Forever Young: Ingrid Pitt in COUNTESS DRACULA (20th Century Fox/Hammer 1971)

Iconic Ingrid Pitt became a horror fan favorite for her vampire roles in the early 1970’s.  The Polish-born actress, who survived the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp as a child during WWII, played bloodsucking lesbian Carmilla in Hammer’s THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, based on the classic story by J. Sheridan LeFanu, and was a participant in the Amicus anthology THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD opposite Jon Pertwee in that film’s best segment. Finally, Ingrid sunk her teeth into the title role of COUNTESS DRACULA, a juicy part where she’s not really a vampire, but a noblewoman who gets off on bathing in blood, loosely based on the real life events of Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Bathory.

Portrait of the real Elizabeth Bathory

Bathory (1560-1614) was the most infamous female serial killer in history, officially found guilty of 80 murders, yet a diary allegedly found puts the count as high as 650! Bathory was a sadistic woman who delighted in torturing young women, through beatings, burning, freezing, and cannibalism. She was found guilty of her atrocities and imprisoned until her death. Local gossips claimed she delighted in bathing in her victim’s blood, but there is no proof. The film uses that part of the legend as it’s starting point, and Bathory’s story  becomes just another Hammer Gothic horror tale.

Elderly Countess Elizabeth Nadasdy (Bathory’s real married name), shortly after her husband’s death, accidentally discovers bathing in the blood of virgins restores her youth and beauty. With the aid of her long-time lover Captain Dobi and nurse Julie, she procures young women to kill and keep her young, going so far as to have daughter Ilona kidnapped so she can impersonate her. The Countess has designs on young Lt. Imre Toth, and must maintain her bloody ritual in order to have him fall in lover with her. Castle historian Fabio becomes suspicious, and discovers the truth, but is hanged by Dobi before he can alert Toth. Ilona escapes, and Elizabeth is willing to kill her to obtain that precious virginal blood and stay young… .

The movie was a bit disappointing to me. The horror quotient is low, with more bare boobs than bloody murders (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). Pitt is good as always (though her heavily accented voice was dubbed) in a part where she’s more a Jekyll & Hyde character than vampiric countess. Her old age makeup hides her beauty, which is revealed whenever she takes her blood baths (with a giant loofa!). Other cast members include Nigel Green as Captain Dobi, Lesley-Anne Down as Ilona, Sandor Eles (EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN) as Lt. Toth, and Peter Jeffrey as the local inspector.


Director Peter Sasdy came from the ranks of British TV, and among his horror credits are TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA, HANDS OF THE RIPPER , DOOMWATCH, and NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT. His COUNTESS DRACULA isn’t one of his better efforts, it moves too slow and doesn’t have enough horror to keep an enthusiast like me interested. The only thing that truly held my interest was Ingrid Pitt’s performance, and if you’re a Pitt person, you’ll want to watch this one. Otherwise, go find a copy of THE VAMPIRE LOVERS.

Action in the Alps: WHERE EAGLES DARE (MGM 1969)

Alistair MacLean’s adventure novels, filled with muscular action and suspenseful plot twists, thrilled moviegoers of the 60’s and 70’s in such big budget hits as THE GUNS OF NAVARONE and ICE STATION ZEBRA. In his first foray into screenwriting, 1969’s WHERE EAGLES DARE,  he adapted his own work to the silver screen, resulting in one of the year’s biggest hits, aided by the box office clout of Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood . The film’s a bit long, running over two and a half hours, but action fans won’t mind. There’s enough derring-do, ace stunt work, explosions, and cliffhanging (literally!) to keep you riveted to the screen!

A lot of the credit goes to veteran stunt coordinator Yakima Canutt, in charge of all the action scenes as second unit director. Canutt staged some of the most exciting scenes in film history, from John Ford’s STAGECOACH to William Wyler’s BEN HUR, and certainly keeps things busy here. Director Brian G. Hutton was a former actor whose directing debut was 1965’s THE WILD SEED, starring the late Michael Parks . He and top British cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson worked together to beautifully frame every shot, and the spectacular view of the Austrian Alps (substituting for Bavaria) is breathtaking to behold. Hutton would work with Eastwood the following year on KELLY’S HEROES; he also helmed Frank Sinatra’s comeback THE FIRST DEADLY SIN and the 1983 Tom Selleck adventure HIGH ROAD TO CHINA.

