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Posts Tagged ‘Peter Sasdy’

Is it the case that there is a hidden purpose to the universe, communicated to us only subtly and obliquely? Should we draw meaning from apparently random events happening around us every day? Personally I tend to doubt it, but you have to keep an open mind, don’t you. Quite what I am to infer from my DVD rental service sending me two Fine-Style lesbian vampire Hammer horror movies on the spin I’m not entirely sure. It may just be the guys there are going through one of their joined-up-thinking phases (still no sign of Tiptoes though, after five years of waiting).

The big difference between The Vampire Lovers (the first Fine-Style Hammer) and Lust for a Vampire (its sequel), of course, is that the first one is a vehicle for Ingrid Pitt, and the second one, well, isn’t. Ingrid Pitt’s status as one of Hammer’s big names is slightly surprising when you consider she only made two films for them, compared with the dozens featuring Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing. This must partly have been due to the decline of the company as the 1970s progressed, but the fact that Pitt apparently had a very unhappy experience making the second of her Hammer movies may also have been a factor. I was surprised and slightly saddened to learn this, as the film in question – Peter Sasdy’s Countess Dracula, from 1971 – seems to me to be far superior to any of the Fine-Style movies.

Despite appearances, this is not part of the main sequence of Hammer’s Dracula movies, and one suspects the title is mainly there because of its marquee value. (You could argue that there’s a moment in the movie suggesting a shared continuity, but if so the characters are remarkably reluctant to cry vampire, given some of the events of the story.) Instead, it is drawn from the legend of the notorious Hungarian serial killer Elizabeth Bathory, a 17th century noblewoman implicated in the sadistic murder of anything up to six hundred victims (though most credible accounts put the figure much lower). The Hammer version of the story takes a few liberties, to say the least, and focuses on the most lurid aspects of the case.

The film’s setting is a little vague, but the producers have a decent stab at authentically creating somewhere that looks like 16th century Hungary rather than the usual generic 19th century Transylvania. (There are many spectacular hats.) Count Nadasdy has recently passed away, leaving his widow Elizabeth (Pitt) and various family retainers to discover the contents of his will. Elizabeth’s tough-love approach to managing the estate means that peasants are forever running after her carriage screaming ‘Devil woman!’, but I suspect that in medieval Hungary this just counted as strong and stable leadership.

Well, in a commendably brisk and economical bit of exposition, the premise for the film is rapidly established: an unexpected beneficiary of the will is young soldier Imre Toth (Sandor Eles), much to the chagrin of loyal old retainer Captain Dobi (Nigel Green), who had expectations of his own. Amongst these was unfettered access to the Countess herself, who despite her aged condition finds herself rather taken with Imre. Everyone settles down to await the return of the Countess’s teenage daughter (Lesley-Anne Down), whom no-one has seen since she was a small child.

And then the Countess makes an unexpected discovery, when a typical household accident results in the blood of a serving girl being splashed in her face. Say what you like about alpha-hydroxy acids and hydroquinone, it seems that nothing lifts and restores the skin like a decent spray of virgin blood. Revelling in this opportunity to become young and comely again (and with serving girls being easy to come by), Elizabeth decides to impersonate her own daughter (as you would) and let herself be wooed by Imre. But her new beauty regime is a uniquely demanding one, even with the connivance of Dobi and her maid, and how long can she keep her grisly secret?

I was talking about horror movies in a general sort of way, the other day, and I suggested that the less interesting stories of this type are basically just about the threat of something unpleasant happening to you (like being stabbed or tortured to death). The more interesting kind of horror movie concerns itself with a different class of concerns, less immediately visceral but equally universal. It seems to me that Countess Dracula is very much of this type, having such a strong and resonant central theme that I’m slightly surprised this particular story hasn’t been reworked in the forty-plus years since it first appeared.

I might even say that this is a movie which looks stronger and stronger as the years go by, for the simple reason that it is about ageing and how people come to terms with this (or, of course, don’t). For most of us the gradual decline of our bodies and appearance is one of those things that is so inevitable we take it for granted (not that this stops us worrying about it). But, if the opportunity to be young and vital again presented itself, how much would it be worth to us? What would we be prepared to sacrifice?

The movie is very open about the jealousy that the old have of the young, nor does it really shy away from the fact that this often goes hand in hand with desire. Is it socially acceptable to be attracted to someone twenty or more years younger than you? Largely not, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Countess Dracula is the best kind of horror film in that it lifts up the rocks under which these uncomfortable truths lurk and examines them in its own, slightly lurid way.

Its main asset is Ingrid Pitt herself. This is a film with a notably good cast (Nigel Green, Maurice Denham, and Peter Jeffrey all feature), but it’s still Pitt’s performance that you remember at the end of it. Not only is she equally convincing as a severe old widow, a vivacious young woman, and an insane crone at various points in the narrative, but she brings genuine emotion and pathos to the character. One of the great innovations of The Vampire Lovers was to imbue its monster with emotions and vulnerabilities – Carmilla behaves and reacts much more like a human being than, say, Christopher Lee as Dracula, who has quite rightly been described as a monolith of pure evil. The same is true of the Countess here – she may be a vicious, manipulative person throughout, but she is not just a cipher or cut-out. She is never really sympathetic, but her motivations are unpleasantly understandable.

