A.J.’s Solid ’70s Horrorthon #4: “Countess Dracula” (1971)

by A.J. Hakari

"Countess Dracula" poster

 

For a movie whose title character bathes in the blood of virgins, Countess Dracula feels strangely quaint. While not technically a vampire film (the eponymous villainess never actually consumes the red stuff), it’s often associated with other boundary-pushing Hammer features like Twins of Evil and Vampire Circus that directly deal with the undead. But while those pictures were teeming with fire and brimstone imagery, Countess Dracula keeps a fairly low profile. Those who’ve developed a taste for bodies both bared and bloodied will come away from this satisfied enough, but the sorrowful spin it puts on its premise makes it more than just another tawdry exploitation flick.

In the heart of Hungary, the Countess Elisabeth (Ingrid Pitt) rules with an iron fist. Not even her husband’s death has softened her heart, rather enraging her at having to split the estate with her daughter, Ilona (Lesley-Anne Down). But after a servant’s blood splashes on her face, Elisabeth is shocked to find that the effected area has youthened, inspiring her to concoct an ungodly scheme. Having restored her entire body to its sensual prime, the Countess decides to impersonate her own daughter, having had the real Ilona kidnapped for the time being. Elisabeth has even begun warming up to a young soldier (Sandor Eles), much to the chagrin of her other lover, Dobi (Nigel Green). But the Countess soon learns that she needs a steady supply of blood from only the purest of ladies in order to retain her looks, lest she revert back to her older, increasingly haglike status.

Countess Dracula may not unsheath any actual fangs throughout its running time, but it shares the same DNA as its vampiric siblings in Hammer’s expansive roster. Of particular note is the film’s sexuality, which isn’t played to the hilt as much as you’d think but is very much on the frank side. Elisabeth’s victims are of the nubile sort, and no attempts are made to mask the added charge her “Ilona” form receives during rolls in the hay with her young paramour. But where you’d expect the Countess to grow more monstrous and predatory with each virginal chambermaid sacrified, the story opts to emphasize the sadness of her condition instead. While she’s not a full-on misunderstood heroine, there are twinges of tragedy felt when she changes from her exuberant, younger persona to her older self, growing more feeble and decayed with each transformation. You sort of feel sorry for her, especially in scenes where Dobi rubs it in her face that she could’ve had him without dabbling in the dark arts all along.

It might not do much for those seeking the sort of erotic thrills that Pitt offered in The Vampire Lovers a year prior, but Countess Dracula makes sure that it’s consistently rife with drama. The love triangle at its core is a nasty little beast with all sorts of diabolical twists; try not to get creeped out when Elisabeth refers to her soldier lover as “my son” while playing the Countess. Though undoubtedly hired to flaunt certain supple attributes above all, Pitt puts in an appropriately subdued performance (even if a little more effort could’ve been used when playing a senior citizen). Eles fits the dashing type just fine and handles himself well when his characters learns more about his ladyfriend than he ever thought he’d know, and Green has a blast playing a stone-cold bastard, throwing a wrench into matters not for personal gain but just to see everyone else suffer.

It’s true that Countess Dracula isn’t among Hammer’s all-time sexiest, most exciting, or even goriest escapades. But because it works just fine with what it presents, you wonder if any additional naughtiness would help that much, given how much room there admittedly is for it. Countess Dracula is a plenty sound shocker in its own right, providing just the right amount of girls, gore, and Gothic atmosphere to please any Hammer horror hound.

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