Review: Countess Dracula

Countess Dracula.jpgCountess Dracula

Countess Dracula is a Hammer Horror film based somewhat loosely on the story of Elizabeth Bathory, a Hungarian Countess who, in the early 1600’s was accused of torturing and killing between 80 and 650 young girls.  It was said, though not confirmed, that she bathed in the girls’ blood in the belief  that it would restore her youth and beauty.

Countess Dracula centres on the blood bath story, suggesting that not only was it true, but that it was also genuinely effective.  So effective, in fact, that the widowed Elizabeth has to masquerade as her daughter to explain her now youthful appearance.

The film opens with the funeral of the Count.  His death doesn’t bother Elizabeth that much, as she has been carrying on a secret affair with the castle’s steward, Captain Dobi.

From the very beginning, we see the contempt the nobility shows to its people.  As the Countess’ carriage rides to the castle, a poor man runs along it, asking for a job and is knocked down by Dobi in response.

This goes a long way to explaining the ease with which Elizabeth starts to kill.  She first discovers the curative powers of virgin blood as she violently reprimands a servant girl for filling her bath with overly hot water.  They are essentially property to her.  When the mother of the servant girl expresses concern for her missing daughter, she’s told not to worry because she still has five more (in other words, the servants are cattle).

The Count leaves his prized stables and horses to one of his war buddies, Imre Toth.  Toth is relatively young, and the Countess, in her rejuvenated body, lusts after him.  He feels likewise, and they begin a relationship.  However, the effects of the blood are short lived, and Elizabeth finds that she must keep killing to continue her relationship with Toth.

Dobi is bitter.  First because he didn’t get the stables (receiving only old weapons and armor, instead), and second because the woman he loves his now with another man.  To add insult to injury, Elizabeth orders Dobi to procure victims for her; victims whose blood is fueling her new relationship.  Being treated with little more respect than the girls he’s ordered to kill does not sit well with him.

Despite being a horror movie, the crimes of Elizabeth are greatly toned down from the ones she is actually accused of.  Of course, it was made it 1971, long before the rise of torture porn; also, Hammer was always more interested in atmosphere than they were with shock or gore.  Most of the violence is off screen, but Elizabeth is an sufficiently villainous monster to keep a horrific tone over the film.

Review: The Vampire Lovers

Scream Factory (Blu-ray)

Hammer Films, famous for its costume drama gothic horror, decided to sex-up its offering with this film, the first in a loosely-connected ‘Karnstein Trilogy,’ based on the 1872 novella Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, which predates Bram Stoker’s Dracula by a full 25 years, tells of a female vampire named Carmilla, who preys on a series of young girls.  At its heart, it’s story of isolation.  Specifically that of Laura, a girl who lives with her father, a retired general, in a castle in the forests of Austria.  As the novella opens, Laura learns that another young girl who was to visit her has suddenly died under mysterious circumstances.  Laura is heartbroken, since this other girl was her only hope for a friend and human companionship.

It is when Laura is at her weakest that Carmilla arrives.

Carmilla seduces the girl, but not in a strictly sexual way (though it’s implied about as strongly as a 19th century novel can).  Carmilla is worldly, mature, and confident; the opposite of Laura in every way; and she shows Laura affection (the only true affection she has ever received from someone who wasn’t required to like her).  The combination is intoxicating, and soon Laura falls to the strange girl’s charms.

Hammer’s adaptation doesn’t really delve into the more interesting aspects of Laura’s character; the loneliness that grooms her for the vampire.   Instead, Laura (and the second girl, Emma) are merely generic ‘innocents;’ whilst Carmilla (or Mircalla) is the ‘bad’ girl.  Hammer productions have always had a slight ‘morality play’ aspect to them; and the virgin/whore dichotomy of the two female leads comes from that tradition.  The characters are fine and well-acted; but the movie could have been so much more if Hammer had drawn more out of the original story.

