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COUNTESS DRACULA/THE VAMPIRE LOVERS

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Ingrid Pitt, Peter Cushing, Madeline Smith, Douglas Wilmer, Leslie-Anne Down, Nigel Green
Directors: Peter Sasdy and Roy Ward Baker
Audio: English Mono
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Video: Color, anamorphic
Studio: MGM
Features: Commentaries, trailers, "Carmilla" excerpts
Length: 184 minutes
Release Date: August 26, 2003

"Devil woman!  Devil!  Devil!"

Films ***

The first and final word in British horror is Hammer.  For the better part of three decades, starting in the mid-1950's, this independent British film studio churned out scores of films which helped to re-popularize and re-define the horror genre.  And among the many voluptuous Hammer actresses over the years, none is better remembered today than cult heroine Ingrid Pitt.  Despite apparently in only two Hammer films, both during the studio's waning years, Ingrid Pitt cemented her immortal status as a horror film icon with her striking screen presence and solid thespian skills.

Pitt's first appearance in a Hammer production was in The Vampire Lovers (1970).  Conforming well to Hammer's reputation for Technicolor horror extravaganzas, the film was replete with blood, touches of violence, and gratuitous flashes of heaving bosoms.  Today, this Hammer film might not cause any raised eyebrows, but it, like many of the Hammer productions, was certainly racy for the British cinema of their day.  The women in The Vampire Lovers frequently walk about or converse in sheer nightgowns, and the film is presumed to be the first English horror film to include actual nudity.  One might say that Hammer films such as The Vampire Lovers established the indelible bond between vampirism and eroticism that continues in today's vampire films.

The Vampire Lovers commences with an astoundingly atmospheric prologue.  The land of Styria in the closing years of the eighteenth century has long been plagued by the departed members of the accursed Karnstein family.  These undead horrors have arisen from their mortal graves to strike terror into the hearts of men and women.  One sole vampire hunter, Baron Joachim von Hartog (Douglas Wilmer), has been tracking down the creatures responsible for so many unexplained deaths in the countryside.  Thanks to his undying efforts, these undead monsters are all ultimately defeated, except for a missing one - the beautiful Marcilla Karnstein (Ingrid Pitt).

Years of uneventful peace transpire until one grisly night when Marcilla reappears.  Seeking to avenge her family's decimation and to satisfy her own desire for blood, Marcilla assumes the guise of a simple rural girl, infiltrating into the good graces of the local gentry.  Attending a ball one evening at a mansion, she stays over and begins to develop a decidedly unhealthy relationship with Laura, daughter of the country gentleman, General von Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing).  The bond between Laura and Marcilla is perhaps too close and leads to ultimate tragedy for the von Spielsdorf family.

Marcilla soon vanishes, only to re-appear once more, this time as the niece of a traveler.  Again, she is taken into the manor of a kind but unsuspecting family.  And again, the cycle of horror begins once more as Marcilla befriends Emma Morton (Madeline Smith) and threatens to destroy the tranquility of the countryside.

Baron von Hartog, who years ago had vanquished the unnatural Karnstein horrors, finally re-emerges from the confines of his castle home to help vanquish this final Karnstein vampire.  With the assistance of Cushing's von Spielsdorf, Marcilla's reign of terror faces its greatest and fateful challenge.

While the generous serving of nudity and lesbianism in The Vampire Lovers provides some decided titillation, the film succeeds predominately upon the strength of Ingrid Pitt's mysterious Marcilla as well as the film's evocative cinematography.  Certainly, the film's first ten spectacular minutes are equal to anything the horror genre has to offer.

Ingrid Pitt's other film for Hammer was Countess Dracula (1971), based upon the life of the real 18th-century Hungarian Countess Elisabeth Bathory.  This infamous noblewoman, in an effort to maintain a youthful appearance, purportedly bathed in the blood of countless young virgins.

The film's title is a reference to a real fifth-century count, Vlad the Fifth of Wallachia.  He was a particularly blood-thirsty ruler known as Vlad the Impaler for his torture and murder of thousands of prisoners.  The count eventually assumed his father's name -  Dracul, meaning "devil" - and added the letter a, thus becoming "son of the devil."  So was born the legend of the true Count Dracula.  Of course, neither Vlad the Impaler nor his female counterpart the Countess Bathory were actually vampires in the popular sense of the word (vampires don't really exist now, do they?), but the legacies of both of these heinous individuals certainly contributed to the legend of the vampire as an undead, blood-thirsty creature of evil.

Countess Dracula opens with the death of the old Count Bathory.  His widow, the Countess Elisabeth Bathory (Ingrid Pitt) is an elderly, wizened woman, embittered by a life barren of happiness or the embrace of younger male companionship.  At the disclosure of the Count's will, Elisabeth spies Imre Toth, son of one of the Count's former friends.  He immediately catches Elisabeth's fancy, and even if her age and stature prevent Elisabeth from acting upon her impulses, her impassioned inner thoughts are evident in her intent gaze upon the young man.

One day, during the drawing of her bath, the Countess accidentally discovers the miraculous rejuvenating effect upon her skin of the blood from a maiden, struck in anger.  In secret, the Countess instantly orders the death of her hand-servant that she might bathe in the girl's blood.  When Elisabeth emerges from the literal bloodbath, she has transformed into a luscious, young woman.