A crack team of British commandos, led by Major Jonathan Smith (Burton) and American OSS Lt. Morris Schaffer (Eastwood), is assigned a dangerous mission. American General Carnaby, who holds important information about the upcoming European Second Front, has been captured by the Germans and is being held in the impregnable Schloss Adler (Castle Eagle) high in the Bavarian Alps. The team is tasked with raiding the castle and freeing Carnaby before the Nazis force him to talk. The seven men parachute down into the frozen tundra (one doesn’t make it), but there’s another member known only to Smith… British agent Mary Ellison (Mary Ure). In addition to the nearly impossible odds against them, Smith and Schaffer must contend with a murderer within their ranks!

Burton looks like he’s having fun playing Smith, a comic book hero to rival Nick Fury. Clint is cold as the Bavarian snow playing the assassin Schaffer, mowing down Nazis with the greatest of ease. The two men have a good chemistry, and I got a kick out of when Burton gets off a line calling Eastwood “a second-rate punk”. Mary Ure is right in on the action, machine gunning Nazis side by side with Clint. Why this woman was never a Bond Girl is a mystery to me! The plot, like all of MacLean’s works, takes many twists and turns along the way to get to the real reason for the mission, and you’ll enjoy trying to figure out what’s going to happen next.

There’s an odd connection among the supporting cast: all are noted for their roles in horror films! First, there’s everyone’s favorite Hammer vampire (sorry, Mr. Lee!) Ingrid Pitt , of THE VAMPIRE LOVERS and COUNTESS DRACULA fame, playing Heidi the barmaid/spy. Pitt’s part is small but pivotal to the story, and she’s a welcome presence in any film. Patrick Wymark’s (Col. Turner) horror resume includes THE SKULL, THE PSYCHOPATH, and BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW, among others. Anton Diffring (Nazi Col. Kramer) was in THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH, CIRCUS OF HORRORS, MARK OF THE DEVIL PT. II, and THE BEAST MUST DIE. Shakespearean actor Michael Horden (Adm. Rolland) had roles in THE POSSESSION OF JOEL DELANEY and THEATRE OF BLOOD. Donald Houston (Capt. Christensen) played Dr. Watson opposite John Neville’s Sherlock Holmes, hunting Jack the Ripper in A STUDY IN TERROR. Houston also appeared in TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS and CLASH OF THE TITANS. Ferdy Mayne (Nazi Gen. Rosenmeyer) is best known as Count von Krolock in Roman Polanski’s THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS. Robert Beatty (Gen. Carnaby) was featured in SECRETS OF DR. MABUSE and Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. And Derren Nesbitt (Gestapo Maj. von Hopper) starred as one of the grave robbers in the little seen BURKE AND HARE.

WHERE EAGLES DARE has plenty of action, exciting stunt work, is marvelously shot, and will whet any action lover’s appetite. It should be viewed on a big screen, where I saw it upon release, but is worth watching on “the telly”, as they say in jolly olde England. If you’re unfamiliar with Alistair MacLean’s adventure stories, you can begin here, or THE GUNS OF NAVARONE, ICE STATION ZEBRA, WHEN EIGHT BELLS TOLL, BREAKHEART PASS…  just steer clear of FORCE 10 FROM NAVARONE!

 

 

Halloween Havoc!: THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (Amicus 1971)

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Hammer Films wasn’t the only British company cranking out the horrors back in the 60’s and 70’s. American ex-pats producers Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg formed Amicus Films in 1962 and after a couple of films aimed at the teen audience (with American rockers like Chubby Checker, Del Shannon, Freddy Cannon, and Gene Vincent) began concentrating on horror. The team specialized in the anthology genre, or “portmanteau” as the intelligentsia call them. I’ll stick with anthologies!

THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD was a 1971 effort written by Robert Bloch, forever known as “The Guy Who Wrote PSYCHO”. The nail to hang Bloch’s four tales on concerns the disappearance of famous horror actor Paul Henderson, who was last seen at the old house in the countryside. Inspector Holloway (John Bennett) of Scotland Yard (where else?) arrives on the scene and speaks with the local constable, who warns Holloway about mysterious doings past:

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In “Method for Murder”, horror writer Charles Hillyer (Denholm Elliott) thinks the quiet country manor is the ideal cure for his writer’s block, and moves in with wife Alice (Joanna Dunham). Hillyer comes up with a story about serial strangler Dominick roaming the countryside, and soon begins to have visions of his creation lurking around the house and grounds. It’s the old GASLIGHT routine, and though it does boast a double-twist ending, this one’s probably the weakest of the quartet.

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Up next is “Waxworks”, starring Peter Cushing as a retired stockbroker who rents the house. Cushing visits Jacquelin’s Museum of Horrors, and is mesmerized by a statue of Salome that resembles his late ex-love. His friend and former love rival (Joss Ackland) drops by, and he too is enthralled by the figure. The proprietor (Wolfe Morris) tells the men Salome was modeled on his dearly departed wife, who chopped up her lover with an axe and was sentenced to death. Although this segment isn’t bad, it won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s viewed MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM or HOUSE OF WAX.

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Our Inspector then travels to the office of realtor A.J. Stoker (!!), who conveys the final two tales. “Sweets for the Sweet” finds widower Christopher Lee renting the house with young daughter Jane (Chloe Franks). He hires nanny Anne Norton (Nyree Dawn Porter) to tutor the child, whom he treats rather coldly. The father forbids Jane from going to school and interacting with other children or playing with toys, especially dolls. The reason being Jane’s mother was a witch, and the child has inherited her evil ways. This vignette is built up well, with the cast elevating it from merely creepy to suspenseful horror.

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Now we come to the most recent tenant, Paul Henderson, in “The Cloak”. This one’s a lot of fun, as hammy horror star Henderson (Jon Pertwee) begins filming yet another low-budget shocker, titled “Curse of the Bloodsuckers”. Henderson is pissed about the piss-poor sets and costumes, and goes on a tirade about the state of the horror film: “That’s what’s wrong with your present-day horror films, there’s no realism! Not like the old ones, no, the great ones… FRANKENSTEIN, PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, DRACULA … the one with Bela Lugosi, not the new fellow!”. After his rant, Henderson receives a card from Theo Von Hartmann, costumer in the local village. Von Hartmann’s a slender, sinister looking old gent cradling a black cat in his arms who sells Henderson an antique cloak. The actor thinks it’s just right for his film, but when he dons it in his dressing room, he’s startled to discover he can no longer see his reflection in the mirror.

While filming a scene with frequent co-star Carla Lynde (Hammer honey Ingrid Pitt), Henderson puts the bite on her for real, earning him a slap in the face. At home, he once again puts on the cloak, and to his horror begins floating around the room. The next day he apologizes to Carla and invites her to dinner, where he tells her about the powers of the evil cloak. This time, the cloak doesn’t work, as Carla’s switched it for a prop (“Property of Shepperton Studios” is sewn in the label!). Now Carla has it, and prepares to sink her teeth into some juicy ham!

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Inspector Holloway dismisses all these tales as rubbish, demanding to go into the house himself, where of course he’s attacked by the vampires, bringing our tales of terror to a close. THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD is okay, no better or worse than any other Amicus production (or episode of NIGHT GALLERY for that matter), and the final two segments are terrific. Subotsky and Rosenberg did other stand-alone horror flicks (THE SKULL, THE DEADLY BEES, THE BEAST MUST DIE), a pair of DOCTOR WHO features, and some Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptations, but it’s for their anthologies they’re best remembered. DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS, TORTURE GARDEN, ASYLUM, and two EC Comics-inspired movies (TALES FROM THE CRYPT and THE VAULT OF HORROR) are all worth watching, as is THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD. Nothing groundbreaking, just a good way to spend a dark and stormy night!