you dare...taste the deadly passion of the BLOOD NYMPHS! A quiet night in at the library? I don't think...

One of Hammer's very best films, The Vampire Lovers, was based on J Sheridan Le Fanu's oneiric 1872 Gothic tale of the weird, the sensual and the macabre, Carmilla, in turn a serious influence on Bram Stoker's vampire masterpiece Dracula (by this time one of Hammer's favourite and far too often milked, cash-cows). If not for Le Fanu's introduction of sex, and specifically here lesbian sex, to vampire mythology, a lot of the oomph that Stoker's novel possesses would certainly never have been, and what Hammer would have made of that tale, and their vampire canon as a whole, is open to conjecture.

By 1970 Hammer's ouput had become a little, well, formulaic, and more than just a little bit static. European directors such as Jess Franco and Jean Rollin had more freedom to explore the sexual angle of their films, not bound by the prim and prudish BBFC, and in terms of the violence for which Hammer was renowned in their native UK, both the Europeans and the Americans had already upped the ante greatly with the introduction of much more explicit gore. The law of diminishing returns was looming large on the horizon for the UKs biggest producer of horror cinema (who by the early 70s were making most of their money through making execrable spin-off films of TV dross such as On The Buses and the like), and 1970 was quite possibly the time where it was getting down to "make or break" for the once illustrious company, whose best work was often hamstrung by the censors. While continuing to produce Gothic period piece horrors was probably not the greatest of ideas in a time when the interests of the audience was moving away from the more traditional fare of horror, The Vampire Lovers proved without the shadow of a doubt that Hammer (here, for the only time in their history co-working with American International, who had brought us so many films of Roger Corman wonderfulness) still had fangs, and could compete with any horror film of the day – and win.

The place: the Duchy of Styria, haunted by the legend of the vampiric family of the Karnsteins for centuries. The film's prologue, narrated by Baron Hartog (Wilmer), a vampire hunter, tells us of their nefarious nocturnal doings, and of his own efforts to eradicate them in a sequence that is as ethereal as it is visceral. Hammer had, by this point decided to crank the levels of violence and female nudity (not to mention lesbian...umm, "romance") up as far as they could go – a deliberate move on the part of producers Harry Fine and Michael Style in producing their Karnstein trilogy: The Vampire Lovers, its immediate and dreadfully inferior sequel Lust For A Vampire, and the only tangentially related, yet still quite good, Twins of Evil.

General Spielsdorf (the always excellent Peter Cushing – last of the gentleman actors) has thrown a pretty lavish birthday party for his niece Laura (Steele), whose beau Carl (the sadly underused Jon Finch, a very fine actor unfortunately not given much to do here – watch him in the title role of Roman Polanski's Macbeth for a better use of his talents) is besotted with. They're young, happy and in love. As the General's guests Emma (Smith), Laura's chum, and her father Morton (Cole – yes, Arthur Daley from Minder) leave, a mysterious Countess (Addams) arrives with her daughter Marcilla (Pitt, who looks in no way young enough to be the daughter, but thankfully everybody is too polite to mention it), who is left in the General's care when the Countess has to leave, post-haste, at the urging of the cadaverous Man In Black (John Forbes-Robertson, in a role that's never really adequately explained, but inexplicably resurrected in Mike Raven's hammy performance as Count Karnstein, which he's not referred to here as, in Lust For A Vampire as far as I can work out, the character is the catalyst for the action, but their ultimate end is never really explored). Marcilla is the belle of the ball – and understandably so; Pitt practically oozes sex, her sultry looks and a vivid red dress with a plunging neckline that leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination soon garner her the attention of all the men in the room, except our virtuous Carl, of course, who has eyes only for the lovely Laura. However, the same could be said for Marcilla...

Laura's being plagued with nightmares about being smothered by a large cat, who, via some pretty neat dream sequences, is early and obviously revealed to be Marcilla in some way or another, and whose intentions towards young Laura appear to be more than simply a bit of a fumble and a fondle behind closed doors. Marcilla wants...well, let's leave that alone for a bit, shall we? We've more immediate concerns on our hands, as Laura weakens visibly by the day, written off by her imbecilic doctor (Ferdy Mayne, better known as the villainous Count Von Krolock in Roman Polanski's Fearless Vampire Killers) as anaemia. And what's more, the bedridden girl won't see anyone else besides Marcilla, even poor old Carl is shunned, and the General voices the opinion that he's not happy with Marcilla under his roof, albeit doing so somewhat obliquely – have to keep up propriety, after all.