Her youth restored, Bathory plots to assume the identity of her very own daughter, the princess Ilona, who until now has resided in Vienna since an early age as protection from marauding barbaric Turks along the kingdom's borders.  Since no one in the kingdom save for the Countess can recognize the princess now, with no one the wiser, the Countess decides to "become" the returning princess and to seduce young Toth.

Unfortunately, the restoration of youth is only temporary, and when the effects wear out, Elisabeth realizes that the only way to maintain her youthful appearance is to kill...and kill again.  Soon, young girls begin to vanish one by one from the kingdom, and dark rumors circulate about Bathory Castle and the evil witchcraft emanating from within.

Toth, as with all nave young men, is easily swayed by the physical charms of a beautiful woman.  Elisabeth, with her loyal Stewart Dobi assisting her and spiriting away her true daughter into captivity, continues her selfish charade to its bitter and inevitable conclusion.  But, there are only so many young maidens in the kingdom, and a horrific surprise eventually awaits not only Imre Toth but also the people of the kingdom when the terrible secrets of the Countess Bathory are finally laid bare for all to see.

Unlike The Vampire Lovers, Countess Dracula is really a drama film with some elements of horror.  In this sense, the title is a bit misleading, as there are no actual vampires or undead creatures in this film.  Nevertheless, it is a solidly-produced film from Hammer, with Ingrid Pitt demonstrating her range and acting proficiency in a dual role as the wicked Countess and as the false Princess Ilona.

Relatively speaking, Hammer was a small independent movie studio, but it always managed to make the most of its limited film budgets.  Certainly, the two films on this DVD, Countess Dracula and The Vampire Lovers, are among the best Hammer films of the 1970's.  So, when the air is crisp with the aroma of autumn leaves, when the chilling wind taps ever so lightly upon the window shutters, when the moonlight peers like an ominous eye from behind the obscuring curtain of nocturnal clouds, then we shall know the witching hour has arrived.  And during these dark nights, there is no finer time for horror, and for vintage cinematic horror, there is no finer company than Hammer.

Video ***

I was pleasantly surprised by the video quality of these films.  Both are presented in their respective widescreen format.  Countess Dracula looks quite sharp and nearly pristine.  The film's color, created by the Eastmancolor process, has a more natural tone than the Technicolor processing used for The Vampire Lovers.  Given the small market niche for this DVD, MGM has done an admirable job on this DVD.  In comparison to Countess Dracula, The Vampire Lovers has a softer image quality and the print occasionally shows some wear and tear, but the transfer itself is again quite decent with no compression artifacts to speak of.  Of the two films, The Vampire Lovers uses a lot more fog and night-time effects, and the transfer renders these scenes quite well.

As a bonus, this DVD contains scenes not regularly seen in American prints of these Hammer films, the excised scenes having been cut due to sex or violence.  The films are complete now, so Hammer fans may rejoice at the opportunity to see these films intact.

Audio ***

Sound quality is quite good, with little distortion in the upper registers and generally clear dialogue.  For monaural films, these two horror flicks sound quite atmospheric and creepy.

Features ***

This is a flipper disc!  The Vampire Lovers is presented on one side of the DVD, but turn the disc over and Countess Dracula is on the other side.  Both films are just over 90 minutes apiece in length and come with their respective trailers and commentary tracks.

Ingrid Pitt contributes comments to both tracks.  The commentary for The Vampire Lovers also has contributions from director Roy Ward Baker and the screenwriter Tudor Gates.  The three commentators reminisce about various cast members, particularly Peter Cushing.  Pitt also discusses her impression of the Le Fanu story upon which The Vampire Lovers was based and the saucier aspects of her role for this film.  This commentary track does contain several stretches of silence.

The track for Countess Dracula, in addition to Ingrid Pitt, also features the director Peter Sasdy and the screenwriter Jeremy Paul.  Sasdy dominates much of the proceedings and speaks to great length about the Hungarian background of the story.  Sasdy also bemoans the lack of storytelling and cognizant audience participation in today's horror films as opposed to older horror films.  There is also a lengthy discussion theorizing the reasons for Hammer's gradual demise by the mid-1970's.

As a particularly cool bonus, Ingrid Pitt reads excerpts (12 min.) from the Sheridan Le Fanu story Carmilla.  Her eerie recitation is accompanied by spooky music to set the mood as well as a slideshow of production photos and publicity stills from The Vampire Lovers.  This is quite a nice multimedia presentation of what is essentially a photo gallery, and I certainly would not mind seeing this format used for more DVD galleries.

BONUS TRIVIA:  The smashing success of The Vampire Lovers led to two sequels, Lust for a Vampire and the brutal Twins of Evil, completing a Karnstein trilogy.  Neither of the sequels featured Ingrid Pitt, however.

Summary:

Ready for some chills served up in the classic Hammer style?  Check out the MGM double feature Countess Dracula and The Vampire Lovers.  These cult classics, starring horror icon Ingrid Pitt, are among the finest productions of Hammer's later years.

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