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Countess Dracula

Synapse Films // PG // May 6, 2014
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted May 22, 2014 | E-mail the Author
It's only a few seconds into Countess Dracula until a lifeless corpse is first encountered. This being a Hammer Films production and all, that probably ought to go without saying, but Count Nádasdy doesn't meet that kind
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of end. No, the Count was an admired and respected gentleman of great means, and there was nothing the least bit gruesome or supernatural about his death. His last will and testament are read shortly thereafter. Some of the Count's closest friends and colleagues are richly rewarded, and others...well...aren't. No matter what those around her may have gained, all that the widowed Countess (Ingrid Pitt) sees is loss. Her husband is gone. Her once legendary beauty is a distant, faded memory. No matter how much wealth and property she controls, all the Countess feels she really has to look forward to are at best a few more years of an empty, unfulfilling routine. She's still reeling from these realizations when she lashes out at a careless servant. It's an attack vicious enough to have spattered some of the young girl's blood onto the Countess' aged, weathered face. The woman looking back at her in the mirror looks some fifty years younger...the part of it smeared with blood, at least. The Countess quickly marches to the servant girl's quarters to finish the job. What's one dimwitted, useless child -- someone who might as well be property -- compared to youth, beauty, and a new lease on life?

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
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blackmailed into committing murder -- he devolves into something far more cold and cruel. Despite the best efforts of the Countess and her attendants, such a staggering number of victims cannot go unnoticed forever, but bathing in sacrificial blood is an addiction she can't possibly quit.

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:

Carlton DVD (2002)Synapse BD (2014)
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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.

  • Audio Commentary: Synapse Films took care to bring over from MGM's long-out-of-print DVD this commentary track with actress Ingrid Pitt, director Peter Sasdy, screenwriter Jeremy Paul, and moderator Jonathan Sothcott. There's a wealth of wonderful information in here, such as filtering a Hungarian story through the Hammer lens, the difficulty in striking the proper voice and tone, and landing some remarkably lavish production values on a rather modest budget. It analyzes as well as reflects, noting the weakness of all the central male characters, its not-especially-exploitative imagery, and even mulling over whether or not Nigel Green would've been a worthy successor for Christopher Lee's iconic
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    fangs. As is the case with the film itself, Pitt is very much the best thing about this commentary. Though she's not the dominant presence, Pitt's notes easily rank as the most memorable, from her encyclopediac knowledge of Elizabeth Báthory to her brief and hilarious answer to a question about all the nude scenes she'd done.

  • Immortal Countess: The Cinematic Life of Ingrid Pitt (11 min.; partially HD): Ingrid Pitt led an incredibly remarkable life, surviving a concentration camp and escaping Communist police to become one of Britain's most iconic horror actresses. This retrospective honors Pitt's life and career, one that spans from the schlocky Sound of Horror with its invisible T-rex all the way to the big-budget Where Eagles Dare. Her horror work is naturally lavished with the attention it deserves, especially her blood-spattered pair of movies for Hammer. There's surprisingly little about Pitt after her early '70s genre cinema stardom, but that's understandable for a retrospective with "Cinematic Life" in its title.

    "Immortal Countess" is presented in 1080p24 and features a slew of very high-resolution stills. Bizarrely, though, the newly-conducted interviews look awful. They're soft, heavily aliased, and even kind of jittery. It's almost uncomfortable to watch that mix of professional lighting and webcam-quality video.

  • Archival Audio Interview with Ingrid Pitt (9 min.): Unless I'm completely overlooking something, there's nothing indicating where this interview is from or when it was conducted. It's still a compelling listen, with the always entrancing Pitt speaking about her small but lucrative role in Doctor Zhivago, the unexpected tonal shift between screenplay and photography for The House That Dripped Blood, and her breakthrough role in Where Eagles Dare. Pitt also touches on the lingering scars left on her by the second World War as well as the dismal state of the British film industry at the time. She doesn't discuss Countess Dracula at all, not that that should stop anyone from wanting to give this rewarding conversation a listen. The very rough audio quality is unfortunate, though.

  • Still Gallery (7 min.; HD): An extensive gallery cycles through production stills, poster art, and international lobby cards for seven minutes. None of the usual button-mashing is necessary to navigate through these 80 or so images.

  • Trailer (3 min.; SD): Last up is a standard definition trailer.

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.
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