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MGM Studios DVD presents
Countess Dracula / The Vampire Lovers (1970)

"Don't you realize you get uglier every time you get old? You can't go on killing!"
- Captain Dobi (Nigel Green) in Countess Dracula

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: August 24, 2003

Stars: Ingrid Pitt, Nigel Green, Sandor Elès, Maurice Denham, George Cole, Kate O'Mara, Peter Cushing, Dawn Addams
Other Stars: Lesley-Anne Down, Patience Collier, Peter Jeffrey, Ferdy Mayne, Douglas Wilmer, Madeline Smith, Pippa Steele, Jon Finch, Harvey Hall
Director: Peter Sasdy, Roy Ward Baker

Manufacturer: Sunset Digital
MPAA Rating: R for (nudity, sexuality, gore, violence, vampirism)
Run Time: 03h:04m:29s
Release Date: August 26, 2003
UPC: 027616889041
Genre: horror


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A- BB+B- B

DVD Review

The horror films of Hammer Studios were a watershed from the old black-and-white pictures from Universal and other studios. With their color and emphasis on gore and cleavage, they provided a provocative alternative that other filmmakers strove in vain to emulate. In about 1970, the Hammer horrors made a shift of their own from implied sexuality to more blatant onscreen sex with copious nudity. This double feature from MGM provides two films from that sudden change, one of which is surprisingly rated PG. Both star Ingrid Pitt, who briefly was the Scream Queen of the early 1970s in no small part due to these films.

Countess Dracula features Pitt in heavy and unconvincing age makeup as the newly-widowed middle-aged Hungarian countess Elisabeth Nadasdy. Although her longtime lover Captain Dobi (Nigel Green) desires to make their union a legitimate one, the Countess has ideas about other, younger lovers. Her desires take on reality when she cuts a chambermaid in a fury and gets blood on her face; magically the ravages of age vanish. The chambermaid soon vanishes and the countess is transformed into the beautiful young Pitt. Masquerading as her own daughter Ilona (Lesley-Anne Down), the Countess must continue to butcher the local virgins in order to keep her youth and hold the interest of young lieutenant Imre Toth (Sandoer Elès).

Although the plot here seems rather silly, it was actually based on the true story of Elisabeth Bathory, a Hungarian countess who did indeed bathe in the blood of virgins in hopes of keeping her youth (though she did not experience the magical effects that Pitt obtains here). Although estimates are unreliable and vary widely, it appears certain that Bathory was responsible for the deaths of dozens of young women in this manner.

Pitt is simply terrific in the lead; despite the unconvincing makeup, she moves and acts in a very convincing manner as the aged Countess. Had a better makeup artist been available, her abilities might have been better recognized. In support, Green provides a wild-eyed Rasputinish tone to Captain Dobi that helps make it believable that he would assist the Countess in her bloody plots. As usual for the Gothic Hammer output, the film has excellent production values with lavish sets and costumes (but note how these were obtained in the commentaries!)

Also in 1970 Hammer embarked on a loosely-related trilogy of films based on the vampiric Karnstein family. This was apparently an attempt to develop a franchise of vampires despite the well-known displeasure of Christopher Lee for having to return to the role of Dracula again and again. The attempt wasn't successful, but it did produce some memorable movies. The first two films of the trilogy, The Vampire Lovers and Lust for a Vampire (1970) are both based on J. Sheridan LeFanu's oft-filmed story, Carmilla. The last, Twins of Evil (1971, supposedly forthcoming from MGM) is less closely related to these two and goes off into completely different directions.

Pitt also appears in this film, this time as Mircalla Karnstein. Mircalla, with the connivance of her mother (Dawn Addams), arranges to stay in a series of homes of young women with single fathers: first General Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing), and then Mr. Morton (George Cole). The daughters, Laura Spielsdorf (Pippa Steele) and Emma Morton (Madeline Smith) each slowly become deathly pale and subject to bizarre nightmares as the vampiric Mircalla (who also goes under the names Marcilla and Carmilla) seduces them. The old adage about the most beautiful women being the most dangerous certainly rings true here.

