As the ’60s gave way to the ’70s, Ingrid Pitt made an indelible mark on the world of horror through her work with Hammer Films. Though she only toplined two films for the studio, both represented a change in style and explicitness at the studio as they tried to adjust to expanding freedoms of the new decade by producing work that was more sexually frank. Sultry and voluptuous, Pitt was the ideal embodiment of this new approach, giving off carnality with every syllable as she tore her way through The Vampire Lovers. Her followup was Countess Dracula, and while it isn’t as earth-shaking as it predecessor, it gives an undeniable erotic charge to Hammer’s castle-gothic style.
Countess Dracula is loosely modeled on the real life terrors of Countess Bathory, who bathed in the blood of virgins in attempt to retain youth. Pitt toplines as Countess Elizabeth Nodosheen, an aging and cruel noble who rules over a village with a iron fist and a cold heart. When her husband passes away, she meets young soldier Lt. Toth (Sandor Eles) at the reading of the will and falls in love. Since she is too old to woo him, she frets over this… until she discovers that blood of a chambermaid that she has been tormenting restores her skin to a youthful beauty.
In short order, she is bathing in the blood of whatever younger and poorer lass she can entrap with the help of faithful maid Julie (Patience Collier) and old lover Captain Dobi (Nigel Green). Her younger daughter Ilona (Lesley Anne Down) is on her way to collect her inheritance but Elizabeth has her waylaid and poses as her, using her newly youthful appearance to romance Lt. Toth. However, the need for blood grows bigger as she maintains this charade, it becomes harder to cover her tracks and her sanity slips as each return to old age drives her a little crazier. It’s inevitable that such a cruel mistress must experience a comeuppance and fate has some nasty twists in store for the Countess.
The results are a fun romp through gothic chills, spiced up with a little bare flesh and a few dollops of blood. Jeremy Paul’s script takes a little while to rev up but it perks up once the Countess gets her first taste of blood-beauty and maintains an impressive sense of drive all the way through to its finale. Along the way, it makes an interesting commentary on how the upper classes prey on the lower ones by presenting a literal case of bloodsucking. It often plays like a gothic version of an E.C. Comics tale, piling on the nastiness of the ruling class until justice is delivered in a bitterly ironic coda.
Countess Dracula also benefits from stylish direction by Peter Sasdy, who made some Hammer’s most interesting latter-day efforts. His work isn’t as furiously stylish as it would be in his next film, Hands Of The Ripper, but he digs into the shifts between beauty and age with an vigorous visual approach and delivers a few scare setpieces that are striking, particularly the fate of a poor fortune teller. His stylish work behind the camera is supported by a strong cast: Eles makes a likeable romantic lead, looking kind of like a young Eric Roberts, and Green is darkly humorous as the old lover who chafes resentfully under the machinations of the Countess.
That said, Countess Dracula belongs to Pitt, who makes it a full showcase for her skills. Whether she is cavorting lustily in her younger guise or swinging a dagger vengefully under old age makeup, she makes a meal out of her dual role. She gives the necessary theatrics a sense of total conviction and a fiery level of energy. It’s a shame she didn’t do much more horror fare as she had the gleeful, operatic quality – and the sexiness – that a scream queen requires. Countess Dracula remains an excellent testament to both her loveliness and her brave commitment to the horror theatrics.