Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Film: "Countess Dracula"

You may be familiar with the One City, One Book thing that Dublin City Libraries have been doing for the last couple of years, trying gamely to get everyone in the city reading the same book during April. I understand that similar things have happened in other cities. This year the book was Bram Stoker's Dracula. I read it years ago, and have started reading it again, but I am a slow reader and it may take me some time to get through it*. As with previous years, the authorities organised a number of events, and as usual I intended to go to loads of them but made it to almost none. The two things I did make it to were both films. The first of these was the Hammer classic Countess Dracula, based on the true story of Erzebet Bathory, the countess who bathed in the blood of virgins.

Hammer films were never famous for their slavish adherence to historical facts, and Countess Dracula is no exception. Taking the basic story, the film-makers concoct a supernatural yarn in which the aged countess (played by Ingrid Pitt**) is able to temporarily rejuvenate herself with the blood of her victims. She then passes herself off as her own daughter to ensnare the square-jawed hero (a dim young hussar). Her other lover (a dangerous and melancholic cynic) has meanwhile disposed of the countess's actual daughter by imprisoning her with a mute and mentally retarded yokel. Other characters include an old scholar (from the funny-old-man school of coarse-acting) and a busty local whore. There are also some dwarfs, gypsies, and pathetic peasants. All in all, this is a classic piece of Hammer film-making, making it all the more bizarre that some fellow in the audience was able to snore his way through it.

One odd thing about Countess Dracula is the way it is both more and less sensational than the real story on which it is based. The supernatural element is plainly made up, but apart from that the film makes Bathory far less of a monster than she really was. The cinematic countess's kill-rate is pretty low, and she might get through no more than five virgins (plus the busty whore) in the course of the film. The real Bathory, though, was one of the greatest mass-murderers in history, killing hundreds of young women. The film's countess also meets a less spectacular end than the real Bathory. The depredations of the historical countess eventually became so notorious that the authorities threatened to take action against her. Rather than go through the scandal of a trial, Bathory's extended family took care of her themselves. Their punishment was to brick her up into a small chamber, with a small orifice through which her food and water would be passed in (and, perhaps, her bodily waste passed out). The film's countess ends her days in a somewhat less gothic manner.

Still, people do not watch Hammer to learn about history.

*bear in mind that I am still "reading" Flann O'Brien's At Swim Two Birds, the 2006 book.

**it is said that Ms Pitt got her big break with Hammer by turning up at the company head's office wearing nothing but a fur coat.

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