The Film (4/5)
As a horror enthusiast from a very young age I first caught up with Hammer horror through TV airings of their Dracula and Frankenstein films starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing before I was even 10 years old. While I might have seen other films from the iconic British studio around the same time, I have no recollection of them. It was around 1998 that Countess Dracula first appeared on my radar, and it did so in a most unconventional way.
As a teenager growing up in the Tampa area extreme metal was every where, and I had begun to discover it when I was 14. A few years into my obsession with all things metal, the band Cradle of Filth became popular. Around the same time I had gotten into them, they released their fourth album a concept album called Cruelty and the Beast, a concept album about the life of Elizabeth Bathory, who being a horror fan I was already aware of previously. However, the album contained narrative voice work from Ingrid Pitt, who was credited as "the glamour of Hammer, Ingrid Pitt. A role perfected for the second time." I was aware of Ingrid Pitt having seen the Wicker Man, and the Vampire Lovers, but the phrasing second time made me curious, it wasn't long before interviews with the band revealed that she had participated as the lead in the film Countess Dracula in the 70's for Hammer.
Unfortunately, at the time Countess Dracula was unavailable in the U.S. that would be corrected a few years later when MGM would release the film stateside as part of their Midnite Movies collection paired with the aforementioned Ingrid Pitt vehicle the Vampire Lovers. That DVD was from a very nice print, but being on the same disc (I believe it was double-sided though) created some limitations to the image quality. Now, a decade after that release Synapse Films wrapping up their Rank Organization/Hammer Films releases gets their wonderful mitts on Countess Dracula, and brings it to Blu-ray in a way only they can.
The film stars Ingrid Pitt, as the aging Elizabeth Nadasdy, who as the film begins has been widowed, and is slowly losing what power she had in the world. One day while bathing she acts out angrily at one of her maidens and draws blood, this blood lands upon her face, and in that spot she looks noticeably younger. This causes Countess Elizabeth to begin killing and bathing in the blood of young women, until she kills a prostitute, and her elderly looks remain. It is then revealed that only the blood of a virgin will make her beautiful and young. Of course, a body count does not go unnoticed, and the missing young ladies begin to attract attention to the castle, and though Elizabeth may try to direct the crimes to her daughter in the end she is caught up in her own web of lust and lies and brought to trial for her crimes.
Countess Dracula came during Hammer's last great period before they lost their way, and ended up going under for over a quarter of a century. The films they made during the early 70's period (including the prior Synapse Films releases Twins of Evil, Hands of the Ripper, and Vampire Circus) see a studio trying to compete for relevance in a changing horror marketplace. Unfortunately for the studio Countess Dracula probably did little to dissuade viewers of Hammer's change in direction for while the film did include the erotic elements the studio chose to utilize during this period, the violence in the film was relatively tame compared to other more popular horror films of the period, and the scares were at a minimum. Of course, using the Dracula moniker was sure to bring in some viewers for the studio, but those viewers would be disappointed to realize that this Dracula was not a fanged bloodsucker, but a historical knife wielder, who bathed in the blood of her victims. Those looking for a historical, and those were very few I realize, probably were none too happy as the film was not entirely accurate to history, and yet the film is still very good and a classic in it's own right.
The film features lush very detailed sets from the studio who was known for bringing period pieces to life with very low budgets, and thus the world of Countess Dracula was fully realized beautifully. We then have very solid direction from Hammer mainstay Peter Sasdy (Taste the Blood of Dracula), who brings his prior working knowledge of working with Hammer to this film, and creates a wonderful low budget historical horror film. Of course, the real reason this film works as well as it does is due to the performance of Ingrid Pitt in the lead role, whether as the Countess in her aged or young state, she offers a charismatic performance that is simply impossible not to watch every single moment she is on screen.
Synapse Films have presented Countess Dracula in an absolutely splendid 1:66:1 1080p transfer that makes the film better than it has ever looked on home video before. This is, of course, no surprise, as Synapse tend to do the best work in home video restoration. The film offers excellent color reproduction, flesh tones, black levels, and fine detail throughout the presentation. There is only a minor bit of print damage early on and throughout that prevent this from a 5.
The audio is presented in a DTS-HD 2.0 track in English. The track is similarly excellent with the dialogue, score, and effects mixed well and coming through nicely. I did not detect any issues suchs as pops, cracks, or hissing on the track.
Synapse have commissioned a nice slate of extras to go along with their release of Countess Dracula. The most substantial of which would be the commentary track with Ingrid Pitt, Peter Sasdy, Jeremy Paul, and Jonathon Sothcott that was ported over from the prior release. We then get a 10 minute featutette from the folks at Ballyhooo pictures called the Immortal Countess: The Life and Times of Ingrid Pitt. Following from this w e get an 8 minute audio interview with Ingrid Pitt. The disc is rounded off by an image gallery and trailer in SD.
Countess Dracula is not a high point of Hammer Horror cinema, but it is still an excellent film in it's own right. The restoration from Synapse Films is superb, and hte extras are quite nice. The disc comes RECOMMENDED.