The Scoop: 2008 15, directed by Juraj Jakubisko and starring Anna Friel, Vincent Regan and Karel Roden.
Tagline: Warrior. Tyrant. Lover. Vampire. A Legend has many faces.
Summary Capsule: Sixteenth-century ruler keeps getting mistaken for a vampire while she struggles to keep control over Hungary.
Louise’s Review: So you thought you knew Elizabeth Bathory: blood-drinking, blood-bathing, possible lesbian, supernatural serial killer, back some time in History when women wore big dresses and men wore cloaks.
Now meet Elizabeth Bathory: healer, feudal mistress of a third of Hungary, Protestant champion against Catholics and Muslims, patroness of the arts and all round Renaissance woman.
I admit, I was expecting a film about the first Elizabeth Bathory, a remake of Hammer’s 1971 Countess Dracula, and I was rather disappointed to find the second. Bathory is on one level a serious historical biopic, and it’s set in an intriguing place and period. Sixteenth-century central Europe, menaced from the south by the Ottoman Turks, and ravaged (ravaged, I say!) internally by personal, religious and political feuds and plots among its rulers. Catholics and Protestants vie for supremacy and the ear of the King in Vienna. Countess Bathory, left in charge of the family estates while her husband is off fighting the Turks, is a Protestant surrounded by the agents of Rome, as well as those who would like her money and her Anna Friel-shaped body. She clings to her power as best she can, for her own sake and for that of her children and heirs.
Once again I’m reminded that there’s a lot more to the 1500s than Henry VIII’s wives. However, let’s not forget that one of those wives was accused of witchcraft, which leads me nicely into the fact that there’s a big ol’ witch in Bathory, and as well as a historical picture it is a dreamy, gothic fairytale bloodfest with some seriously interesting imagery. It’s a very artistically licensed interpretation of a real life, much more so than the romanticized films about Jane Austen and Beatrix Potter or even Braveheart or Cleopatra. Mind you, I suppose a person surrounded with so much supernatural baggage as Elizabeth Bathory is just the sort of person to merit this treatment. Basically, it is a serious biopic done in the style of a horror film. And it looks just, just beautiful. It’s a better classic horror film than many that have actual vampires. Anna Friel drifts about her minimalist torchlit white castle, occasionally beating a slutty maid, remarking on the claustrophobic atmosphere in a bizarre accent, toasting herself with mushroom-laced wine, bathing in red herbs (and the camera loves the lingering shots of that, let me tell you!) and falling into passionate embraces with her husband and then the painter Caravaggio (I’m sorry, what??). I’m teasing for comic effect, but it really does look sumptuous and storybook and symbolic, and I’m totally investigating Hungary as a holiday destination.
::SPOILERS:: Chronologically, Bathory follows the life and career of Erszebet from her childhood betrothal to Ferenc Nadasdy (great general but a bit brutal as a husband) to her death in prison, having been found guilty of the unnatural murder of young women. We learn that she is not a vampire, but has a raging temper and sense of entitlement, an interest in bodies, a two-pronged dagger which leaves peculiar marks, a possible blood disease rendering her pale, and a tendency to bath in red water, a certifiable witch as an advisor, and unfortunate timing. Really, she was laying herself open to accusation. She has an affair with Caravaggio, who is a present from her husband Ferenc (“Oh darling, I always wanted one!”) and paints her with her children. Two comical priests are sent by the Catholics to spy on her, but they become convinced of her innocence. After her husband’s death his lieutentant, Thurzo, turns against her and allies himself with her sons-in-law to frame her and take her land. Finally, Erszebet does go a bit mad. It’s all those mushrooms prescribed for her by her witch. The story is quite compelling as a Duchess of Malfi-style misogynist thriller.
Bathory: Countess of Blood looked amazing, and I must stress that, but I don’t judge it as great otherwise. I don’t think I’ll be rushing to watch it again. The acting is rather hammy and the English actors (by which I mean English, Irish, American etc.) put on very unconvincing accents. Hans Matheson as Caravaggio in particular is just laughable. Vincent Regan (Ferenc Nadasdy) has never done anything in any role but be big and look threatening with big pale blue eyes. The gothic-biopic crossover genre may also have to have some kinks worked out of it before it becomes a valid filmmaking medium, especially (and I feel dirty and low-brow writing this, because it’s my problem not the movie’s) when viewers are expecting a So Bad It’s Good gore’n'flesh titillation feature. Hmm… guess I should have read the back of the DVD box more carefully. And perhaps they should have called it Becoming Erzsebet Potter With Added Dream Sequences.
- Historically, Erszébet Báthory was born in 1560 and died in 1614. She was married to Ferenc Nádasdy, who led Hungary’s forces in numerous battles against the Ottoman Turks. After his death she was accused of torturing and murdering hundreds of girls and young women at her various estates. Found guilty, she was imprisoned for the last four years of her life. In later centuries, these acts were believed to have been motivated by a belief that her victims’ blood would preserve her own youth and beauty. Aside from crimes she may or may not have committed, there were strong political reasons for rival aristocrats to strip her of her power.
- Julie Delpy directed and starred in another Bathory biopic in 2009, The Countess, which goes down the she-really-was-a-murderer route.
Pastor: It’s clear what we are dealing with… a vampire!
If you enjoyed this movie, try:
- Juana La Loca
- La Reine Margot
- Bram Stoker’s Dracula