She was the stuff of legend in her own time, and even more so today. Born into nobility in the kingdom of Hungary in the mid-16th century, Erzsebet (Anglicized as Elizabeth) Bathory was eventually accused of torturing and murdering hundreds of young girls and women before being brought to trial and condemned for her crimes. Her alleged accomplices suffered gruesome tortures before their execution, but because of her noble blood, Elizabeth was sentenced to be confined in a set of bricked-up rooms with only small slits for food and air. She lasted about four years before dying at 54 years old.
Or so the “historical” records go, with considerable variation in the details, depending on the writer’s particular bias. Whatever the real facts, Elizabeth Bathory has the distinction of being named the most prolific female serial killer of all time by the Guinness Book of World Records. She’s inspired countless stories and books from the 18th century on — and of course several films, just like her countryman Vlad Tepes (or Count Dracula).
Three particular movies which share the common trait of dealing with Elizabeth in her own time-frame, as opposed to making her some sort of contemporary vampire, demonstrate how variable and fascinating the “real” story behind the “facts” remains today.
Countess Dracula (1971), like most of Hammer Productions of that time, is a straightforward horror film with lots of red, red blood and abundant bosoms. In this version, the aging Countess (Ingrid Pitt) discovers the blood of virgin girls renews her own youth, thus making her more attractive to the young nobleman (Sandor Eles) for whom she has set her cap — despite her promise to marry elderly Captain Dobi (Nigel Green). Dobi still becomes her willing assistant, procuring victims for her beauty bath.
Further complicating relations at the castle is the arrival of Ilona, the Countess’s buxom young daughter (Lesley-Anne Down) who’s been away at school since childhood. Everything goes to hell, of course, at the not-so-fairy-tale wedding at film’s end, as the Countess is taken to her execution while the townsfolk vilify her as Countess Dracula.
The costumes, sets, and color are everything we might expect from the golden age of Hammer Films, as the film solidifies the reputation of Ingrid Pitt as Hammer Horror Queen, despite her appearance in only other two other major roles for the studio — The Vampire Lovers (’70) and The House That Dripped Blood (’71). The recent Blu-ray release is a stunner, including a short but informative feature on Pitt and how she survived WWII, escaped East Berlin, flirted with Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood in Where Eagles Dare (’68), and eventually became a cult figure in horror circles.
Bathory (2008), later subtitled “Countess of Blood” to attract viewers, is a lavish European production with English actress Anna Friel in the lead role. Though it includes some of the horrific elements of the legend (such as the bath of blood), these elements are more fantasy and hallucination. Rather than a monster, this Erzsebet is a heroic defender of her country and a victim of the machinations of scheming Gyorgy Thurzo (Karl Roden), who wants the Countess and her lands for himself. The character of Darvulia, a sadistic accomplice in the “historical” records and reputed witch in legend, is here a sympathetic ally to Erzsebet; both women eventually succumb to power politics.
Bathory is an ambitious effort to demythologize the Bloody Countess while emphasizing the historical background from which the woman and the legend both sprang. It’s an impressive achievement that’s unjustly overlooked in comparison to the earlier Hammer film and the better-received version only a year later in 2009.
Starring French actress Julie Delpy in the title role, The Countess is a French-German production that has it both ways — Erzsebet as vicious sadist and/or heartbroken heroine and victim. Opening and closing with a narrative by Thurzo’s son, who was also Erzsebet’s lover, the movie’s prologue quickly moves through the young woman’s early years, when she’s introduced to the brutal realism of the class system and the general cruelty of life.
For instance, the young girl buries a live baby bird in a pot of soil, expecting it to grow like a seed, only to be horrified by the maggot-infested corpse she later unearths. Similarly, she’s forced to watch the execution of the peasant boy who inseminates her, the resulting child later whisked away.
Moving ahead to her widowhood at 39, we see the Countess dismiss the marriage offer from the elder Thurzo (William Hurt) in favor of a passionate romance with his 21-year-old son (Daniel Bruhl), all the time trying to retain hold of her lands in the war against the Turks which, unlike Bathory, takes place almost entirely in the background. We see her discovery of the restorative powers of virgin blood and her victims’ gruesomely disposed bodies, but the film has a quite different reading of events in the younger Thurzo’s narration, which suggests his greedy father is the orchestrator of the charges and her eventual doom.
Besides giving a truly multilayered performance, Delpy also wrote and directed The Countess, imbuing the film with an even greater complexity of history, pathos, tragedy, and (yes!) horror than any of its predecessors.
Whatever the real story, the Countess Bathory lives on in film, and I’m sure we’ve not seen the last of her.