Even the dead can love
Upon the death of her husband, Countess Nodosheen is left with several competing claims. Captain Dobi, the castle's steward (and her secret lover) thought he would benefit most, both financially and romantically, upon the Count's passing. But at the reading of the will, he gets mere trinkets while a young soldier who once saved the Count's life, Imre Toth, gets control of the stables. The Countess is taken with the new man in the castle, but realizes she's far too old. Then, quite by accident, she discovers that the blood of young women can rejuvenate her sad, sagging flesh. It's not long before she is sending Dobi and her personal maid Julie out to find fresh victims. And by some malevolent phenomenon, she is young again. She has her own daughter kidnapped, takes her place, and woos the new military man, all the while keeping up her unholy beauty regimen. But when the Countess announces that she will marry Imre, Dobi's jealousy gets the best of him. He begins a deadly conspiracy against her, her daughter Ilona, and Toth. As the bodies of more dead girls are discovered, it is all destined to end tragically. Even the villagers are convinced that the Devil herself walks Nodosheen Castle in the guise of Countess Dracula.
When General von Spielsdorf allows the niece of a noblewoman to stay in his home, little does he know that the young lady has wicked designs on his daughter. After a series of horrible nightmares, the child grows weak and anemic. Even with attentive medical care, she dies. Then the visiting niece Marcilla disappears. As the General goes off to seek the help of an old acquaintance, his good friend Roger Morton meets up with the same noblewoman in the woods near his home. She is off to care for a sick relative…and needs a place for her niece—Carmilla—to stay. Hoping to provide his daughter Emma with some companionship while she is in mourning (she was best friends with the dead girl) Mr. Morton agrees. Suddenly, Emma is taken ill…and having horrible dreams at night. As the bond between Carmilla and the girl grows closer, the servants begin to get suspicious. The townsfolk fear that an ancient curse has returned. For generations, the local castle of the Karnstein clan has been home to a legend about bloodsuckers from beyond the grave. And with life-drained bodies turning up around the countryside, it's clear that some supernatural force is at work. Perhaps it's the fault of Camilla and her Vampire Lovers?
Countess Dracula is really a vampire movie in name only. It does deal with a legendary blood lover who bathed in the claret of young virgins to maintain her vitality, but there is neither neck biting nor bared fangs to be found. Indeed, this is a subtle atmospheric drama of costumed gothic thrills and highly subdued chills. A good way to describe the terror present in this tale is to call Countess Dracula a clash of classes peppered with a smattering of the supernatural. The story is based on certain old-fashioned period piece routines (inheritance and social standing, servitude and loyalty), then adds the idea of murdering girls for paranormal makeovers as a genuinely intriguing twist (it is based on a true account of said activity by a legendary noblewoman). If you can't get into the apocryphal mood and go with the blood flow, you will find Countess Dracula a hopelessly haughty Hammer film. But it won't be for lack of trying on the creator's part. Indeed, this movie is so deftly directed and wonderfully acted that the arcane aspects of the storyline can be forgiven and the film enjoyed as a sumptuous spectacle of unconventional costumed camp. Ingrid Pitt brings a lot of mystery to the role of the near-dead, rotting Countess who discovers the sanguine curative powers of life liquid. Her arched animation, especially when she discovers she is reverting to and from old cronesville, is priceless. Equally good is Nigel Green as the amorously obsessed Captain Dobi, beard fluffed and curled, hopelessly in love with a woman who only wants to use him. He's the perfect personification of machismo emasculated. With an amazing supporting cast and an unconventional ending, Countess Dracula will be a love-it-or-loathe-it experience for the majority of horror film mavens.
For those of you looking for a more traditional bloodsucker movie, The Vampire Lovers will do quite nicely. This is Hammer the way everyone remembers it: drenched in costumes and fog-shrouded atmosphere, beautiful buxom women wearing low-cut gowns heaving their bosoms, and men of indeterminate ethnicity speaking arcane lines filled with dread and foreboding. From the opening moments, brilliant workman director Roy Ward Baker sets a tone and tenor for the film that overwhelms even the kitschier elements to weave a web of real suspense. When the cloaked figure wanders, ethereally, through the misty graveyard, dancing among the headstones, we sense we are in the hands of an exceptional visionary, and Baker's imprint is evident throughout Lovers. Once again, Ingrid Pitt provides a provocative and tantalizing image of baneful beauty as she uses her porcelain splendor to suggest an existence as a member of the undead perfectly. She evokes the otherworldly power of immortality captured in the craving for human blood wonderfully. Hammer also had a way with vampire fangs, making them seem more evil and menacing than dental appliances should be—we see lots of pointed incisors in this film. The rest of the cast, from Cushing's cameo as the General to the ripe young ladies lining up to be a vampire's next victim, make The Vampire Lovers a sensual as well as serious horror film. There is also a fair amount of gore (including some nasty beheadings) and implied same-sex sympathies that are more inferred from the title than what actually happens between the characters onscreen. The Vampire Lovers manages to be a classic horror film even as it bends the conventions of the genre to create its own universe of ghouls and gals. It's easy to see why this film ushered in a new golden age and rebirth for Hammer in the 1970s.
MGM releases these twin titans of titillating terror as part of their excellent Midnight Movies double feature format. The downside is that this is a flip disc DVD that requires you to manually change sides to experience both films in one viewing. The good news is that they have done a marvelous job restoring and preserving these visually stunning films. Thanks to the "borrowing" of sets from Anne of the Thousand Days, and the usual Hammer attention to detail, Countess Dracula looks overwhelmingly opulent and the 1.66:1 anamorphic transfer highlights this excellently. The Vampire Lovers also looks appropriately gloomy and atmospheric in its equally spectacular 1.85:1 original aspect ratio. Sonically, the beautiful scores of both films resonate within the rather basic Dolby Digital Mono presentation. Oddly, the cleaned-up soundtracks underscore the fact that Pitt was dubbed (without her knowledge) by another actress in Countess Dracula.
As for extras, Hammer fans will rejoice at the pair of commentary tracks offered here. Countess Dracula offers Hungarian-born director Peter Sasdy, screenwriter Jeremy Paul, and the vivacious vamp herself, Ingrid Pitt, in a casual, charming dissection of the film and how it was made. Sasdy and Paul dominate the track with behind-the-scenes facts, filmmaking shortcuts, and casting decisions. Pitt, when she speaks, discusses her obsession with the role and the real life "Countess Bathory." She laments how the "proper" film of the notorious woman's life has yet to be made. She gets quite emotional over the subject and feels, somehow, that she undermined the lady's legacy by not fighting more to get the truth out. Pitt is back again for the Vampire Lovers commentary track, and along with director Roy Ward Baker and writer Tudor Gates, this is another wonderful backstage narrative. Everyone gets an equal say in what they think was the importance of this film to Hammer, how the original novella upon which the story was based was scuttled, and the hints of lesbianism—or lack thereof—in the film. Along with trailers for both movies, and an intriguing feature of Pitt reading excerpts from Carmilla (The Vampire Lovers' source material), this is a great double feature DVD that cements Hammer's importance as a leader in modern horror.
While both titles suggest a more "feminized" version of the inhuman horror staple, these are two films filled with naughty Nosferatus who can suck whatever they want, anytime.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary on Countess Dracula by Ingrid Pitt, Director Peter Sandy, and Screenwriter Jeremy Paul
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