CAPSULE: BATHORY (2008)

AKA Bathory: Countess of Blood

DIRECTED BY:  Juraj Jakubisk

FEATURING, Karel Roden, Vincent Regan, Hans Matheson, Deana Horváthová, Franco Nero

PLOT:  Fictionalized chronicle of the life, loves, and political struggles of the infamous 17th century Hungarian countess.


WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Clashing cross-genre elements and facts interposed with fiction and fantasy create an oddball portrait of an already bizarre historical figure and her horrific crimes. If not tedious, the end effect is certainly weird.

COMMENTS: Bathory is a dreamy, odd mix of historical fact, fiction, speculation, and whimsy surrounding the life of notorious sexual serial murderess, Hungarian Countess Erzsébet Báthory de Ecsed (1560 – 1614).

At 141 minutes running time, this cut of the film is condensed from a three part TV miniseries. It’s a Slovakian film produced in the Czech Republic about Hungarian history, with British actors, and the mixed production values, uneven tone and ambiguous, confusing story make for an unusual, entertaining, but disjointed viewing experience. The sets and costumes are colorful and imaginative, yet in places smack of a television budget.

Relying heavily on speculation and fancy, Bathory‘s plot combines elements of mystery, thriller, historical drama, and Renaissance steampunk adventure. Part of the movie focuses on the Countess’s personal life, her youth, her marriage to a Hapsburg dynasty heir, and fictionalized romance with painter Merisi Caravaggio (who in real life, never traveled to Northern Hungary.) The story also surveys the politics of Bathory’s dynasty, the Hapsburg empire, their battles with the Turks, and the interplay of power posturings between Bathory and her Hapsburg in-laws. This comprehensive coverage is fine for a TV miniseries, but becomes tedious and complicated in a feature-length movie, especially given the film’s sojourn into fiction.

While some of the political and historical plot points in the film are accurate, others are not, and the remainder of the picture features a murky, often conflicted depiction of Countess Bathory which attempts alternate explanations for the gruesome legends about her. This aspect of the movie is deliberately ambiguous.

Bodies of mutilated teenage girls indeed pile up, girls are found captive in the dungeons of Csejte Castle, and Bathory is seen murdering a couple of servants. Conversely, it is indicated that conspirators drugged the Countess with hallucinogenic mushrooms, and her Gypsy mystic soothsayer, a secret Hapsburg confederate, had Elizabeth so brainwashed with suspicious medicinal potions and metaphysical mumbo-jumbo that Bathory had no clear conception of reality. In other words, the filmmakers seem to be saying of her dreadful transgressions, “it wasn’t her fault.”

Bathory’s infamous bath of blood (drawn from her victims) turns out to be an innocent aquatic suspension of scarlet herbs. Or was the herb bath just a decoy to fool spies? The film hedges as if the producers are too timid to take a firm stance, yet they raise the question of whether long established historical facts are in actuality nothing more than trumped-up charges.

The Hapsburgs are depicted as doing their best to blame a string of mutilation killings on Bathory for political reasons, while fostering exaggerated rumors about her “alleged” perversions and crimes. To make the plot even more bizarre, two Renaissance-gadget wielding, steampunk monks infiltrate Csejte Castle searching for evidence against Elisabeth in hopes that the Church can capitalize on a possible prosecution and property forfeiture.

With its odd subplots, and unconventional mix of fact, speculation and whimsy, Bathory winds up being confusing and just plain weird. What the film lacks in clarity and concise presentation, however, it makes up for in color and imagination, though even this cannot fully redeem it.

As my library of factual historical accounts about the notorious countess steadily expands, I yearn for a solid, cinematic portrayal or her life and crimes, one that provides some real insight into Bathory’s twisted psyche and morbid libido. Bathory, regrettably, falls short of the mark.

Like The Countess (2009), Bathory steadfastly resists indicting Elizabeth as the blood thirsty serial killer she clearly was. Minimizing her collusion with those servants who assisted her, and glossing over her murderous predisposition, Elizabeth’s motives are written off as forgivable vanity based upon her outrageous excuse that she thought bathing in the blood of virgins (or was it just those aforementioned scarlet herbs?) would preserve her youth.

Worse, the film hints that perhaps no such crimes even occurred, that if she did murder, a drugged Elizabeth was not responsible for her actions, and the reports of her macabre, orgiastic frenzies were actually malicious rumors concocted by the scheming Hapsburgs. There was plenty of motive for many parties to wish for Bathory’s demise. If she were convicted of murder, Bathory’s debtors would be relieved of their obligations. Additionally, in the movie, the Hapsburgs plot to acquire a number of the countess’ property holdings. Bathory speculates that even King Mathias colluded in her prosecution, in accordance with his financial motives and in furtherance of a political conspiracy with the Hapsburgs.

In actuality, it is a historical fact that Elizabeth graduated from kidnapping and imprisoning peasant girls to murdering daughters of the lesser gentry. Her scandalous behavior sparked a plethora of accusations and complaints. Elizabeth Bathory became an embarrassment and nuisance whose crimes could no longer be conveniently ignored.

