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Countess Dracula / The Vampire Lovers

These two 1970 Hammer Films productions, starring Ingrid Pitt and her breasts, briefly reinvigorated the struggling British shock-and-schlock studio. A sultry beauty who looked like the pinup version of Avengers-era Diana Rigg, Ms. Pitt remains a cult figure among fans of pre-Thatcher gothic British horror cinema. The Vampire Lovers, uncut for the first time on DVD, is a boon for subgenre enthusiasts who for decades have nursed a wet-dreamy nostalgia fed by stacks of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazines kept hidden from parents during adolescence. By 1970, Hammer's Frankenstein and Dracula theatrics had seen their day. So had the studio. As a last-gasp attempt to survive into the Licentious Seventies, Hammer served up bountiful young actresses willing to doff their kits and titillate horror-seekers with the undead love that dare not speak its name. Nudity and soft-core lesbian canoodling were slathered with the usual Hammer condiments — ruined castles, spooky forests, long cloaks, billowing dry ice, arterial decapitations and stakings, and even Peter Cushing among all those heaving bosoms spilling over décolletages. Although it's a formula that very quickly ground down to mere lurid exploitation, the two costume gothies on this disc kicked off the trend without too much kitsch or smarm.

Countess Dracula has nothing whatsoever to do with Bram Stoker's vampire. Pitt's titular Hungarian Countess isn't even a vampire by any traditional definition. Instead, this is a fairy tale treatment of the historical Elizabeth Bathory, who in the 17th century slaughtered over 600 girls to restore her youth by bathing in their blood. The film displays some well-wrought design (its medieval Hungary is well appointed), Nigel Green stands out as the Countess' would-be suitor, and that's Lesley-Anne Down (voted "Most Beautiful Teenager" in Britain that year) as her daughter. But the fan-magnet here is Pitt as the evil old despot rejuvenated to lusty voluptuousness by draining local girls. Photo-spread highlights includes Pitt in a Frederick's of Transylvania negligee, and Pitt fully nude caught dabbing her altogether with blood-besmeared sponges. Too bad about the director's clotted pacing and the anemic soap opera romance storyline.

Although emasculated of its then-explicit sex and violence for the original U.S. theatrical run, The Vampire Lovers was the first horror film given an "R" rating. Today it's a pedestrian cheddar on the vast Hammer cheese platter. This one-time-only collaboration between Hammer and American International adapts J. Sheridan LeFanu's 19th century vampire novel Carmilla. At home amid the low-rent Jane Austen trappings, Pitt's affectionate vampiress is a far cry from Christopher Lee's bestial Dracula. This centerfold nosferatu with extendable canines presages Anne Rice's moody monsters by holding warm feelings for the young lovelies who must die after she beds and bites them. (The puncture wounds are on their ample jubblies, of course, and never mind about offering sisterly vampiric immortality to her victims.) She opens the throats of men who get in her way, but the movie's raisons d'être are Pitt's sexy exsanguinations of comely Madeline Smith, who is so perfectly Bambi-eyed and winsome that she could have sprung from the head of Chuck Jones. After Pitt gives lovelorn Kate O'Mara the Renfield treatment, a three-way jealousy tussle ends with some lethal "necking," then Jon Finch barges in to save Smith from the forces of supernatural sapphism.

Even if Peter Cushing's General Spielsdorf doesn't get the screen time of his Baron Frankenstein or Sherlock Holmes, we're in good hands when he brandishes stakes and a beheading blade to lead the posse of vampire-killers prying up the coffin lids.

Director Roy Ward Baker (A Night to Remember) kept the production values polished and colorful, embracing a sumptuous Hammer gothic look. Pitt as an actress is hit or miss, her dialogue often stilted. Clothed or not, she's more about presence than performance. (She's certainly well oiled when she rises from the bath before soft-coring the busty Smith in a girlie-mag scene that lacks only a pillow fight.) The slapdash screenplay is a padded muddle — a pre-credits decapitation is flashbacked twice, and a recurring "Man in Black" figure is (the commentary track tells us) the head of the vampire clan, yet he goes unexplained and appears inserted as an afterthought for the two imminent sequels.

It has aged better than its SoCal contemporary, Count Yorga, Vampire, but The Vampire Lovers is now little more than a treat for dedicated devotees of Hammer's twilight years.

*          *          *

MGM's "Midnite Movies" double-feature disc provides two clean, gorgeous prints. Countess Dracula is in letterboxed 1.66:1. The Vampire Lovers, which finally arrives with the nudity and gory head-choppings restored, is in 1.85:1 (anamorphic). Each film's DD 2.0 monaural audio is strong and solid and free of noise.

Two commentary tracks provide passing added value. For Countess Dracula we hear Pitt, director Peter Sasdy, and screenwriter Jeremy Paul. Accompanying The Vampire Lovers are Pitt, director Baker, and co-screenwriter Tudor Gates. They're all getting on in years — Pitt, in her 60s now, has contended with serious health issues, and Baker (in his 90s) sounds ready to keel over right there — so the tracks are spiritless rambles. That said, the faithful will glean some oral history as moderator Jonathan Sothcott frequently pokes a participant awake to keep it all moving feebly forward.

The disc also comes with the theatrical trailers, and a video stills gallery is scored by Pitt reading a 12-minute passage from Carmilla.

—Mark Bourne



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