This isn't a vampire film, despite the (surprisingly not inappropriate) title, but it's usually lumped along with the Karnstein Trilogy anyway. There's no plot connection, but it's a 1971 Hammer film called "Countess Dracula" in which Ingrid Pitt takes her clothes off. You can see how people might get that idea.
Nevertheless this is no Dracula or Frankenstein sequel, but something weirder and darker. It's based on the historical character of Countess Elizabeth Bathory, a 16th century Hungarian noblewoman who's famous even today for supposedly bathing in virgins' blood. In fact the truth is more horrific. Contemporary accounts tell of starvation, beatings, burning and mutilation of hands, faces and genitalia, freezing, surgery, sexual abuse, biting off chunks of her victims' flesh and a fondness for torture with needles. She was convicted of 80 murders, but the best guess is that she killed about 650.
This is strong stuff for a silly horror film, but the filmmakers have put supernatural distance between themselves and the historical facts. This film's Countess has access to magic powers. When she bathes in virgin's blood, for a while she gets younger. She's not a vampire, but instead something worse. Dracula's just feeding, whereas the Countess is as human as her victims and committing all these crimes for no better reason but vanity. This woman's delusional infatuation with her own self-image leads her to pose as her own daughter and think she'll be able to marry a handsome young stud, despite the fact that she'd have to kill hundreds of girls every year to maintain the deception. Quite apart from the moral question, it wouldn't even be practical. There aren't enough people. Within a few weeks, she'd have been driven to murdering children or ordering raids on neighbouring territories.
In other words, she's a bimbo. She's an aristocratic bimbo who's so in love with her unique beauty treatment that there's nothing anyone can say to bring her back to reality, although ironically the real Countess Bathory spoke four languages and was interested in science and astronomy.
All this is brilliant. No, really. Brilliant. I'm not kidding. The movies are full of serial killers, but I can't think of another film that managed to create such a comprehensible motivation for its murderer. Silence of the Lambs is obviously a much better film, but we're never really invited to understand either Lecter or Buffalo Bill.
The result is the only Hammer film to have ever got to me. The film's concept makes me squirm and seeing it in practice only twists the knife. For me, Ingrid's Countess is one of the most disturbing villains I've ever seen in a movie. She's rubbish in her early scenes (which require acting), but once the film gets going she hits her stride. As in The Vampire Lovers, she's a beautiful woman with a catlike aura and not much range but has here been cast to perfection. She's playing a woman who's homicidally self-obsessed and lives only to feed her own self-image. Ingrid can do that. She's shockingly convincing as this monstrous airhead.
The rest of the cast is good too. Nigel Green is an aristocrat who'll ride his cart over peasants and who sees Bathory's serial killings in brutally practical terms. Ironically his character is in love with the Countess as she really is and he opposes her attempts to roll back the years, but the fact that he's opposing her atrocities doesn't change the fact that he's a bastard. "Have you seen my daughter?" "Try the whorehouse." Meanwhile Sandor Eles also impressed me as the young stud, creating a man who feels utterly a part of this alien world. He has an arrogant peremptoriness that feels almost Great Russian. "Two days! Impossible!" Then there's Maurice Denham, who at first seems to be playing a cartoon behind that beard but eventually reveals a more serious side.
The women make less impact, but sometimes they take their clothes off. There's Ingrid and her appallingly faithful maidservant, of course. The Countess's daughter is played by Lesley-Anne Down, who the year before had been voted most beautiful teenager in Britain.
The weird thing though is that it looks like a sequel to Androids of Tara. I actually looked up Sandor Eles's credits to see if he'd also played Prince Reynart, to go with the film's inclusion of Peter Jeffrey's Grendel of Gracht. No, really. It's the same actor, wearing the same costume and playing a character with a similar social standing. One day I'll watch this film back-to-back with Doctor Who Season 16 and blow my mind. The huge furry Russian hats are perhaps also reminiscent of The Ribos Operation, but I could have sworn they'd walked off the sets of Androids of Tara. The only difference is that Hammer's version has more money and more nudity.
Apparently Diana Rigg turned down the main role. My brain hurts.
As for the production, it's rather remarkable. Hammer tended to work hard at the costume drama side of things, but even for them, this feels unusually specific in both its geography and historical period. It's 16th century Hungary. The costumes are reminiscent of Turks and Ottomans. It's full of visual flavour, even including belly dancers. There are visual motifs such as dead pigs hanging up on butchers' hooks. The costumes (including mighty beards and moustaches) are clearly helping the actors get into their roles and as a result they're playing the era more convincingly than we've sometimes seen from Hammer, while even the music is distinctive. All that's impressive.
There's a reason for this. In fact both the producer and the director were Hungarian emigres. For me, this is worth big points. Obviously the film's fantasy, but in an important sense it's also real. For example, apparently the picture behind the opening credits is a 19th century painting by the Hungarian artist Istvan Csok of the real Countess Bathory. She's enjoying the torture of some naked women in an inner courtyard of one of her castles, having them drenched with water so that they'll freeze to death in the snow.
It's not particularly exciting, though. It also ends a little disconcertingly, although I wouldn't go so far as to call it abrupt. I liked the effect of the credits rolling on a freeze-frame of Pitt's evil glower. The film's old age make-up is terrible, though.
This film gave me the creeps. The Countess is the protagonist, which doesn't make for a comfortable viewing experience even though the film takes its time about showing us the full horror. We cut away from the earlier victims. Mind you, apparently the BBFC's cuts were never implemented after Hammer appealed to the chief censor Stephen Murphy. Ew. Countess Dracula is nasty, skin-crawling, uncomfortable stuff, with Ingrid Pitt triumphant as this self-obsessed murderously shallow bimbo who happens to be the all-powerful ruler of her country. Hammer movies are often charming, stylish and a vehicle for classic British actors, but I don't tend to find them disturbing. This one got to me. It could easily have been another camp slice of titsploitation, but it's more.