31 Days of Hell: Countess Dracula (1971)

Starting in 1956 with The Curse of the Frankenstein, Hammer Productions became synonymous with classic British horror.  After taking on gothic horror icons such as Dracula, the Mummy, werewolves, and then moving into the lusty world of vampire lesbians with The Vampire Lovers and Lust for a Vampire, the next logical step for Hammer in the 1970s was to adapt (and elaborate on) the story of the most prolific female serial killer of all time, Countess Elizabeth Bathory. When Countess Dracula, starring (arguably the most popular actress of previously released The Vampire Lovers) Ingrid Pitt, was released in 1971, audiences knew what to expect from a Hammer Horror film; blood and boobs and plenty of both- but done on beautifully detailed and lavish sets and the characters in impressive period costumes. What sets this film apart from the rest of the Hammer “bloodshed and bosoms” films of the 1970s is that while the Countess is set up as the monster, the story is told from her point of view, as an older woman. Because of this, and the melodramatic subject matter in the narrative, I like to call Countess Dracula Hammer’s Women’s Picture. 

In this retelling, the Countess is a widow who baths in the blood of virgin girls in order to regain her youth and seduce the young man, Irme, who was bequeathed to her own daughter.  Countess Dracula evokes the distaste and polluting nature of female blood, and menstruation is implied.  By murdering and bathing in the blood of young women who are of menstruation age, its as if the Countess is trying to stop her own menopause from happening. It is as if she is replenishing the blood that used to flow but no longer does. The fact that the blood the Countess needs must be female supports this theory. 

Known for pushing the envelope, Hammer plays with expectations of audiences and reverses the typical “male gaze” trope.  In her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Laura Mulvey calls what happens in many classical narratives where the camera shows a woman in the distance, and then the male protagonist as “Woman as image-Man as bearer of the look”, suggesting the audience sees the woman on camera through the eyes of the man.  Countess Dracula begins with Countess Elizabeth at the funeral of her husband.  A young man, Imre, arrives late and as he finds his place, the camera follows the Countess’ eye line to Imre, sexualizing him, and thus subverting the male-gaze making the male the one who is gazed upon.  Mulvey asserts that it is only what the women represents that puts the man into action.  This is exactly what happens in Countess Dracula.  Countess Elizabeth only starts murdering young women to look young in order to win the love of Imre once she sees him.  In this scene, the audience sees Imre through Elizabeth’s eyes because she is the one with power.  She is an older wealthy noblewoman.  Hutchings points out that “This initial catching of the male body by the female gaze signals the prospect of the desiring female, which earlier horror films had found threatening in extreme.  However, the centering of Countess Dracula on the female character sets it apart from these and thereby initiates a different approach.”

What is interesting in this case, however, is that the “to-be-looked-at-ness” of Elizabeth is almost as important as Imre’s.  Imre’s “to-be-looked-at-ness” is essential to putting Elizabeth into action, but it is also her “to-be-looked-at-ness” that needs to be established in order for her to get Imre to notice her and to then fall in love with her.  In fact, the first time she bathes in blood, she wears a revealing blue robe, reminiscent of the Virgin Mary (perhaps suggesting she has returned to a virginal state), and shouts to Dobi, the castle’s steward and Elizabeth’s older lover, “Look at me!”  She later shouts the same thing to Imre the moment he stumbles upon her dark blood-bathing secret.  She wishes to seduce Imre, to have him look at her but she needs to be young and attractive to do so.  

Imre doesn’t look at her until she appears younger, and early in the movie, he shows disgust for a painting of an older woman in the castle.  On the other hand, Dobi, the castle’s steward and the Countess’ secret lover is perfectly fine with her aging.  Dobi admits many times throughout the movie that he has been in love with her for over twenty years and shows jealousy towards Imre.  Dobi helps Elizabeth kidnap young women and murder them in a desperate act of codependence, but he then scolds her greed for youthfulness.  Elizabeth leads Dobi on throughout the film, manipulating him through the promise of sex to do her biding, but she constantly throws him aside in favor of Imre. Sadly, Dobi is also a victim of ageism.

The power Elizabeth finds in the blood of virgins quickly becomes her weakness.  She must regularly bathe in blood to retain her youthfulness and every time it wears off, she is uglier and older still.  In fact, it seems like every time Elizabeth looks into a mirror, she sees herself as old.  Elizabeth gives in to the pressure to appear youthful and beautiful to please men.  She even says to Imre after he finds out her secret that she does it just to please him.  In the world of Countess Dracula, not even a woman of power can survive the pressures put on her to be “mother, friend and lover, all in one”; a concept of the perfect woman that Dobi mentions earlier in the film.  A patriarchal world still oppresses the most powerful woman in society by making her feel worthless without youth and beauty.  Countess Dracula is a cautionary tale for young women to not sway to the pressures of unrealistic beauty in order to please a man. Sadly, the ending suggests no solutions… I suppose this is the most horrifying aspect of this movie! 
This movie has a lot of rewatchability- from the beautiful castle locations, the lush outdoor scenes, the elaborate costumes, the high melodrama, and of course, the boobs and blood, there is something for everyone.  Classy compared to many Hammer films of the time, Countess Dracula is a delightfully romantic and engaging fantasy that can easily get lost in the Hammer Horror canon of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing vehicles.  Don’t let that sway you from checking this movie out. This was not the first Hammer horror film I have ever seen, but it definitely was the one that made me take pause on the production company and really take a deep look at what they were doing at the time that was unique to horror movies, and cinema in general. It has remained one of my favorite movies for years and I try to revisit it as often as I can. 

--Mara Powell