Midnite Movies: Countess Dracula/The Vampire Lovers
Year: 1970 / 1970
Rated: PG / R
Film Length: 93 minutes / 91 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1 Widescreen (Non-Anamorphic) / 16X9 Enhanced Widescreen (1.85:1)
Subtitles: English, French & Spanish (both)
Audio: Mono (both)
Two films for one low price is what MGM offers on their Midnite Movies releases, with each film and its corresponding special features residing on one side of a flipper disc. This particular title contains two Hammer Films offerings, both starring Ingrid Pitt, that were released theatrically in 1970. Before we dig any deeper though, I should mention that upon opening the seal on the keepcase, I was disappointed to discover that there was no insert. I am not sure if this is the case with the other titles in this line, but I certainly hope not. Now lets buckle down and take a look at these two films…
Countess Dracula begins with the examination of the will of Countess Elisabeth Nadasdy’s (Ingrid Pitt) late husband. This unfolds in standard fashion, with the Count providing permanent housing and a large sum of cash for his loyal servant Julie (Patience Collier) and leaving his entire library to the castle’s resident wise man (Maurice Denham). As the Count’s last wishes are revealed, however, several of the Count’s would-be heirs are surprised or disappointed. For example, the Count leaves a home, stable, and his entire stock of horses to Imre Toth (Sandor Eles), the son of a late general that was a very close friend.
This unexpected generosity to Imre Toth infuriates the Count’s Captain, Dobi (Nigel Green), who receives only his uniforms and weapons. The Countess tells Dobi that he should not be disappointed, as the Count was aware of their amorous relationship. Finally, the rest of the Count’s estate is divided between Countess Elisabeth and their daughter Ilona (Lesley-Anne Down). More interestingly, the Countess becomes infatuated with this handsome young Toth, which is the impetus for the events that occur later in the story.
At this point in the film, the Countess is a haggard, bitter woman, who gets extremely aggravated by even the most trivial things. Her disdain for “common” people is amply displayed, and she treats her servants with utter disregard. It is this contemptible behavior, however, that leads to a very important discovery, for in an altercation with a handmaiden over drawing a bath that was too hot (heaven forbid!), the handmaiden cuts her face, spraying blood on the Countess’ cheek. As the girl flees, the Countess begins cleaning herself up, and is astonished to find the area of her face that came into contact with the maid’s blood has become youthful and radiant.
In the span of a few seconds, Elisabeth decides that this unexpected find will be the key to fulfilling her desire to be with Imre Toth. Even this early in the story, it is clear the Countess has become completely consumed by her desire to be young again, and have the love of a young man. Unfortunately for the handmaiden, this means her life must be forfeited so the Countess will have enough blood to completely restore her youthful appearance. Unfailing, but misguided, in her loyalty to the family, Julie falls in line with her mistress’ evil scheme, and leads the Countess to the girl’s room, where the first murder takes place.
Immediately, the Countess begins to pass herself off as her daughter Ilona, and after a brief (and silly) courtship, she wins Imre Toth’s affection. Almost as quickly, the two are to be married. When the couple is about to get really intimate though, Elisabeth suddenly discovers that there is a price to pay for her ill-gotten youth. Unbeknownst to Toth, Elisabeth’s youthful appearance vanishes, her face becoming even more repulsive and hideous than it had been originally, and she runs away from him without explanation. Fortunately for her though, a circus rolls into town, with a fresh supply of beautiful young women to satisfy the Countess’ need for blood, and though the subsequent murder of a gypsy fortune-teller briefly restores her youth again, she realizes that a steady stream of victims will be necessary to continue her trickery.
Meanwhile, Captain Dobi, who spent many years in service of the Count to be near his true love, is not at all pleased with the Countess’ obsession with Imre Toth. He arranges for the real Ilona to be captured and held prisoner, and hires a local whore to make it appear as if Toth’s claims of love for the fake Ilona are baseless. Soon, however, the youthful incarnation of Elisabeth also enthralls Dobi, and after she promises to sleep with him as Ilona, he too participates in her inhuman quest. To their dismay, Dobi’s first offering, the whore hired to bed a very drunk Imre Toth, fails to restore Elisabeth’s youth, so they seek out scholarly old Fabio, who inherited the Count’s library to find out why.
