The legend of Countess Erzsébet Bathory (Anna Friel) is one of an evil woman who ruled her province with an iron fist and most notoriously, was responsible for the deaths of many young women who she drained of blood and then bathed in the results, all to keep her looking young. She was eventually walled up in a cell and left to go insane - but is that what really happened to her? Was she actually a villainess at all or has her legacy been corrupted by her enemies who could not stand the idea of a powerful female standing up to them? Perhaps this story will explain...
Then again, perhaps not. This version of the old tale was brought to you by veteran Slovakian filmmaker Juraj Jakubisko, who wished to find a historical story that had a basis in his own region of Europe's past, and the bloody Countess appeared to be the obvious choice. It was a big hit in Eastern Europe, and boasted a cast taken from a variety of places on that continent, yet for many it suffered from the typical Europudding approach to making movies that had failed to produce a huge number of classics, although to the director's credit this did come across as the film he had set out to make. It was just a pity it was such a dog's breakfast.
Usually for this setting a horror yarn was the most obvious tack, but here Jakubisko was under the impression he was making a sweeping historical epic, though that's not to say there was a lack of gruesome moments, as the violence of this era was not downplayed. If anything, the director was quite taken with the idea of torture, as not ten minutes went by without some hapless character being whipped, chained up or otherwise physically mistreated, and all for going against the shifting rules of the turmoil that passed for society they were living in - or dying in, as the case may have been.
Despite a Crystal Tips wig, Friel makes for a convincing Countess, exhibiting the correct mix of cruelty and steely resolve, but it did have you wondering what they were trying to say about the woman here. If she was intended to be portrayed far more sympathetically than ever before, then why show her attacking and even murdering other people? The bathing in blood was addressed, and it was decided that this was a misconception and what she was actually reclining in was a tub of red-coloured herbs diluted by water, fair enough, but it didn't change the fact that she acted like a maniac too often for us to be truly enamoured of her. Mind you, the film around her was as equally off its rocker as far as its idiosyncrasies went.
So when we were not back in the torture dungeon for the umpteenth time, we saw the Countess endure her tumultuous home life married to the often away at battle Count (Vincent Regan), who was so relaxed about combat he apparently thought little of penning a missive to his good lady wife while explosions rocked the field around him. But there is another man in her life, and that was painter Caravaggio (Hans Matheson), apparently just who you think he's meant to be, who is persuaded to paint the Bathory family - including a dead baby Bathory preserved in a giant ice cube - and romance the Countess until that relationship, too, sours, as she runs out of allies over the course of the plot.
Troubles with the Catholic Church follow due to her Protestant faith, as does the inevitable accusation of witchcraft, which according to this may have had basis in fact as she does practice a few dark arts, but then what are we to make of the duo of monks who try to bring her down while perched on rollerskates? And clockwork rollerskates, at that? These details swamp what might have been a decent revisionist angle to the figure, and the lurid passages render this more of a Hammer Horror homage as its too great length will convince few that what they are watching is a sober, important work. Better to regard it as a wallow in Euro-exploitation tactics if you had the endurance for it, but not so much a history lesson. So you see, this version of events isn't any more reliable than the others, and while they have a point that Erzsébet was a victim as well as an aggressor, this mishmash probably wouldn't do her reputation much good either.
[Metrodome's region 2 DVD has as extras a making of, a trailer, a music video and more.]