Pitt’s performance is the film’s core strength, but it also benefits from a strong set of supporting players and some impressive production designs (sets were inherited from another, slightly more mainstream costume drama). The whole thing looks and feels classy, made more distinctive still by the prominent use of what’s surely a zither on the soundtrack.

In the end, perhaps it’s a bit too classy – or perhaps too economical with the exposition at the start. There’s a definite sense of the film running out of things to say and do well before its somewhat understated climax, and even then it seems to be positioning itself more as a psychological horror movie than one of Hammer’s typical supernatural fantasies. There are not the gallons of Kensington Gore you might expect from Hammer’s take on the Bathory legend, for the film is fairly restrained in this regard – ‘It needed more cruelty, throat slashing, blood hounds, blood!’ was Pitt’s own opinion in later years. The money shot of the film, when it arrives, is much more concerned with Ingrid Pitt’s nudity than it is with the fact she’s supposedly bathing in human blood.

Still, there is much to appreciate here, for all that a little more colour and energy wouldn’t have done it any harm. In the end Countess Dracula is a memorably chilly and slightly uncomfortable film to watch, with a very strong central performance and a compelling metaphor at the heart of the story. A superior film from Hammer’s early 70s output.

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By the time a film series reaches its fourth instalment your expectations generally start dropping, particularly if we’re talking about a horror franchise: the ground rules have been established in detail, all the obvious ideas have been done to death, and it’s becoming something of an exercise in going through the motions. Usually.

Something of a happy exception to this is Peter Sasdy’s memorably-titled Taste the Blood of Dracula, a 1970 movie produced by (you guessed it) Hammer, and starring (you don’t even need to guess) Christopher Lee. The last film in the initial Hammer Dracula continuity (there are two, along with a couple of standalone movies), Taste… opens with an atmospheric sequence where an English wheeler-dealer (Roy Kinnear) finds himself lost in a forest in Transylvania one night. Unsettled by inhuman screams echoing about the place, he loses his bearings and eventually stumbles upon – well, it’s Dracula, in agony, impaled on a crucifix and weeping tears of blood. (This is how the previous movie concluded.)

Dracula crumbles into dust leaving only his cloak and his family seal behind. The scene shifts to late-Victorian England where the slightly annoyingly chirpy children of three respectable gentlemen (Geoffrey Keen, John Carson and Peter Sallis) are trying to do their best to enjoy themselves despite the strict rules of their parents. Alice (Linda Hayden) in particular is suffering as her father disapproves of her boyfriend Paul (Anthony Higgins), possibly because of his incredible bouffant hair. However, it soon becomes clear that the three gents are massive hypocrites, as when they’re not preaching decorum and proprietry to their wives and children they’re off secretly touring the whorehouses and other fleshpots of London.

However, they’re becoming a bit jaded with this, and a chance encounter with Courtley, a legendary debaucher and pursuer of forbidden pleasures (a great performance from Ralph Bates) leads the men to contemplate the ultimate in sin. A deal is struck where the gents purchase Kinnear’s Dracula relics for Courtley, in return for which he will lead them in a Black Mass. When it comes down to it, they find they can’t bring themselves to, ah, taste the blood of Dracula, one thing leads to another and Courtley is killed (whether by Dracula’s poisonous vitae or the three men is ambiguous). But after they have fled the scene, Courtley’s body undergoes a remarkable transformation, and very soon Dracula himself walks the earth once more…

The perennial problem for the writers of Hammer Dracula sequels is finding new things for Christopher Lee to do. Dracula, all things being equal, is only interested in chowing down on the throats of young starlets, and by this point he’d done that rather a lot. Taste… succeeds because it gives him a wider agenda – revenge on the three men who killed Courtley. ‘They have destroyed my servant. They will be destroyed,’ intones Lee, memorably. (What’s that, you say? It was the death of Dracula’s disciple that enabled his resurrection in the first place? Well, er, shush. Don’t be awkward.)

Just to keep things interesting, Dracula doesn’t go after them directly but chooses to use their own children against them, turning some of them into vampires and using hypnotism on the others. Memorable scenes result (a spade to the head, a stake through the heart and a stabbing) but it also means that for much of the film Dracula isn’t much more than a manipulator lurking in the shadows.

Nevertheless, the film remains very watchable throughout, with a terrific cast full of well-known faces, lashings of atmosphere and great production values. The inimitable James Bernard provides another marvellous score, too. The holes in the plot remain numerous and sizeable but I for one found them very easy to forgive: the presentation of Dracula as an avenging angel of darkness is winning, and the generational-conflict angle is interesting, too (in that respect this is very much a film of its time). The climax is a little perfunctory (Dracula appears to be offed solely due to divine intervention), but having already had him blasted into ash by sunlight, drowned in running water, and impaled on a crucifix, it’s slightly understandable that they’re running out of ideas (subsequent demises would be even less satisfactory).

Returning to Taste the Blood of Dracula after a number of years, I was very pleasantly surprised by what a classy and solid production it is, especially compared to other Hammer movies from around this time. In terms of Christopher Lee’s involvement it may be a case of less is more, but on this evidence the blood of Dracula is definitely very more-ish.

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