The iconic imagery of Hammer Films usually involves Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing driving a stake through (or otherwise murdering) Christopher Lee’s Dracula. The pair made three vampire films together at the studio (and each one several without the other), and indeed these films define one of the most beloved runs in horror movie history.
But while Hammer is rightfully known for vampire films with Lee and Cushing, neither actor appears in Hammer’s best vampire film, and neither do vampires. In 1971, Peter Sasdy turned the historical legend of Elizabeth Báthory into a gothic tragedy rife with the heavy bloodletting and bare breasts that had increasingly marked the studio’s output since the late 60’s, the great Countess Dracula.
Hungary’s “Bloody Countess,” allegedly history’s most prolific serial killer, bathed in the blood of her virgin victims to prolong her youth, abducting them from among her feudal subjects and bleeding them out in torture chambers. Allegedly. And this alleged story seems so perfectly fit for Hammer’s formula that they could do little more than change the proper nouns in one of their Dracula scripts and have a modest hit on their hands. Luckily, Countess Dracula is much more than an ad-lib on the studio’s house style.
The start is familiar: a traveler on a wooded road arrives at a foreboding castle, where shit is creepy and not as it seems. But this castle is not home to the typical undead lord of the night. Countess Elizabeth Nádasdy (Ingrid Pitt in bad old age makeup) lives here, and with a young prince arriving, her inheritance threatened, and her beauty not getting any more full, she stumbles on a neat trick that makes her look just like Ingrid Pitt without old age makeup.
It’s safe to say that if everyone could look like Ingrid Pitt after a hot blood bath, we would all take a lot less showers. And that’s precisely what the Countess does, as the morning after each rejuvenation leaves her uglier and and older than the last. As the body count piles up and the supporting cast grows suspicious, things get a lot more interesting than your average Hammer film.
Hammer horror films are beloved, and I love them, but if we’re honest, a lot of them are cheap crap. Always beautiful and atmospheric, they are frequently dull and stretched plotwise beyond any reasonable breaking point. Stock characters move, unmotivated, between castle and village and take their sweet time getting their stakes in the heart of the matter, and the movies get busy getting boring fast.
Countess Dracula, with a roster of interesting side characters with compelling, competing motivations, never gets boring. It escalates tension nicely, pacing out kills like a well-honed slasher and grounding the emotional story in Captain Dobi, one of Hammer’s most successful attempts at a human character. Dobi, played with relish and cossack hat by Nigel Green, loved the Countess before her murderous makeover, and his reluctant assistance in her scheme only tightens the screw on all of the players.
The script functions almost like a supernatural noir, with intertangled love triangles interrupted frequently by grizzly deaths and tasty misunderstandings. This attention to story, so rare in the Hammer world of sets and monsters, only makes the sets and monsters sweeter when they hit (which is often). Perhaps it was the gift of the perfect historical legend tied up in a bow, but Countess Dracula just clicks in a way its fanged older siblings never did. It is the perfect Hammer Vampire Movie, filled with blood and sex and scenery chewing, but without a vampire in sight.