This picture tries to create a new vampire mythos of sorts; while these vampires can go into the sun (although they dislike it) and need not sleep in coffins, they must keep with them the shroud in which they were buried originally. This is an interesting little variation that helps propel the finale along. As in the source story, there is a certain amount of duplication here, essentially repeating the same situation, though with varying outcomes. Hammer really takes the sexuality into new grounds, however, making the lesbian subtext of LeFanu's tale into quite explicit lesbianism, especially in the uncut version provided here. For 1970 mainstream fare this was quite shocking indeed; the fact that the girls seduced are clearly represented as being significantly underage makes it still carry a significant impact. The contrast of the intense female sexuality of the teen daughters against the respective utterly clueless fathers surely resonated in a strong way among the members of the burgeoning sexual revolution, making this one of the most profitable films Hammer ever released.

Pitt is again in fine form here, and not just physically. Her Mircalla is a shade distant, and again she conveys in a surprisingly effective manner a very old woman mimicking a very young one. This theme of deception helps tie the two films together thematically and makes this a very pleasing double feature. Cushing doesn't get much to do (he was very much preoccupied with the illness and death of his beloved wife, so that's understandable). Kate O'Mara as the governess (also seduced by Mircalla) makes a huge impression with her violent outbursts as she realizes where this love triangle is heading. Ferdy Mayne (the head bloodsucker in Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers of 1968) has a small but memorable role as the doctor who pieces together the links between Emma and Laura's illnesses.

Between the two films, one gets a good grounding in what would become the violent and sexy horrors that make up the 1970s canon of Eurocult. Both are well done and worth checking out for the horror fan.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B

 

Image Transfer

 OneTwo
Aspect Ratio1.66:1 - Widescreen1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyesyes
Anamorphicnoyes


Image Transfer Review: Both films look excellent for their age. The colors, particularly in Countess Dracula, are very vivid. The Vampire Lovers carries a bit of a greenish cast to it, though I’m not certain whether that’s intentional or just a side effect of the notoriously unstable Eastmancolor of the period. The source prints are generally in good condition despite a fair amount of speckling in Vampire Lovers at the reel changes. Countess Dracula is presented in 1.66:1 but unfortunately not anamorphic. The other picture is in anamorphic 1.85:1. Detail is good on both with a decent amount of texture.

Image Transfer Grade: B+

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglishyes


Audio Transfer Review: Both films feature the original English mono. The musical scores on each tend to have a rather shrill and brittle sound to them, often to a very unpleasant extent in Vampire Lovers. The audio tracks are clean enough, however, with only mild background noise that is seldom noticeable. Don't expect any substantial bass or presence.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-

 

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 32 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
2 Original Trailer(s)
2 Feature/Episode commentaries by 1) Ingrid Pitt, director Peter Sasdy, co-writer Jeremy Paul; 2) Ingrid Pitt, Roy Ward Baker, writer Tudor Gates
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
1 Disc
2-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Photo gallery for The Vampire Lovers
  2. Excerpt from story Carmillia
Extras Review: MGM supplies some worthy extras for this double feature, headed by double commentaries with Ingrid Pitt herself, as well as the directors and screenwriters of both films. That for Countess Dracula is much the superior, with hearty discussion of the difficulties of Hungarians working in England, the necessity of stealing costumes from the BBC and using leftover sets from Anne of a Thousand Days. The commentary for The Vampire Lovers is less entertaining and informative, with many large gaps of silence being a significant problem. It's also very difficult to understand Pitt (who sounds terribly out of breath) and Baker on this track and a set of subtitles for it would have been useful. Towards the end, Pitt does get into a discussion of why her acting career ended fairly abruptly and her writing activities thereafter.

A full-screen trailer for each film is also included, as is an 11m:58s segment of Ingrid Pitt reading sections from J. Sheridan LeFanu's source story, while a photo gallery plays onscreen. This is a nice extra to have although the fragment included is presented without context and will likely be confusing to anyone not familiar with the story already.

Extras Grade: B

 

Final Comments

A pair of seminal Hammer Horrors from 1970, both starring the gorgeous and talented Ingrid Pitt, with very nice transfers and a pair of commentaries, all readily available in many places for under ten bucks. What are you waiting for?

 


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