Laura dies under mysterious circumstances, despite all best efforts to the contrary (I think Bram Stoker might well have simply lifted this whole sequence from Carmilla for the episode of Lucy's wasting illness in Dracula), and Marcilla sort of just vanishes. But strangely enough, Laura's body is found to have two small puncture wounds on her left breast (and I'll be damned if I didn't have Slim Pickens' voice in my head from Poor Pretty Eddie: "Did he bite you on the titty?" Yes, it is possible to watch too many films) – but they couldn't be responsible for her death...could they?

The General rides out to seek the aid of his friend the Baron Hartog, and while Morton and his beautiful daughter Emma are out riding one day, still shocked by the death of Laura, they happen across a carriage which has come rather unstuck. Aboard the carriage is an exotic European noblewoman, and her niece, Carmilla (guess who?) - the noblewoman must continue on her journey, but consents to leaving her niece with the Mortons for the time being. Uh-oh – things are suddenly looking rather grim for the unsuspecting Emma. But on the upside for the unsuspecting viewer, gratuitous female nudity is about to abound – and an extraordinary amount of it, considering the time in which the film was made, and the UK's generally censorious nature. Lots of semi or fully nekkid young ladies romping about in the nuddy and having softcore lesbian sex? You'd better believe it – but watch what happens to those who indulge; it's uncomfortably like the message that 80s slasher films presented about teenage sex – don't fuck anyone or you'll die. Although here, it's a little more ambiguous and not quite so cut-and-dried...for some.

Emma's started to have bad recurring nightmares about...you guessed it, a great big cat. And...oh, what a shock, she's correspondingly becoming weak, pale and wan. Things are amiss at the Mortons' place, methinks. Madamoiselle Perrodot (O'Mara, later to become one of Dr Who's most irritating nemeses, The Rani), Emma's frigid governess is bugger all use to Morton in keeping his daughter safe while he's away, and soon falls under Carmilla's spell, pretty much becoming her bitch after a night of rug-munching.

However, people are starting to get suspicious about young Emma's mysterious malady, and equally suspicious about her mysterious friend – Carl, our square-jawed hero, the butler Renton (played by Hammer regular and veteran UK character actor Harvey Hall), and the Doctor, who can see the same symptoms as in Laura's case, but now actually seems to want to actually do something about it. Familiarly enough we see another great staple of Hammer's set-pieces, the working of science with mythology to combat what the patriarchal society deem to be evil – and believe me, this is very much a case of men versus women, and it's an even more unbalanced fight than you might think. However, Carmilla's not the kind of chick who's going to go down without a fight, let me tell you, and she immediately starts trying to even up the odds.

Morton returns, and being a suspicious sort of a fella, decides, after hearing the tale of the Karnsteins from the local innkeeper (why wasn't he played by Michael Ripper, I have to ask – that mainstay of inn-keeping in Hammer films for over two decades...) that he'd better go and have a chat with General Spielsdorf, and his homeboy Baron Hartog. No-one's too keen on bandying about the V-word, but it's pretty clearly on everyone's mind, and Hartog's known to be the fella in-the-know about these things. While the film does deliberately meander a bit, pace-wise for some of its duration in order to keep up that dream-like state, this is where the director grabs it firmly by the goolies and gives it a good hard yank – you can smell action from this point on, as all of the men band together to try to defeat one woman, whose practices are abhorrent to them, but who never, as in the case of old 1950s sci-fi/horror, ever try to understand what they're fighting – they simply recognise it as evil, and act in a way they see as accordingly to try to dispatch her. Let's draw a veil over the final act, shall we? But you really ought to watch it and see what happens – there's a fair bit of swash-and-buckle, and some good ol' fashioned Hammer-style carnage (not to mention one pretty fuckin' awesome special effect) to really liven things up. Definitely one of Hammer's best films, and one I cannot recommend highly enough.

The Vampire Lovers tends to revisit the more traditional mores of vampire mythology rather than simply trot out the kind of spurious stuff of Hammer's own invention or adaptation – for example, vampires can move about in daytime, it's just that their powers are much weaker – and it also takes quite a few cues from Le Fanu's text – for example the vampirism that occurs to Laura and Emma, only occurs in dreams despite the marks on their boobies...err...I mean bodies – we don't see Carmilla munch down on anyone in the really-real except for those poor souls she drains to death on the spot, never the women she professes to love.