While all of this murder and deceit has been going on, Fabio has become suspicious, and in his snooping, he happens on a book that reveals the restorative powers of virgin blood. Making a bargain for his life, he reveals this precious secret to the Countess, but is soon murdered by Dobi, who worries that Fabio will betray their trust. Despite Dobi’s attempt to make Fabio’s death appear to be a suicide, Captain Balogh (Peter Jeffrey) of the local police force senses foul play, and the investigation into the disappearances of young girls shifts towards the castle and its aristocratic residents. To reveal any more of the storyline would spoil the experience for those who would choose to watch this film, so it is time to move along…
You have got to love misleading marketing. The mere mention of the name Dracula brings vampires to mind, but as you may have noticed, there is not the slightest hint of vampirism in the outline of the story preceding this paragraph. Yes friends, despite the film’s title, and the description of a “voracious vampire vixen” on the keepcase, this film is vampire-free. While this fact has no bearing on my assessment of film’s quality, I think it is important to mention for those who may rent or purchase this title with the expectation of seeing two vampire films.
While lacking in the vampire department, Countess Dracula is based on the life of Countess Elisabeth Bathory (1560-1614), who is believed to have butchered hundreds of young girls in the 16th century. This depraved psychopath would brutally torture her victims, and then bathe in their blood, with the hope of retaining her youth and vitality. Startlingly, due to her position within society, she was able to do so for some time with impunity, simply moving along when her supply of victims in a particular locale began to run low. Even when finally arrested, she was not sentenced to death, as her associates were, but placed into a sealed room, where she later died.
Despite being based on such a horrific historical figure, and the association of Hammer films with gratuitous nudity, I found Countess Dracula to be neither titillating nor scary. In large part, the movie is held back by its dreadfully slow pace and terrible performances by some of the supporting cast-members, specifically Lesley-Anne Down and Sandor Eles. Indeed, although the movie only runs for 93 minutes, it feels like forever due to the general lack of action and truly silly behavior by some characters, who are much too eager to take innocent lives for the Countess, or in the case of her daughter, much too eager to ignore precautionary measures, despite her life being in danger.
If anything, the inspired performances by the leads, Ingrid Pitt and Nigel Green, are the only thing setting this film apart from utter mediocrity. Ingrid Pitt is especially great in this film, and she really breathes life into the two very different characters she portrays. She is twisted, evil, and cruel as the Countess, and yet alluring, charming, and engaging as the fake Ilona. And for those that are interested, Ingrid is featured completely nude in the film (thankfully as Ilona, not the old Countess) , as she emerges from a blood filled bathtub (this scene does appear to have been trimmed though).
I cannot completely bash Peter Sasdy’s film though, as he has integrated some interesting elements into it that make for a pretty effective social commentary. From its beginning, this film clearly illustrates the disparity between the privileged aristocracy and common folk that was so prevalent in feudal societies. In one scene, the Countess’ carriage runs over and kills a villager, and she does not so much as stop to check and see if the poor soul is alright. Later, Captain Dobi is able to obtain a rather ordinary looking virgin for the Countess to prey upon from a peddler of women for free (she is thrown in with the mere purchase of a goat)!
Sadly, these scenes accurately portray what happened all too often during this period in history, when the elite could do almost whatever they wished to peasants, who more often than not relied upon them for protection. This point is really driven home by the soldier’s speech to some villagers late in the film, when he blasts the villagers for talking about the Countess that provides for them, and tells the woman that has lost a child not to worry, because she has six more. Quite simply, so many lived in fear and reverence of their lords/mistresses that one (or a few) wronged peasants would generally never have any recourse for their mistreatment or loss.
Still, while it features memorable performances by Pitt and Green, and succeeds as a social commentary, it failed to entertain me. I realize that there are many fans of these Hammer productions out there, but quite frankly, I was bored throughout most of the film, and thought the questionable behavior of the principals and clumsy ending subverted the film’s few qualities. As such, if this were the only film included on the disc, it would be hard to recommend Countess Dracula even as a rental.
The Vampire Lovers
This Hammer production, released in 1970 as the first film in the “Karnstein lesbian vampire triology”, is a relatively faithful adaptation of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s famous vampire yarn Carmilla. For those interested, the other two films in the trilogy, are Lust for a Vampire and Twins of Evil. This film, directed by Roy Ward Baker, differs significantly in style and tone from Countess Dracula, and is a far superior work, in my humble opinion. Without question, it is the edgier of the two, in terms of both horror elements and the lesbian tension present throughout.
