[RETROSPECTIVE] BATHED IN BLOOD: A RETROSPECTIVE OF ELIZABETH BÁTHORY ON SCREEN

A LEGACY OF BRUTALITY 

Many fans of the horror genre are curious about the bizarre, the violent, and above all, the bloody and frightening. The prospect of a journey into the abject, that terrifying place where there are no boundaries and everything is hostile and alien is an irresistible draw to us.   History is one of many resources available to help satisfy that curiosity.  Its frightful stories of monstrous men and women captivate our imaginations. One such pair who have left an indelible mark on public consciousness appeared in Eastern Europe along the bridge of the 15th and 16th centuries, and their impact is strongly felt today!
Many know that Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula shares his name with Vlad III or Vlad Dracula (trans: Vlad, Son of the Dragon), a 15th-century ruler of Wallachia.  Born in 1431, Vlad’s reputation for bloodthirsty cruelty struck fear in his enemies and subjects alike. His preferred method of execution was to skewer his victims on large wooden poles. Famously, he is pictured casually watching his victims languish and die while eating a meal. This earned him his most common sobriquet; Vlad Tepes or Vlad The Impaler. Like many men who lead violent lives, he was killed in the heat of battle.
Vlad Dracula ends the day with a relaxing meal in front of his victims.
Horrendous behavior like Vlad Dracula’s is not confined to men alone. The fairer sex have their own terrible ones. Equally infamous as Vlad was Hungarian Countess Elizabeth (Erzsébet) Báthory. She was the daughter of a powerful family who used her position to get away murdering many.  Born in 1560, almost a hundred years after Vlad’s death, she spent most of her life in her future husband’s castle in Slovakia. Stories from Elizabeth’s childhood create a picture of a child with a preternatural attraction to cruelty and a taste for blood.  These obsessions were inculcated by observing the family’s acts of brutality on their enemies. She was known to have expressed ghoulish joy while watching the painful execution of a condemned man as he was being sewn into the stomach of a living horse.
Elizabeth left her family’s castle in 1573 to marry a Hungarian nobleman named Ferenc Nádasdy. They were a happy couple until his death in 1601. Shortly afterward, persistent rumors circulated the kingdom that she was murdering girls and bathing in their blood. She did this because she believed it would restore her youthful beauty. In 1610 King Matthias II ordered György Thurzó to investigate and, if necessary, arrest her. After gathering reams of evidence from witnesses’ depositions, Thurzó arrested her and her servants in December of 1610. These statements and the torture-extracted confessions of her servants averred that her victims died in painful, violent deaths:  burning, mutilations by human bite, starvation, and hyperthermia after being stripped naked and doused with water. Despite the lack of physical evidence, all the accused were found guilty. Báthory’s servants were quickly executed, and she was sentenced to imprisonment in her castle until her death in 1614.
Elizabeth Báthory waits while her servants prepare her bath

Four centuries later, her crimes continue to shock and enthrall the minds and imaginations of the world.  As stories of her legacy of brutality continued to spread, Countess Elizabeth (Erzsébet) Báthory became known as The Bloody Countess or Countess Dracula.

Wicked Caresses and Obscene Kisses

The Bloody Countess’ exploits, real or manufactured, have become part of popular horror culture. She appears in many forms in almost all media: literature, drama, art, movies, television, video games, and music. Movies especially have made memorable use of her life’s story to shock and educate the viewing public. Recently, boutique-sleaze merchants Mondo Macabro and Code Red DVD released restorations of two films from 1973 that owe a huge debt to Countess Elizabeth Báthory and her bloody history. I already had both these movies as poor quality, VHS to DVD-R transfers. These new releases promised to restore the movies to their previous glory, and I willingly pre-ordered both.

My copies of the Blu Rays and their extras.

Ceremonia sangrienta (Blood Ceremony, aka The Legend of Blood Castle), 1973

Directed by Jorge Grau
Written by Sandro Continenza, Jorge Grau, Peter Sasdy, Juan Tébar
Starring Lucia Bosé , Espartaco Santoni, Ewa Aulin, 

Animal cruelty warning!  

“You must do nothing more, my lady, than to set aside your scruples.”  – Nodriza 

Toronto occult rockers Blood Ceremony took their name from the English translation of this 1973, Spanish-Italian co-production. Prior to 2021, the movie was only available in a poorly dubbed, English-only DVD under the name The Legend of Blood Castle. When Mondo Macabro, the wacky purveyor of the world’s wildest cinema, put the translation of the original Spanish name on the case of their limited edition Blu-ray, I immediately made the connection between the band and the movie.

Released one year before director Jorge Grau’s seminal, eco-zombie film, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (or The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue), he directed this scathing attack on life in Spain under dictator Francisco Franco. Disguised as a criticism of the aristocracy, Grau used the legend of Countess Báthory to shine a light on the foibles of a society governed by self-indulgent, arrogant leaders and their fearful and superstitious citizens.

A girl from the village is caught using dove’s blood for beauty.

“She, like the beautiful Erzsébet, knows how to use blood!”

