Monday, 22 February 2010

Countess Dracula (1971)

One of the most ambitious Hammer Films productions, especially by the standards of the studio’s ‘70s output, Countess Dracula provided Ingrid Pitt, a mildly hot property after the success of her starring vehicle The Vampire Lovers the years before, with a role of great promise: a figure based on the legendary Erzsebeth Bathory, the infamous 17th-century Hungarian countess who reputedly had a fondness for bathing in virgins’ blood to retain her youth. Peter Sasdy’s film retained the period setting, with its exotic mix of Magyar and Mohammedan culture, in an unusually elaborate production, combining the typical Hammer template of stylised physicality in settings and costuming, with a rather more remote kind of historical milieu than the studio’s films usually offered.

Like Sasdy’s other films for Hammer in this period, Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969) and Hands of the Ripper (1972), Countess Dracula is defined by a keen understanding of the psycho-sexual and socio-historic elements at stake, describing without demure the Countess Elisabeth Nodosheen’s desperate need to sustain her waning sex appeal and supplant her young daughter Ilona (Lesley-Anne Down) as object of desire for dashing young soldier Imre Toth (Sandor Elès). The Countess’ hysteria over losing her physical charms, the source of her power, is intrinsically linked to the aristocratic need to maintain the aura of strength and the threat of force over the populace, and willingness to use that populace like cattle for her own ends. Elisabeth is aided, not ungrudgingly, by her long-time lover and steward, the bristling cavalier Captain Dobi (Nigel Green), who’s willing to make her happy just so long as it binds her closer in complicity to him, and even less happily by Master Fabio (Maurice Denham), a scholar who recognises the need to play along to survive, but finally attempts to intervene as disaster threatens to consume them all.

The chief conceit is to present Bathory’s delusion as true, for the blood-bathing really does restore Elisabeth’s beauty and vitality, at the cost of becoming increasingly decrepit when she reverts, demanding more and more cost in lives and growing danger of discovery. The Countess has Ilona kidnapped before she can arrive at the castle and steal her thunder, held captive in a remote cabin by a leering pervert. Dobi tries first to sour Elisabeth on Toth by setting him up with a sluttish barmaid Ziza (Andrea Lawrence), a stunt that fails, so he then reveals Elisabeth’s true state to the disgusted young man, but she’s able to grip him far too tightly in her claws by this time, and forces him to marry her.

Within the pointed portrayal on female vanity turned utterly insatiable, there’s a subtle edge of incestuous anxiety, which comes to a keen edge when Toth pays homage to the Countess, in her aged form, believing her to be the mother of his beloved, and she grasps his head to her belly in supposedly maternal, but actually acutely sexual longing. In a dizzying climax, however, she reverts to her grotesque shape before her marriage congregation, and furiously moves to kill her daughter in a flurry of jealous, nakedly infanticidal rage to use her blood.

The trouble is that, as with Sasdy’s other major films, the results are bewildering in their unevenness. Hammer had long since switched to bland, inexpressive Eastmancolor after the Technicolor of its early productions, a choice which ruined the traditional Hammer look with its drenched tones and picture book atmosphere, but Sasdy, with Ken Talbot as DOP, offers a crisply good-looking movie in compensation. Sasdy’s graceful compositions, and sense of detail and lighting, offers some fine visualisations, such as the image of the Countess revealed during one of her sanguinary beauty treatments in the most extreme vision of a specifically feminine variety of egotistical angst imaginable; the fairy tale prettiness of the marriage ceremony under wreathed flowers seguing into ogrish ugliness and psychotic rage; and the memorable last sight of the immured Countess, now a hideous hag, gazing out from a prison dungeon with undimmed yearning and lost hope.

Sasdy builds a pitch of queasy panic in scenes where the Countess paces in her room, distraught at her disintegrating beauty and momentary confusion as to why her regimen fails at one point. But other scenes are flatly handled, and the finer elements are undone by an awkwardly proceeding narrative and constant, increasingly campy concessions to the heavy-breather quotient of Hammer’s fan base. Every now and then Countess Dracula turns into a Carry On film, with a proliferation of cavorting belly dancers and busty barmaids, as when Ziza thrusts her globular boobies in Toth’s face and ejects a one-liner worthy of Barbara Windsor. It’s all too irritating in exposing Hammer’s pandering but confused attempts to sex up their films with no real sensuality or coherence.

That’s especially disappointing in a story that could readily evoke opportunities to describe opposites in terms of desire to possess female flesh, both in envy and through varieties of desire, and expand on a peculiarly gender-specific brand of psychopathy. Such confusion doesn’t help Sasdy, who had pictorial and thematic intelligence, overcome his less confident capacity to make the pieces fit together into a compelling whole, particularly in regard to sustaining subplots like Ilona’s captivity and attempts to escape, and the growing panic of the castle’s servants as they come to believe they’re working for the devil. Even when playing later Hammer’s exploitative game, Sasdy could have done better to make his drama contiguous and compelling, and in this regard, he remained one of horror cinema’s great might-have-beens.

Pitt, reportedly press-ganged into the film after original choice Diana Rigg dropped out, hurled herself bodily into the part, too, but the impact of her performance is hampered by her real, Polish-accented voice having been dubbed over by Sasdy, a decision which so offended Pitt she later took very public revenge on him. Otherwise the cast is interesting, even elevated, including reputable character actors like Green, Denham, and Peter Jeffrey. Elès isn’t bad as her anointed pretty-boy idol/victim, and the great Green, in one of his last roles, offers a compelling mixture of martial fierceness and pussy-whipped weakness as Dobi. Down however is only allowed to be paltry and disposable in her role. There’s also a brief appearance by Nike Arrighi, the luminous star of Terence Fisher’s The Devil Rides Out (1967), as one of the Countess’ gypsy victims.


bill r. said...

You know that, despite your well-articulated mixed feelings about this film, that the images you used compel me to see it anyway.

Roderick Heath said...

Oh, I certainly think it's a film worth watching, and I think I've emphasised here that indeed some of its images are surely worth experiencing and revisiting. I suppose I always feel Hammer films were best when suppressing their huckster impulses, but I know for some people it's exactly the opposite case, but this film shows the split personality of their '70s output at its most defined and unreconciled.

bill r. said...

By "huckster impulses", do you mean the more over-the-top, near-camp qualities that are sometimes too closely associated with Hammer by people who haven't seen enough of their films? Because if so, then I agree with you that Hammer was best when they were more straight-laced. If that's even the term I want, and it's probably not. But I think you maybe could possibly know what I mean.

Roderick Heath said...

I know what you mean, and you've hit the nail on the head. It's remarkable, for instance, how much sexier and subversive, say, Christopher Lee stroking Melissa Stribling's face in "Dracula" is than the tawdriness of the sexuality here.