October 14, 2012 by abbyo
About a year ago, the actor and screenwriter Mark Gatiss did a three-part documentary for the BBC titled “A History of Horror,” in which he explores the highlights of 20th century horror cinema. It’s an informative, fun series made all the better by Gatiss’ keen observations and anecdotes (he’s a lifelong horror fan). The series’ standout episode, “Home Counties Horror” focuses on British horror cinema, and primarily the output of Hammer Films, the studio I’m highlighting this month. What makes “Home Counties Horror” such an interesting watch is that Gatiss doesn’t approach Hammer’s movies from the direction of ironic camp. He has legitimate affection for their work. It turns out that a viewer’s impression of the studio depends entirely on which movies you choose to watch. The later into Hammer’s filmography you get, the sillier the movies are.
“Countess Dracula,” made in 1971, is definitely in the “ironic camp” end of the spectrum, as with last week’s entry, “Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb.” Unlike that movie, however, “Countess Dracula” is leagues more entertaining. And despite all its problems, the movie’s commitment to its harsh atmosphere (and leading lady Ingrid Pitt’s commitment to her role) makes “Countess Dracula” worth some appreciation.
The story takes place in medieval Europe (Eastern Europe by the looks of things—there’s an awful lot of fur), where aging, rich countess Elisabeth (Pitt) has just lost her husband. She takes a shine to her new neighbor, a young officer, but is frustrated she can’t get at him because of her age. A creepy accident takes care of that, when Elisabeth discovers that by covering herself in the blood of maidens, she can temporarily restore her youth. The newly nubile Elisabeth poses as her own daughter in order to seduce the young officer, while having her older lover and steward, Captain Dobi, hunt down a constant supply of youthful blood.
Like “Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb,” “Countess Dracula” would make an excellent episode of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” The jokes practically write themselves. For example, the long-suffering Dobi set up to be the countess’ unwilling collaborator, despite proof that the man has no conscience (a scene early in the film involves Dobi killing a whiny peasant by running his carriage over him). Most of the characters have names that I couldn’t spell, or even pronounce correctly, if my life depended on it. And the movie’s use of headgear is, frankly, hilarious.
But in the midst of all this weirdness, there are moments of un-ironic entertainment and real creepiness. Ingrid Pitt, as I’ve mentioned, does some solid work in her role as Countess Elisabeth. She milks the part all she can, going deliciously over-the-top in her character’s best and worst moments. Pitt makes for both an effective pathetic, creepy old lady and a scandalously fun seductress, which is impressive.
“Countess Dracula” also has an awesome gothic vibe, from its cold-looking stone castle to its crazy shots of Pitt standing covered in virgin blood (there’s only one scene, but it looks great). The movie doesn’t pull any punches, either. It’s not afraid of nasty deaths, piles of corpses and unpleasant things happening to blameless people. “Countess Dracula” may have a lot of flaws, but inconsistency of tone isn’t one of them.
“Countess Dracula” is the kind of movie that fits the profile of what outside fans expect from Hammer. It serves no real purpose other than to create shock, schlock and titillation of the pre-pubescent variety. It’s representative of Hammer’s downward spiral, rather than its low-budget success stories. But if you’re going to dive into the shallow end of the blood bath, you could do a lot worse than this film.