Ingrid Pitt's performance drives this film. Oddly enough, she wasn't the first choice for the role, with Shirley Eaton being the original choice – I can't imagine anyone else playing the part, as the film hinges on Carmilla being the most desirable of women, but also being a woman who could turn on a dime into being genuinely frightening, and yet still quite tragic – all of which Pitt pulls off with aplomb, much like Catherine Deneuve in The Hunger, a film much indebted to this one, and possibly moreso than to the Whitley Streiber novel on which it was based. As with all of the roles I've seen her portray, Pitt throws herself into it completely, and with the exception of the ones she shares with Cushing's world-weary General Spielsdorf, dominates every single scene she's in – even with Cushing there, it's a battle of equals. To me it's a crying shame that she never became a bigger star. I mean, okay, she's not Vanessa Redgrave, but even in lower quality films like Countess Dracula, she presents a real charisma, and a credibility that many of her co-stars lack – further to which, in The Vampire Lovers she takes some occasionally very average lines of dialogue and breathes life into them, making the character of Carmilla both believable and sympathetic, as much as either Lon Chaney Jr or Oliver Reed as the Wolfman, or Karloff's monster in Frankenstein – you don't want to see her die, in some regards, she doesn't deserve it.

The Vampire Lovers is quite a sad film, ultimately, with Carmilla's yearning, loneliness and almost desperate craving for love and fear of mortality (the ultimate in loneliness, really) being the core of the story. Oh sure, there's all the completely over-the-top exploitative elements too, the nudity, the softcore and the quite surprising at times levels of violence (contemporary reviewers praised the film, at the same time as coruscating it for being misogynistic – I don't agree with this latter point, but given the climactic scene, I can kind of see where they were coming from), not to mention the almost ingrained fear of female sexuality that it exudes, but it's definitely one of the very strongest films in Hammer's body of work, with some strong performances (even if one or two of the roles are sadly underwritten), better dialogue than usual, a marked and thankful lack of camp, a strong script that adheres quite closely to its source material, and a dream-like melancholic quality that is almost solely evoked by Pitt, in the role that made her a star – watch it and you'll see why; but make sure that you look beyond the heaving bosoms – you'll be rewarded.

A final note: probably my favourite review of The Vampire Lovers is from Keith Topping's A Vault of Horror, which is an indispensible read for fans of UK horror from back in the day, which ends like this: The Vampire Lovers is, quite simply, the movie that thousands of teenage boys learned all about breasts from. For which, hey, let's just be grateful. Pretty concise, huh?
Video
Countess Dracula is presented in a pristine aspect ratio of 1.66:1, although non-anamorphic, for those that care about such things, but totally razor-sharp nevertheless. It was beautifully shot, and this picture does it justice. The Vampire Lovers on the other hand is anamorphically enhanced, and the 1.85:1 presentation is mostly artefact-free. However, there was one annoying thing I noticed – anytime there was a cross-fade or a dissolve, the image either went glary, or darkened considerably, just for a second mind you, depending on the shot to follow. The restoration team might have tried a little harder...
Audio
Countess Dracula is a little on the quiet side dialogue-wise, with oddly loud sound effects, but all-over crisp and clear – the dubbing of Ingrid Pitt's voice is still a sore point, however. With The Vampire Lovers I was generally happy with the sound of the film, although it wasn't anything to write home about. Clear enough, but a little variable, was what I thought – but then, it's a mono track, so what am I complaining about, right?
Extra Features
Countess Dracula features an audio commentary with Ingrid Pitt, director Peter Sasdy and screenwriter Jeremy Paul, as well as the original theatrical trailer. Ingrid must have been busy, as she also provides a commnetary on The Vampire Lovers with director Roy Ward Baker and scriptwriter Tudor Gates along for the ride. If none of those names mean anything to you, then you simply don't watch enough UK horror films.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
I honestly think that this disc is worth your buying, unless you can find The Vampire Lovers as a stand-alone, or, like me, you're a Hammer horror film completist. Countess Dracula is probably worth one spin, just so you can tick it off the list and see Ingrid Pitt trying to do her best with not a lot indeed. Then flip the disc and see Ingrid's star turn as Carmilla in The Vampire Lovers, and you'll suddenly see why you just spent your dollars, and feel justified. The only thing I really can't work out is why MGM put this film out with the A feature in a non-anamorphic print, and the B feature anamorphic - that makes no sense to me at all. Anyhoo, the films are full-length, uncut and definitely deserve your time and effort, especially The Vampire Lovers, which hopefully you'll get as much re-watch value out of as I do.

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