Turning the clock back the better part of a half-century has its share of logistical headaches. For one, the Countess can't simply stroll down the stairs and announce that she's stumbled onto some sort of sanguine fountain of youth. She instead poses as her own daughter, one who's spent most of her life away from the castle. To maintain that faéade, the actual Ilona (Lesley-Anne Down) is kidnapped during her long-awaited return home and held captive by a monstrous brute. The Countess' lust is rekindled as her youth is restored, and she quickly becomes enthralled with a young military man (Sandor Elès) taken under her late husband's wing. As it turns out, though, the rejuvenating effect of those few splashes of blood is all too temporary. The Countess' beauty quickly withers and decays, rendering her visage even more decrepit than before. She needs a steady supply of youthful blood, dispatching the castle steward (Nigel Green) to carry out her brutal regimen. Dobi loves the Countess as she was, but deprived of her affection and any meaningful inheritance -- not to mention
Countess Dracula accomplishes something I can't say about any other film inspired by the nightmarish atrocities of Elizabeth Báthory: it portrays the Countess as a sympathetic, tragic figure. The first of the many murders for which she's responsible takes place largely off-camera. Such an approach makes it that much easier to see the Countess' transformation from a dour, elderly woman to a young, achingly gorgeous sexpot as a joyous experience. I don't see death; I see instead a lust for life. When the effect fades and the Countess once again looks as if she's well into her eighties, the devastated expression on her face is genuinely heartbreaking. This "Dracula" has no fangs and needn't transform into any sort of furry creature; the horror emerges by witnessing the Countess' descent into madness. That's a remarkably difficult goal to achieve, and Countess Dracula executes it brilliantly, thanks to a smart, character-driven screenplay and a gifted cast. Ingrid Pitt, arriving mere months after being the most extraordinary thing about The Vampire Lovers, contributes an even more memorable performance. There's more than old age makeup differentiating the Countess, young and old; they're vastly different characters, and Pitt flawlessly realizes the frenzied dips and dives of their emotional arcs.
The emphasis here is placed more heavily on emotional viscera rather than in buckets of stage blood. The murders are intense and haunting without being graphic, and that's quite a compliment coming from a seasoned gorehound like myself. Remarkably, the stunning Ingrid Pitt isn't the most visually arresting thing about Countess Dracula. Director Peter Sasdy and cinematographer Ken Talbot, who had previously collaborated on Hands of the Ripper, share a remarkably cinematic eye. The wardrobe and production design are tremendous as well, benefitting greatly from sets left over from Universal's Anne of the Thousand Days. There isn't a weak link in the cast, and the sharply written screenplay by Jeremy Paul gives them no shortage of quality material with which to work. Countess Dracula is often shrugged off as being slow and uninvolving, but its rich characterization and thematic strength kept an iron grip on my attention. This is a story about people on the brink of having everything they'd ever dreamt of, only to have it remain frustratingly out of reach, ravaging their minds and moral compasses in the process. It's true that Countess Dracula isn't a traditional Hammer horror film, but that doesn't make it bad; just different. I'm thrilled to at long last be able to experience Countess Dracula in high definition, and here's hoping that more classic Hammer horror will finally claw its way onto Blu-ray on this side of the Atlantic. Highly Recommended.
My first time seeing Countess Dracula came courtesy of Carlton Visual Entertainment's DVD release from the other side of the pond. (Thanks, Tom!) It wasn't exactly a world-class presentation, suffering from wildly uneven contrast, dull colors, heavy filtering, and a mangled aspect ratio. It really ought to go without saying that Synapse's newly-minted Blu-ray release is a dramatic improvement:
That stretching from Carlton's DVD still makes me cringe, and the Blu-ray disc's accurately preserved aspect ratio alone makes for an essential upgrade. Countess Dracula's colors are better balanced here and feel far more natural, especially its fleshtones. Contrast is robust and vastly more consistent as well. The heaviest speckling is limited to the bookending stretches, otherwise remaining mild and not overly intrusive. Definition and detail are generally terrific, and it's greatly appreciated that Countess Dracula's filmic texture has been faithfully retained on Blu-ray. Countess Dracula arrives on a dual-layer disc, ensuring that the AVC encode has all the headroom it needs.
I don't have MGM's Midnite Movies double feature handy to do a direct comparison, but considering that disc is eleven years old and limited to non-anamorphic widescreen, I'd expect the improvements here to be similarly revelatory. Synapse has done a tremendous job polishing the masters that MGM supplied for their previous Hammer releases, and Countess Dracula makes it four for four.
Countess Dracula boasts a respectable DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, presented here in 24-bit, two-channel mono. Dynamic range is understandably limited, but the soundtrack is clean, clear, and reasonably robust just the same. Though one early sequence struck me as just a bit too trebly, the remainder of the film leaves very little room for complaint. No pops, crackles, or dropouts ever threaten to intrude, and dialogue is reproduced without any strain or clipping. Well done.
An audio commentary and a set of English (SDH) subtitles round out the audio options.
Synapse is issuing Countess Dracula as a combo pack that also has an anamorphic widescreen DVD along for the ride. The reversible cover art has something wonderfully lurid waiting for you when you crack the case open.
The Final Word
Countess Dracula is often dismissed as lesser Hammer, and given its artful craftsmanship, strong performances, and the devastating tragedies at its core, I just can't relate to that mindset at all. This is a film that's very much worth rediscovering and re-evaluating, especially in a release as strong as what Synapse has delivered here. Highly Recommended.