Saturday 13 November 2010

Blood Bathory

Countess Dracula 1971 UK
Directed by Peter Sasdy
Hammer/MGM Midnight Movies DVD Region 1

Feel free but forewarned to bathe in the bloody spoilers that bubble to the surface of this article!

Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed lived, in real life, in the late 16th and early 17th century where she and her four “accessories” tortured and murdered literally hundreds of young women and girls after the death of her husband. Just how many hundreds is up to speculation although the actual solid number her accomplices were tried and convicted for is 80. Báthory herself was neither officially tried nor convicted but was bricked into a set of rooms until her death four years later.

It’s no surprise then that the obvious hard-edged personality of this female serial-killer would be appropriated and used by so many artists in so many media over the years as a character in books, poetry, comics, films, animations and modern day BDSM scene videos. It’s also no surprise that out of all the many movies to feature a variation of her character, one of the first two movies (both made in 1970) to feature her was made by classic British horror studio Hammer.

One of the myths of Báthory’s crimes which grew over the years was that she would bathe in the blood of virgins to prolongs her life and preserve or regain her youth was an obvious connection to the myth of the vampire and one which Hammer would exploit in the title of a movie “inspired” by Báthory’s final years called Countess Dracula - although it’s pretty clear that Ingrid Pitt, the star of the show, is playing a pretty much soft filtered version of Báthory.

My guess is that in their wisdom to not fall foul of the censor in such a way that would be a detriment to them releasing their finished product after so many battles with the British censors over the years, Hammer took away the torture aspect of her character and just ran with the premise of a woman who murders female virgins to bathe in their blood which has the effect of rejuvenating her body to that of a younger version of herself for a limited number of days. No attempt is made to explain why they have to be virgins however.

And that’s one of the problems with the film as a whole actually... not that it’s not a good film, there’s much to like in it. It’s just that in the scene where Báthory accidentally finds that smearing the blood of one of her hand servants across her face means that she can “wipe out wrinkles like the stars” and then, after experimenting with killing and bathing which gives new credence to the term “blood bath”, there is no actual explanation as to why this process of a young wenches blood over your naked and obviously attractive body (it is Ingrid Pitt we are talking about here after all, so attractive is right) would cause your hormones to wake up and dance in the air and treat your skin in such a friendly manner. There is talk of the condition later in an “ancient tome” where it is found that is has to be the blood of virgins, but no elaboration is offered. A bit strange and I don’t think that’s necessarily something modern day audiences of this kind of movie would sit still for today. For some reason modern cinema audiences like to have all manner of ridiculous explanation thrown into the mix so they can somehow half rationalise the ridiculous nature of the scenes they have inflicted upon them in the myriad of multiplexes dotted about our proud nation.

In the case of this movie, of course, it doesn’t matter in the least. Peter Sasdy’s direction is quite sure footed and the cinematography is actually quite creative with many of the shots existing with more than one plain of reference to refer to (main characters doing things and then walking off shot on a balcony on an upper level at the top of a set-up while the main action if focussed on an incident happening in the foreground for example) and in some cases objects and people follow the patterns of the interiors and shift with those interiors as the camera follows with them... smooth stuff.

Wonderful actors too with the likes of Nigel Green (The IPCRESS File, Jason and the Argonauts), Sandor Elès and the very young but very lovely Lesley-Anne Down joining the “titular” character Ingrid Pitt (who does wonders playing an older version of herself in what must have been very hampering make-up). Funnily enough there’s a lot of female nudity on show in this one (oh well, one has to make these sacrifices watching these movies :-) but I never once (thankfully) saw Nigel Green or Sandor Elès get their kit off! And this is the movie which features, you must have seen it, that wonderful iconic shot of Ingrid Pitt as Sandor Elès catches her standing in the bath sponging her naked body with Kensington gore which is perhaps a little short in terms of being barely glimpsed on screen (bet that was a battle with the censors to even get it on screen judging from some of the transcripts of the letters I’ve seen for some of Hammer’s earlier productions) but which has always been around as an iconic, although often censored, still photograph used to promote the movie (pardon me while I stop to wipe copious amounts of drool from my keyboard here).

Also on hand is a really excellent and lush score by Harry Robinson which is punctuated by rich orchestration and uses instruments like the cimbalom, presumably to highlight the Hungarian origins of Báthory’s surroundings (which I’m thankful for otherwise I would have had no idea it was supposed to be set anywhere near Hungary - it looks like the same forest they always use to me - wink). It’s truly a delightful score and one that I wish had been given a CD soundtrack release already.

I think my only other problem with this movie, apart from the lack of any explanation as to the logic behind the science/alchemy of blood to youth hygiene practices, would be the rushed nature of the ending which sees the quick and unexpected death of the young, romantic leading man and the imprisonment of Báthory, her other lover and her lady in waiting while the local villagers chant out “Countess Dracula” before we go to a horrendous 70s style freeze frame (well it is a 70s movie I suppose) which kinda jars a little with the rest of the pacing.

However, when all is said and done a quite nice accoutrement to the Hammer legacy and, although not in my top ten Hammers, certainly a worthy addition which would be mostly enjoyed by fans of British horror movies of this period.

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