Set in an unidentified European village in 1807, Countess Erzsébet Báthory (Lucia Bosé), a descendant of her the original Erzsébet Báthory, and Karl (Espartaco Santoni), her aloof husband, watch from their castle as the villagers exhume the corpse of a suspected vampire for trial. When Karl leaves her to observe the vampire’s trial, Erzsébet confides to her servant, Nodriza (Ana Farra), her fears that Karl’s disinterest in her is because of her fading beauty. Nodriza suggests Erzsébet revive her namesake’s practice of bathing in human blood to restore her youthful appearance. At first resistant, she becomes convinced after a few trials. She enlists Karl’s help to procure young women for her gory beauty regimen. After he continues to rebuff Erzsébet’s advances, she realizes his true passion is the sadistic pleasures he gets from tormenting and killing his victims. She stabs him and confesses her misdeeds at Karl’s own, posthumous, vampirism trial.

Mondo Macabro’s Limited Edition package comes with many exciting perks. The movie is a new, crisp and clear 4K transfer from the original negative. There is the fully uncut, international version plus the alternate Spanish version. Also included on the disc are two interviews with director Grau, a collection of trailers, and a couple of audio commentary tracks by film historians. As a further bonus, inside the package is a collection of full-color lobby cards and a 28-page booklet. Suitable packaging and presentation make for an august addition to any lover of macabre’s collection!

The new scan is in the original aspect ratio and provides a much clearer picture.

The Devil’s Wedding Night (Il plenilunio delle vergini, Full Moon of the Virgins), 1973

Staring: Mark Damon, Rosalba Neri (as Sara Bay), Esmeralda Barros, Enza Sbordone (as Francesca Romana Davila), Xiro Papas (as Ciro Papas), Gengher Gatti
Writers: Mark Damon (as Alan M. Harris), Ian Danby, Ralph Zucker
Director Luigi Batzella (as Paul Solvay)

Franz: “My dear Countess, all the other women in my life are like so many ladies of the night compared to you.”
Countess Dracula: “But I am, in my own fashion, also a lady of the night.”

I first discovered this movie while watching a fan-made video for the song “Wicked Caresses” by stoner-doom band Electric Wizard on YouTube, and whoever made the video matched the most shocking, bloody (and nude) scenes from The Devil’s Wedding Night to the song. Regrettably, the video has been removed, probably due to copyright infringement and violating YouTube’s community standards.  At the time, the only available copies of the movie were a low-quality YouTube upload and a poorer quality, VHS transfer to DVD-R. Being a fan of the film and hoping to see a better version, I instantly ordered the Code Red DVD’s upcoming release when it was announced at the end of 2020.

Compared to the grimness of Blood Ceremony, The Devil’s Wedding Night is a light-hearted romp (its poster bears the double entendre “Satan is coming!”).  There are plenty of vampires, zombies, sexy Satanic rituals, and copious, beautiful women in diaphanous nightgowns tastefully backlit as they walk through the night. All of this takes place under the watchful eye of a mysterious man with an enigmatic grin (Gengher Gatti).

Mark Damon, as the twin Schiller Brothers, will soon have all hands full with plenty of female pulchritude.

The Devil’s Wedding Night aims more toward scintillating thrills than providing food for thought. Sometimes it misses that mark, and the viewer is forced to sit through endless scenes of Mark Damon meandering aimlessly through the castle and its grounds. The Devil’s Wedding Night’s location work was shot at Castello Piccolomini in Italy. According to the IMDB, the castle was a popular filming location. Over a dozen movies, including Lady Frankenstein (also starring Rosalba Neri), The Bloody Pit of Horror, and Radley Metzger’s The Lickerish Quartet, have used its grand structures and stone parapets. 

Twins Franz and Karl Schiller (Mark Damon), the former a gambler, the latter a scholar, embark on a search for a mystical ring that grants the wearer immeasurable power.  Accompanied by composer Vasili Kojucharov’s ridiculously jaunty soundtrack, they set off to Transylvania and find the ring in possession of Countess Dracula (Rosalba Neri). She and Lara, her zombie servant (Esmeralda Barros), are making preparations to resurrect her dead husband, Count Dracula,  during the upcoming Virgin Moon.  She seduces Franz and turns him into a vampire, preparing his body for her husband to claim at the wedding ceremony.

Brother Karl has his own sensual encounter with the countess when he arrives in search of Franz. She drugs him and takes him on a psychedelic trip where he witnesses her having sex with Lara before bathing, Bathory-style, in virgin’s blood. The dramatic image of the Rosalba Neri rising, gore covered, from the steaming cauldron of blood is as strikingly iconic as Brigitte Lahaie’s nude, scythe-wielding angel of death from Jean Rollin’s Fascination of women in 1970’s European horror.

Rosalba Neri rises from her bath.

Code Red’s DVD Blu-Ray release of The Devil’s Wedding Night may lack the quality and extensive perks that Mondo Macabro included in their Blood Ceremony package, but it is still an excellent find. The movie is presented in English only, with no subtitles and a single featurette.  While the film looks very good, some artifacts pop up periodically. Even though it is not a pristine copy, the improved quality more than makes up for the sins of the previous versions! It was worthy of the nocturnal mission that started on a sleepless night of wicked caresses and obscene kisses.

Code Red DVD presents the video in its original aspect ratio and does a great job cleaning up the image.

“This didn’t help you before, perhaps it will help you now.”

What can be carried away from these twin tails of blood-soaked horror? Grau’s film might offer the viewer lessons in moral temperance and the need to banish superstition. The Devil’s Wedding Night could be seen as a counterargument that points out the need for passion and pursuit of delight. Together, these films take Elizabeth Báthory’s story for their own purposes, leaving the viewer to come to their own conclusions.

This guy appears to know the meaning of it all but resolutely refuses to tell us.