Judge Patrick Bromley prefers Countess Chocula.
Blood. The more she drinks, the prettier she gets. The prettier she gets, the thirstier she gets.
The second of Swedish actress Ingrid Pitt's Hammer movies comes to Blu-ray. Trust me…Ingrid Pitt needs to be seen in high def.
Facts of the Case
Loosely based on the tale of Countess Elizabeth Bathory, Countess Dracula stars Ingrid Pitt (The Wicker Man) as Countess Elisabeth Nadasdy, who is elderly, recently widowed and left with nothing. Desperate to find a husband but unable to do so because of her wrinkled appearance, Elizabeth discovers that she can temporarily appear young and beautiful again if she bathes in the blood of young women. She tasks her servant/lover Captain Dobi (Nigel Green, Gorgo) with kidnapping and killing young women for their blood while simultaneously carrying on an affair with Lt. Toth (Sandor Eles, The Evil of Frankenstein) while in her younger state. Posing as her own daughter, Elizabeth grows greedier and more vain and kills more and more virgins in an attempt to stay young.
Though she didn't make a ton of genre movies, Ingrid Pitt is responsible for two of my favorite and most memorable Hammer horror films. The first is The Vampire Lovers (released on Blu-ray last year by Scream Factory), which stands out primarily for the scenes in which Pitt rubs up on the perpetually wide-eyed and stunningly beautiful Madeline Smith. The second is Countess Dracula, new to Blu-ray from Synapse.
First things first: Countess Dracula is a misleading title. Yes, Elizabeth requires the blood of young women, but there is no actual vampirism in the movie. It's much more of an exploitation historical drama, and a very entertaining one at that. Best viewed as a showcase for the always welcome Ingrid Pitt, Countess Dracula is smart in the way it buries the actress under makeup, denying the audience of what they came to see, then revealing her as herself again and again, each time reminding us of what a stunningly beautiful woman she was. It doesn't matter how many times I see it. Whenever the young Pitt appears, I'm knocked out.
Pitt's entry into Hammer Films coincides with the studio gravitating towards more graphic, sexualized, even sleazy content, but because Countess Dracula is in the early stages it's still mostly restrained. Classy, even. Despite the movie's PG rating, there's a good deal of bloodshed and skin on display, but it's just enough to feel edgy without becoming dirty. Hammer films have a look and feel that is distinctly their own, from the film stock to the costume design to even the shade of blood they use, which can only be described as "Hammer Red." A good friend of mine often describes his love of Universal monster movies as having an opportunity to hang out in Universal Monster Land—a fitting way of describing the way we fans react to the music, the photography, the general atmosphere. That's how I feel about Hammer movies, too. I relish the chance to spend time in HammerTown.
I also like that with the exception of the de-aging plot device (you know, that one tiny thing), there's nothing supernatural or otherworldly about Countess Dracula. It's a movie about human evil—about deadly sins like lust and vanity and envy and what happens when they are taken to the extreme (and not in a David Fincher way). In that way, it humanizes its characters. Yes, Elizabeth is a monster, but we can at least understand where she's coming from—if you could be as attractive as Ingrid Pitt, wouldn't you do (almost) anything to continue looking that way? Poor Dobi is a slave to his love for Elizabeth. People do terrible things for love. Their motivations don't necessarily make them sympathetic, but it does make them human. There are emotional stakes as well as life-and-death ones.
Synapse's Countess Dracula (Blu-ray) offers a 1.66:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer which boasts a lot of newly-visible detail; while it makes Pitt's old age makeup look more fake than ever before (a common complaint about the impact of high def on older special effects), it brings out enough detail to make it a noticeable upgrade. Because my old "Midnite Movies" double feature disc from MGM doesn't feature an anamorphic transfer, it's nice to see the movie finally presented correctly. The DTS-HD 2.0 lossless track does right by the dialogue, balancing it well with the score and even retains the "Hammer Hiss," a sound that feels like bloody, British, big warm hug.
Bonus features include a commentary track with Pitt, director Peter Sasdy and screenwriter Jeremy Paul, ported over from the MGM release, as well as a brief featurette on Pitt's life and career, a brief audio interview with the actress, a collection of photos and the original trailer presented in standard def. A DVD copy of the movie is also included.
Though not quite a "classic" from the Hammer catalogue, Countess Dracula remains one of my favorite also-rans from that legendary horror studio. More of their films need to make the leap to Blu-ray, but in the meantime we've got solid efforts like Countess Dracula to hold us over.
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