The first sequence depicts the decapitation of a beautiful blond vampire by Baron von Hartog (Nayland Smith), an expert vampire killer, who in this case is spared a painful end when his would-be killer’s breast touches the cross hanging from his neck. During the credits, forty years pass, and the film resumes with one General Spielsdorf (the legendary Peter Cushing) hosting a birthday bash for his niece, Laura (Pippa Steele). In attendance are the General’s new neighbors, an attractive Countess and her luscious daughter, Marcilla (Ingrid Pitt), who is all the rage with the younger men at the party.
After the appearance of a mysterious man clad in black, the Countess disappears, and Marcilla is invited to stay with the General’s family. Shortly thereafter, Laura begins having recurring nightmares about being made love to by a cat-like creature. As the dreams continue, her physical condition worsens, and she passes away, simultaneously with the disappearance on the family’s guest. Strangely, during a post-mortem examination by the local doctor, two small puncture wounds are observed on one of her breasts.
After Laura’s premature demise, which naturally shocks and deeply saddens those near to her, a close friend, Emma Morton (Madeline Smith) is traveling through the area with her father when they come upon a carriage that has become disabled. Unwittingly, the Mortons invite the beautiful passenger, and murderer of their friend (now calling herself Carmilla), to stay with them. Little do they know the evil that this simple act of humanity will bring into their home.
Once she is a guest in the Morton house, Carmilla quickly goes to work, seducing both the gorgeous young Emma and a visiting French Governess (Kate O’Mara). Soon, much as Laura did, Emma begins to fall ill, and have nightmares. Fortunately, her death is postponed by the cleverness of a male valet serving the Mortons and a local doctor, who place a cross around her neck and garlic plants inside her room. Although the valet and doctor eventually fall prey to Carmilla, their actions buy Emma some time. In the meantime, General Spielsdorf pays a visit to his friend Baron von Hartog, and the hunt for Carmilla ensues.
Hammer Films is most noted for their productions involving the trio of Dracula, Frankenstein, and Carmilla Karnstein. As previously mentioned, there is plenty of sexual tension between the women in the film, almost all of which are extremely beautiful. This stands to reason, when you consider the fact that Carmilla preyed primarily on young women of society by insinuating herself into finishing schools and noble households.
While this does not rank among the best gothic horror films, and lacks any really frightening moments (in spite of the decapitations), it portrays the vampire in a different light than most other films, which is refreshing. Specifically, while Carmilla must drain the life force of the living to survive, she is depicted as a lonely, tortured soul who uses her sensuality as much as her fangs to prey upon her victims. The film is also strengthened by its serious tone, especially during the more risqué moments. And at the risk of sounding foolish, I even think the nudity, while somewhat gratuitous, serves the story, which is both rare and commendable.
Earlier, I alluded to differences between the style of this film and Countess Dracula. In The Vampire Lovers, the film’s pace is used to establish a creepy, haunting atmosphere, while the brooding pace of the former film just led to boredom. I am not a full-fledged expert on these films, but it looks like The Vampire Lovers also benefited from a bigger budget, and as such the set design, including the requisite misty graveyards, were used to better effect. There seems to be more attention to detail in this film as well, including Hammer Films’ decision to allow Carmilla to wander in daylight, as she does in Le Fanu’s classic novel. I guess the bottom line is that I found this film to be quite entertaining, with excellent performances and a fairly engaging plot.
So, How Does It Look?
Countess Dracula is presented in non-anamorphic widescreen (1.66:1) and The Vampire Lovers is presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1). I found the transfer on The Vampire Lovers to be quite a bit better, but I certainly do not consider either to be anywhere near reference quality. In particular, the transfer on Countess Dracula appears soft, and even slightly out-of-focus at times (especially in Chapter Two). Flesh tones also leaned a tad towards orange, although the actors seemed to be wearing quite a bit of make-up. Strangely, although the black level was pretty good throughout, shadow detail was a bit lacking, which obscured fine detail in the film’s many dark scenes to a degree. Overall, this is not a very good transfer, but I cannot imagine that the source material used was in the greatest condition, so make of that what you will.
The transfer of The Vampire Lovers, however, is a whole different animal. To begin with, it is anamorphic, and black level is rock solid, leading to a fluid, film-like appearance and better than average shadow delineation. Moreover, colors are saturated, flesh tones are accurately renderd, and fine detail is better than I would expect from the release of a film made in 1970. Unfortunately, the picture appears a little soft at times, and some instances of edge enhancement are visible, though haloing never becomes too much of an irritant. There is also some artifcating and video noise in the scenes containing smoke and fog (chapter 14 is a real trouble spot), which knock this otherwise good transfer down a notch. All things considered, the transfer of The Vampire Lovers is pretty solid, especially considering the age of the film.