The Vampire Lovers tends to jump around a lot.  Carmilla’s encounter with the first girl (the one only revealed in a letter in the original novella) is presented in full, basically killing the surprise reveal at the end.  At the same time, the slow build-up of the original, as Carmilla’s true nature comes into focus, is largely skipped over; she shows up and is sucking girls off within minutes.  Basically, anything that would serve to build tension or create mystery has been stripped away.

Aside from the addition of some light girl-on-girl frolicking; The Vampire Lovers sits very comfortably within Hammer’s oeuvre.  It has the same look and feel as all their other films; and the ‘adult’ aspects of the movie are handled with class and subtlety.  It’s sure to satisfy hardcore Hammer fans, as well as those that find the studio’s earlier work to be a little too family-friendly.

Review: Twins of Evil

Synapse Films (Blu-ray)

Twins of Evil was the third and final film in Hammer’s ‘Karnstein trilogy,’ which was based, very loosely, on the 1872 novella Carmilla, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu.  The source material, written 25 years prior to Stoker’s Dracula, is about a young woman who falls under the thrall of a female vampire.  The exploitation film potential of such a set-up is endless.

Former Playboy models Mary and Madeleine Collinson star as the titular twins, Maria and Frieda.  They are sent from the cultural mecca of Venice to the intellectual backwaters of Karnstein shortly after the death of their parents.

Their uncle, Weil, played by Hammer-staple Peter Cushing, leads a band of witch-hunters called the Brotherhood that spend their nights chasing down pretty girls to burn at the stake.  Despite this, we are told repeatedly that Weil is a ‘good man,’ because the torture and murder of an innocent is okay so long as you meant well.  Cushing is a great actor, but even he can’t do anything to redeem this character; even after he’s had his revelation, it hard to get past the fact that he has murdered people for no reason what-so-ever.

The only man who speaks out against Weil is Anton, a music teacher and basically the hero of the film.  He speaks often of how horrible Weil and his gang is, and fully recognizes the innocence of the victims; and yet, when he finally gets a chance to confront him, all he chastises Weil for is his methods, saying that burning won’t kill a vampire, you have to cut off its head.

The two twins take separate paths; Maria falling for Anton, and Freida for Count Karnstein, the vampire in the castle on the hill, and the results are pretty much what you’d expect.

The theme of cowardice comes up a lot in the film; both from Anton, who is unable to stand up to Weil; and from the Brotherhood, who will not strike against Karnstein, despite knowing that he is the source of evil in the town.  This theme makes for some solid character development; but it doesn’t tie together quite as well as it should at the end because WEIL IS STILL A MURDERER.  Seriously, people.

Despite the inclusion of Playboy models, this is the tamest of the films in the Karnstein trilogy, both in sex and violence.  In fact, I can’t recall any real on-screen killing at all (vampire deaths aside).

Overall, Twins of Evil is Hammer doing what Hammer does best, a beautifully filmed Gothic horror story with tight plotting and well-established characters.

The Blu Ray from Synapse films is quite good.  Video quality is solid, but not revelatory.  Some scenes, especially in the beginning look a little hazy, and the rest just lacks that extra bit of sharpness I hope for in an HD transfer.  There are quite a few extras, most notably an 84 minute documentary about the Karnstein trilogy, which is very impressive.

Review: Hammer’s Last Foray into the Vampire Genre, Vampire Circus

Screen Shot 2018-04-20 at 6.41.51 AM.pngVampire Circus was one of the final Gothic horror films produced by Hammer Films.  The 1970s saw audiences’ tastes moving towards gorier fare, which made the atmospheric costume dramas offered by Hammer seem downright quaint in comparison.  Still, this late effort was one of their more imaginative vampire films, even if its production values were a little weak.

The film opens with an old-fashioned castle-storming.  Count Mitterhaus, a vampire, has seduced the schoolmaster’s wife, Anna.  She in turn picks up little girls in the woods to present to her new master.  As the count says, after feeding on one of the children in a very creepy scene, ‘one lust feeds the other,’ upon which he takes Anna to his bed.

