Returning from the funeral of her husband, the elderly Countess Elisabeth Nadasdy (Ingrid Pitt) is only interested in what's in his will and not with the peasants she rules over, as can be attested when one of those peasants is crushed under the wheels of her carriage after begging for work from her. When the will is read, she is dismayed to learn that she must share the inheritance with her daughter Ilona (Lesley-Anne Down), and she retreats to her chambers in a foul mood. There, her young maidservant prepares her bath, but the Countess plunges the girl's hand into the water, scalding it to test how hot it is. Then she cuts the girl's cheek when she drops a peach she wanted to eat, getting some of the blood on her own face - with surprising results...
Written by Jeremy Paul from an idea by producer Alexander Paal and director Peter Sasdy, Countess Dracula is no ordinary vampire tale, and Elisabeth is not your common or garden vampire. There's no sinking of fangs into necks, turning into bats or allergy to sunlight and none of the lesbianism (see Pitt's starring role in The Vampire Lovers for that) that often informs tales of female bloodsuckers as the Countess is heterosexual through and through. The story is based on the legend of Erzsebet Bathory, the Hungarian noblewoman who supposedly killed off peasant girls and bathed in their blood to stay young and beautiful.
I should think that this method of self-preservation would probably not work, but for some reason, a reason which is never explained in the film, it works like a dream for Elisabeth and like a nightmare for her victims. After having the maidservant murdered and her body drained, she takes a dip in the red stuff and emerges as lovely as she was in her youth. Obviously this will raise uncomfortable questions, but she gets around it by claiming to be her daughter, which she manages by ensuring her actual daughter is kidnapped and held captive by a mute. It's a thankless role for Down as all she pretty much gets to do is sit in a run down cottage and fret, occasionally making a futile break for it.
Pitt, meanwhile, in spite of being dubbed seizes all her chances with both hands and the film is all the better for it. Elisabeth already has a suitor around her own age in the form of Captain Dobi (Nigel Green), but it is now interested in someone younger now she can change her appearance, so sets her sights on Lieutenant Toth (Sandor Elès with a conspicuously stuck on moustache), who has just inherited the stables. All goes well and there is a mutual attraction, but wouldn't you know it? The effects of the blood only last so long, and she gets old fast without regular doses, so she begins to rely on Dobi to assist her in her wicked rejuvenation.
The trouble with Countess Dracula isn't that it fails to live up to other vampire tales, it's that the original legend has so little to it. She kills women, she bathes in their blood, she gets caught and horribly punished... er, that's it. So there is a lot in the film which feels like padding, especially the romantic elements, with the result that the whole thing feels flimsy. Fortunately, Pitt and Green make solid partners in crime, the historical ambience is nicely controlled, and revelations such as the blood only working if it's virgins' blood and the Countess growing older every time she reverts to her previous appearance add a touch of the macabre. The film isn't vintage Hammer, but is a welcome variation on their usual fare, despite having a largely bloodless ending which you might not have expected. Music by Harry Robertson.