Most historical evidence indicates that Elisabeth was an intelligent pervert and serial killer. Drunk with absolute power over her subjects, she satisfied her cravings by living out Pygmalionesque fantasies. Bathory indulged in an orgy of licentious and violent liberties with her victims before committing acts of sexual cruelty, finally killing them slowly by piercing them with narrow stakes and sharpened rods. She then hanged her still kicking victims upside down over a tub, slit their throats, and bathed and masturbated in their blood.

In contrast to the whitewashed account provided by the movie, I think a more likely vision of Elizabeth’s reality is that she was driven to distraction by the very thought of evisceration and death. After reading “The Bloody Countess: Atrocities of Erzsebet Bathory,” by Valentine Penrose, and Kimberly Craft’s extraordinarily well-researched “Infamous Lady: The True Story of Countess Erzsébet Báthory,” I accept the charges that she abducted, raped, sexually abused, tortured and murdered 650 teenage girls. Furthermore, I believe that she did it solely for the sexual charge. Like Peter Kürten, the infamous Vampire of Düsseldorf, Bathory’s chief motivation was probably the spontaneous sexual climaxes she almost certainly experienced while committing her atrocities.

I suspect that the mere sight of her blades opening the arteries of comely, naked, quivering, helpless girls sent Elizabeth into prurient convulsions. In keeping with eyewitness testimony documented by Penrose describing Bathory zealously demanding that she be sexually serviced “harder! faster!” in concert with the simultaneous torture of her victims as she watched, I picture that, reveling in a crimson froth of gore and abject cruelty, the depraved aristocrat surrendered to the throes of unbridled cascades of massive orgasms so profound as to be almost obscene in their extravagance, her eyes rolling up into their sockets as she blissfully collapsed into an ecstatic, torporific stupor. Of course, I do like to indulge my explicit imagination, but given commonly accepted facts, my description is not likely much of an exaggeration.  Excuse me while I blissfully light a cigarette,  lean back in my chair and luxuriously exhale the smoke.

Yet while her degenerate behavior was real enough to result in the destruction of the Countess’s hundreds of innocent victims, it is evidently not sufficiently compelling to inspire film producers to tell the true story of Elizabeth Bathory and her stunning transgressions. I am still awaiting a revealing and factually accurate character study of this engrossing, repellant historical figure. It should be a pensive, insightful, dramatic psychological treatment of the sort of person who would want to do such appalling things.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an unwieldy gothic fairy tale… more of a cinematic curiosity than true blockbuster material, despite its scale.”–Boyd van Hoeij, Variety (contemporaneous)

2 thoughts on “CAPSULE: BATHORY (2008)”

  1. This review makes it very clear indeed that this is a movie that completely and utterly misses the sole point it could possibly have. I think we can all agree that, whatever other qualities a film may have, if it happens to be about a raving maniac who murdered hundreds of people for sexual purposes – especially one who actually existed – it’s a bit disappointing if the film takes the view that they didn’t do it after all.

    The recent inexplicable trend to re-imagine vampires as angst-ridden teens with a problem roughly as bad as acne but cool superpowers to make up for it, as opposed to living corpses reanimated by Satan, probably has something to do with it. I strongly suspect that the initial idea for this film came after a viewing of the misleadingly titled Bram Stoker’s Dracula, in which the poor Count is a tragically misunderstood almost-hero, and really he was motivated primarily by love. This would perhaps spark an association with the gleefully cheap and nasty Hammer classic Countess Dracula, in which Ingrid Pitt plays Elizabeth Bathory as a maniac who kills younger women and bathes in their blood with no ambiguity whatsoever (and no connection with Dracula either, but never mind).

    I can imagine the mental wheels going round: “If Count Dracula can be a tragically misunderstood romantic hero, or at any rate, near as dammit, why can’t we apply the same formula to this lady? Hey, if it makes enough money, we could do a sequel in which Gilles de Rais is a really nice guy who wanders around picking flowers and strumming his lute, while behind his back, his political enemies are somehow faking a huge mound of raped and murdered children in his basement!”

    Actually this approach could result in a genuinely weird film if it was taken to its illogical conclusion. For example, Adolf Hitler portrayed as a kindly, simple-minded dupe who was so wrapped up in painting pretty pictures that he failed to notice that World War 2 had broken out and it was allegedly all his fault.

    I’m reminded of A Shot In The Dark, the best and weirdest of the Inspector Clouseau films (probably because one of the scriptwriters was, of all people, William Peter Blatty – I think I’m right in saying that this is the only Clouseau film in which people actually die). Our hero spends the entire film gallantly trying to prove the innocence of a pretty girl with whom he has fallen in love, despite the fact that every time a murder occurs, it’s screamingly obviously her that did it. The ultimate joke being that of course she didn’t, and despite Clouseau being an idiot, he’s right for the wrong reason.

    Not having seen this film, I have a peculiar mental picture of that daft but incredibly sexy girl who played Cleopatra in Carry On Cleo (whom I don’t recall ever seeing in anything else) as a scatterbrained Elizabeth Bathory who simply can’t help having corpses pile up around her for no reason at all. And of course, Sid James would have to play Caravaggio. You know, I’d much rather watch that movie than the one you’ve just described!

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