Anna’s husband rallies the townsfolk into an uproar, leading them on a mission of vengeance.  It doesn’t go quite as planned, as the townsfolk make no distinction between Anna and her master, despite the schoolmaster’s attempts to save her.  In the end, the count curses the people of the town that the blood of their children with revive him.

Fifteen years later, the town still lives in the shadow of its past.  It is besieged by a plague (though we never really see that in the film, it’s only talked about, and the healthy townsfolk don’t seem all that concerned).  The surrounding towns have set up roadblocks to quarantine the infected, which makes acquiring medicine somewhat more difficult, and the Burgomaster is fretting.  In these dark days, comes a traveling circus.

‘Circus’ is probably too strong a word.  It’s a small troop of performers; some acrobats, a lion tamer, dancers, a strong man, and a little person.  It’s more of a carnival sideshow, really.  But it is impressive, almost magical.  Of course, it’s all black magic intended to distract the townspeople as their children are taken.

Anna is the Ring Mistress of this circus.  She’s joined by Mitterhaus’s cousin Emil, who’s more odd looking than scary.  He seduces the schoolmaster’s daughter, though I can’t imagine how.  Anna has also brought twins, a boy and girl, her children (presumably with Mitterhaus).

Vampire Circus includes a lot of the features of Hammer’s classic period horrors, but feels a little less substantial.  The sets are simpler, the costumes aren’t as nice, the visuals are less lush.  It’s still a big production compared to most horror B movies, but a step down from Hammer’s heyday.  The plot structure is familiar, but the set up is more original than the typical Hammer film.  The circus breathes a lot of life into the old formula.

Blu Ray Review: The Man Who Could Cheat Death & The Skull

The Man Who Could Cheat Death & The Skull

Legend Films / Paramount

 

 

 

 

 

The Man Who Could Cheat Death is Dr. Georges Bonnet, who discovered a surgical means of extending life about 60 years ago.  The surgery has to be repeated every ten years, and near the end of those ten years, a serum has to be taken.

On some level, the film feels like a version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  The serum has a side effect of making Bonnet a homicidal maniac.  But unlike Mr. Hyde, who was a metaphor for the darker, animal nature in all of us, Bonnet’s dark alter-ego is just a drug addled maniac.

Produced by Hammer Studios, the masters of Gothic horror, The Man Who Could Cheat Death is not one of their master works.  Bonnet, played by Anton Diifring is a one note character.  He is obsessed with living, and will harm anyone that gets in the way.  Ironically though, he doesn’t seem to do much with his life, other than sculpt and murder a girl once every ten years.

The bigger problem with the movie is that it tips it’s hat really early.  If the ‘horrible’ truth of what he is and what he does to stay alive were built up to, it would have more effect.  Instead, we just have to watch the tertiary characters slowly piece together what we already know.

The second movie in this set is The Skull, produced by Amicus Productions, and starring two Hammer regulars, Peter Cushing (Frankenstein) and Christopher Lee (Dracula).  It’s about the skull of the Marquis de Sade which apparently has been possessed by a demon.  Anyone in possession of the skull finds themselves compelled to kill.

Cushing, playing Dr. Maitland, comes to own the skull, despite the warnings of its previous owner, Lee, playing Philips.  The influence the skull exerts over it’s owner isn’t that strong, as it’s frequently beaten, and it seems kind of random; making people kill themselves, or others, or over pay for things at auctions.

When that fails, the skull floats into the air on very visible strings and chases people.  It’s more silly than horrific.  Cushing and Lee, two of the greatest horror actors of all time, are wasted on the material.

The two movies each have their own Blu Ray.  The video quality is a very good encode of a very bad master.  There’s a lot of faded colors, scratches, and dirt, but they’re all reproduced very well.  There are no extras at all.

This is only the second Hammer movie to be release on Blu Ray so far.  The other one, Vampire Circus, is much better, and a perfect example of what made Hammer great.

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