The Countess Bathory story has attained a great deal of fascination on cinema screens over the years. She appeared in a supposed historical account from Hammer Films with Countess Dracula (1970) where she was played by Ingrid Pitt. Around the same time, she appeared in the present-day as a languidly bored lesbian vampire seductress played by Delphine Seyrig in Daughters of Darkness (1971). The two of these laid down the Countesss horror movie persona as a vampire who has survived into the modern day where her proclivities were lesbian, or where the historical claims of the countesss blood rejuvenation treatments actually worked. The countess turns up in a number of other films in various of Paul Naschys Waldemar Daninsky films with The Werewolf vs the Vampire Woman (1971), Return of the Werewolf (1973) and Night of the Werewolf (1981); the Spanish The Legend of Blood Castle/The Bloody Countess/The Female Butcher (1973) played by Lucia Bose; played by Paloma Picasso in an episode of the erotic anthology Immoral Tales (1974); played by Diane Witter in the obscure Bathory (2000); played by Caroline Néron in the present-day Canadian erotic thriller Eternal (2004); in the present-day played by Michelle Bauer in Fred Olen Rays Paul Naschy homage Tomb of the Werewolf (2004); in the cheap Night Fangs (2005); with modern-day girls travelling back in time in Demons Claw (2006); in the present-day Draculas Curse (2006); in the present-day in the animated Hellboy: Blood and Iron (2007); in the dreadful Hungarian-shot Metamorphosis (2007); in the softcore Blood Countess (2008); mixed up with the Dracula story in Blood Scarab (2008); as a present-day abstinence campaigner (Louise Griffiths) in Chastity Bites (2013); as the female Jerry Dandridge (Jaime Murray) in Fright Night 2 (2013); in Lady of Csejte (2015) played by Svetlana Khodchenkova; even in the midst of a videogame in Stay Alive (2006) and as the host of a horror anthology in Countess Bathorias Graveyard Picture Show (2007), while Eli Roth homages her activities in Hostel Part II (2007). At the same time as The Countess, there was also Bathory (2008) starring Anna Friel, an East European-made production that similarly attempted to set the historical record straight.
The Countess has been personally mounted by French actress Julie Delpy, known for her acting roles in films such as the Three Colours trilogy, Killing Zoe (1994) and Before Sunrise (1995). Delpy has ventured into the horror genre before, in works such as Tykho Moon (1996), An American Werewolf in Paris (1997), The Passion of Ayn Rand (1999), Frankenstein (tv mini-series, 2004) and The Legend of Lucy Keyes (2006). She had previously written and directed the low-budget Looking for Jimmy (2002) and the romance 2 Days in Paris (2007), as well as written the screenplay for the Before Sunrise sequel Before Sunset (2004). Here she writes, directs and stars, even composes the films score.
With The Countess, Julie Delpy has clearly set out with the intention of paring away all the vampire movie nonsense and telling the Elizabeth Bathory story of the historical record. This is an excellent idea I have wanted to see done for some years. While most horror movie versions of Elizabeth Bathory strain at lesbian vampire cliches, the historical story is a far more disturbing one. Julie Delpy pays a great deal of respect to the historical account, far more so than any other film version has done so far. Although, what needs to be stressed is that she has mounted The Countess largely as a costume drama as opposed to a horror film.
Julie Delpy has far more sympathy for Countess Bathory than any other account (excepting Bathory). She takes a revisionist feminist stance seeing that much of the Countesss problem came from being a single woman with a wealthy estate and surrounded by men who either disdained her capacity to manage such or sought to steal her wealth. Much of the film is a highly effective portrait of a vulnerable woman being duped by men and how the cumulative effect of this was something that caused Countess Bathory to slide into delusion. The Countess is outfitted with speeches expressing her frustration and at the disregard of her power in a world of men, even a speech standing up to the Church on the issue of male-female equality. It is the oddity of the Countess Bathory story having been written as an historical Chick Flick.
In the opening scene, Daniel Brühls voiceover narration states that history is a fiction written by the conquerors and that he is telling the story that will set the record straight. Yet, for all its supposed true account, The Countess goes ahead and tells the sensationalistic historical version anyway. The film oscillates between either of these approaches despite settling for telling the tabloid version of the Countesss story, it arrives at an end where we are abruptly told that all the murders and torture were made up by William Hurts Count Thurzo to steal her wealth and lands. However, this requires us to suddenly regard everything we have seen depicted throughout as a pack of lies and view the Countess as an innocent. Surely almost everything we have seen in the film up to that point has indicated the Countess is not an innocent. One suspects that this approach was something forced on the film the problem it is stuck with is that if it tells the revisionist version that Julie Delpy clearly wants to where Countess Bathory was an innocent and her cruelties were maliciously manufactured, then we would be left with a far less interesting story simply about men attempting to connive a womans wealth. Nor does the film make it clear to us which parts of the story were true and which not the affair with the younger Istvan may well have been true (particularly in that he is the narrator) but then the film attempts to wind this in as part of her justification for bloodletting, while confusingly also telling us to regard it as a fiction. It is these attempts to tell both the historical horror that one expects of a Countess Bathory biopic and a revisionist attempt that leaves The Countess with a confused tone of uncertainty.
The uncertainty of tone aside, Julie Delpy does an excellent job (within the fictional account) in credibly exploring the psychological reasons for the Countesss obsessions that she fell for a man nearly half her age and that, when he was forcibly kept away by his father, she took this as rejection and became obsessed with her age and vanishing looks. Julie Delpy does a fine job of drawing out the scenes of the Countess heartbroken, her obsession with age, the discovery of the rejuvenative effects of blood (here Delpy never has the Countess rejuvenating in actuality but it being seen that it is all in her mind and that those around her simply agreed with her belief that it was working out of fear of not doing so), which grew into her bleeding servants and then the need for more and more bodies.
The other disappointment about The Countess is that Julie Delpy soft-pedals the horror element. We see a maid progressively bled to death and one scene where Delpy slits a rival (Nora Von Waldstatten)s throat. We see the Countess setting up torture instruments in her dungeon, daintily daubing blood on her face, yet there is never any scenes of her killing and draining the blood of the numerous girls she was said to have done, let alone bathing in it. This is perhaps the most notorious aspect of the Countess Bathory story and for it to be pushed to the side and left unmentioned seems a disappointment. The other aspect that the film minimises is the Countesss legendary sadism. There is the suggestion that she was inducted into it by her lover Sebastian Blomberg who was a masochist and ask her to flog him in bed. To me, it stretches credibility going from a lover asking to be flogged one minute to getting ones kicks from seeing young women tortured to death the next it is the sort of connection between mildness and extremes that is akin to the stretch that says one puff of a joint invariably leads to hard drug addiction.
Julie Delpy is not the first actress that you would think of casting as the countess. She has soft, watery features that are almost elfin, not something that come to mind when you are thinking of a cruel sadist and serial killer. That said, Delpy does bear a more-than-passing resemblance to the historical portraits of Countess Bathory. Certainly, the performance she gives is Julie Delpy at her most autocratic and coldly austere.