What Is That Noise?
The audio for both Countess Dracula and The Vampire Lovers is in mono, and while neither was spectacular, I found both to be adequate. Considering the age of the films, I was not expecting much, but although there is almost no real low frequency information to speak of, dialogue was clear and hiss-free, which is good, because both films are largely dialogue-driven. In fact, there were a couple of scenes where no dialogue or music was present, and the resulting silence lent an almost eerie quality to the films.
High frequencies also sounded airy and true, in particular the well rendered female voices. The sound-field for both movies is pretty narrow though, even in the few intense moments in the films. However, there is never a point where dialogue is drowned out because although the scores for both films are effective, they are pretty sparse.
** Feature Length Commentary - Countess Dracula:
This commentary track, featuring Ingrid Pitt, Director Peter Sasdy, Screenwriter Jeremy Paul, and author Jonathan Sasdow is informative, but rather dull. There is not much interaction between the four participants, with one speaker talking for long periods of time, and precious little commentary by Ingrid Pitt. Here, as in the commentary track for The Vampire Lovers, Sasdow makes inquiries of Pitt, Sasdy, and Paul, but the answers are just not as interesting as I had hoped they would be. Sure there are exceptions, such as Sasdy’s comments about Hammer Films tight budgets, which led directors to shoot only what would be needed, and Ingrid Pitt’s brief discussion about her feelings about appearing nude. Overall though, there is simply to much extraneous information, and not enough real substantial commentary on either Hammer Films or the making of Countess Dracula to make it recommended listening for most people.
**Feature Length Commentary – The Vampire Lovers:
In regard to The Vampire Lovers, I was very interested in hearing what these veterans of the horror genre had to say about its development, particularly because I liked it so much more than Countess Dracula. Sadly, I was less than thrilled with this commentary as well. The participants (Ingrid Pitt, Roy Ward Baker, Tudor Gates, and Jonathan Sasdow) were all very un-involving, delivering commentary as dry and lifeless as a vampire that has been staked through the heart.
Now I do not for one minute to expect that all commentary tracks should be fabulously witty or exhaustively informative, but some sort of effort should be made to engage the listener. This presentation is disappointing, because there were too few interesting stories told, and the speakers made them almost unbearable to listen to. As an example, Ingrid Pitt said “fantastic” so many times during the first few minutes of the commentary, I almost felt compelled to keep a tally. Hey, I know that might be trivial, but it was very annoying!
Even more aggravating was the way (Jonathan Sasdow, author of a book on Christopher Lee) would fire off questions for the others to answer. Pitt, Gates, and Baker did not have too much to offer without prompting from Sasdow, and there were many periods of awkward silence, but it almost felt like a press conference after a sporting event, where journalists ask painfully obvious questions. A lot of the answers were rambling and incoherent, particularly those from Pitt, who at one point spent several minutes discussing a song an Australian fan wrote about her walking through a graveyard. What does that have to do with this movie? Unless you are a die-hard fan of this film, or really want some mostly unimportant background on Hammer Films or inconsequential information aboutThe Vampire Lovers, steer clear.
**Excerpts from Carmilla, read by Ingrid Pitt:
Exactly as stated, except that the excerpts of Carmilla are read over a gallery of color production photos. Most of these photos are of the films’ lovely ladies in their skimpy nightdresses, and there is a really nice shot of all five standing on a table in white nightwear. Also, although Ingrid Pitt’s delivery is a little stiff, the passages are compelling, and give greater depth to what ended up on film.
Two original theatrical trailers for the film are featured (in widescreen). The trailer for Countess Dracula is particularly well cut together, and makes the film look much better than it really is.
The Score Card
The Vampire Lovers
The Last Word
While I was by no means overwhelmed, this Midnite Movies Release would make a good rental, and perhaps even a discount purchase, for fans of atmospheric horror films, despite rather disappointing extras. Countess Dracula really did not do anything for me, even though the two lead actors turned in very inspired performances, but The Vampire Lovers was actually a pretty enjoyable film, and certainly worth viewing at least once. In fact, I think it easily bests Countess Dracula in every respect, including the physical beauty of the women who fall prey to Carmilla. And while I do not think anyone after nothing more than a little T&A would be bothering to read this review, if that is what you are expecting you may want to pass on these films because the quality certainly surpasses the quantity, despite what the movie posters and descriptions would lead you to believe.
August 26th, 2003