The account of Elizabeth Bathory is sort of a perfect storm of Stuff That's Relevant to the Tenebrous Interests, as you can probably tell by the multitude of tags that are attached to this post. It's a tale whose soil is rich enough to support a multitude of interpretations from those focused on class warfare (entitled aristocrat preys on the poor villagers nominally under her care) to a feminist cautionary tale (a woman who finds value only in her appearance is driven to brutal measures) to a blood-soaked kink melodrama (cruel, beautiful mistress takes "abusing the help" to new extremes). Depending upon the artist's perspective, the clay of the story allows for a great deal of molding to fit the tastes of the teller.
The Bathory saga is perfectly suited to the kinds of films being made in Spain in the early to mid Seventies. Paul Naschy has shown a fascination with the Blood Countess, casting her as the heavy against his tragic werewolf hero Waldemar Daninsky on multiple occasions. The story's promise of virgins, bloodshed, nudity, and wicked beauty are almost more than the gothicry-fixated Iberians could resist. While the Hammer studios might have preferred a more playful (not to mention entirely fictional!) brand of lesbonic vampiress, Spanish directors enthusiastically embraced the homicidal Hungarian countess and her added allure of historical reality.
Jorge Grau's "Ceremonia Sangrienta" (released in the US under the less-evocative titles "Female Butcher" and "Legend of Blood Castle," but referred to in the Tenebrous Empire as "Bloody Ceremony" since that's an accurate translation and it just sounds a whole heckuva lot better to me) is a semi-retelling of Elizabeth Bathory's history with a few interesting twists. This film is set in the early Nineteenth Century, and the Countess Bathory portrayed here is a descendant of the Sixteenth Century murderess whose story parallels that of her progenetrix. By setting the story in a more modern year, Grau suggests that his countess' evil is perhaps inherited and that cycles of evil are doomed to repetition. In spite of the year, the countryside is gripped by hysteria over a supposed vampire plague and doubting nobles attempt to dissuade the villagers of their beliefs, or more cynically capitalize on their superstition in order to disguise their misdeeds.
The world of "Bloody Ceremony," while steeped in gothic trappings of castles, murder, and intrigue, is not a world that allows for the existence of the supernatural. All the evil portrayed here is that committed by humans towards other humans. Elizabeth and her husband, Marquis Karl Ziemmer, take advantage of the vampire mania to mask their own ghoulish deeds, going so far as to fake the Marquis' death so he can murder the young women of the town without arousing suspicion. There are some interesting scenes that detail the magical beliefs of the peasants, from the use of a virgin boy to discover the grave of an alleged vampire to the courtroom proceedings surrounding the "trial" of that deceased individual, whose body is present in his glass-topped casket.
Sharing the theme of villainous love with "Horror Rises from the Tomb," the story brings Elizabeth closer to Karl through the murders of the young women whose blood is used for Elizabeth's youth-preserving baths. The murders are perpetrated by Karl and allow him to indulge his vicious passions while sating Elizabeth's need for beautifying blood. The affection that had never bloomed between the two is given a new intensity once the path of malice is chosen. The act of murder becomes the act of marital consummation for this perverse couple.
Even with such lurid subject matter, the film feels somewhat understated and blackly romantic, deriving much of its tension not from graphic violence (although there are moments of extreme bloodshed), but from the tangled love triangle between Elizabeth, Karl, and Marina, the peasant girl who has a naive crush on the sadistic Marquis. Watching the beautiful young lady plunge headlong into the arms of the murderous and necrophiliac nobleman, ignoring some serious red flags along the way, adds a sense of fatalism to the storyline.With so many characters driven by such strong and strongly-misguided passions, this is more of a tragedy than a horror film, providing a macabre and downbeat counterpoint to the naughty femme-vamp films being made during the same period.
This film is full of powerful imagery on both sides of the subtlety spectrum. From the plush roses of the Countess' boudoir to the tubs full of steaming grue to the stark shadows of the nighttime scenes, every scene has been carefully staged. Colors are consistently employed throughout the film, which favors funereal black and saturated red to underscore its ghastly drama.
I am REALLY looking forward to the NTSC DVD release of "Bloody Ceremony" under the "Legend of Blood Castle" moniker next month from Mya Communications. Like so many horror films of the era, a number of versions of this film exist, from the uncut "Female Butcher" to a less-grisly version known as "Legend of Blood Castle" (please note that I am unsure as to the completeness of the Mya print being offered). This is a beautifully macabre film that deserves to be seen by more genre fans, and if you just can't wait, visit Trash Palace, the Tenebrous Empire's preferred source for collectors' DVDs, for an uncut print.