by Evan J Peterson
On Tuesday, February 2nd, join us for the next installment of our SHRIEK: Women of Horror Film class. This time, we’ll focus on The Countess, written and directed by Julie Delpy and starring Delpy as the titular protagonist (and killer). This is the first film I’ve selected that isn’t well known, and I’ve selected it intentionally in order to focus on more horror films created by women.
Stats on The Countess (2009)
Major protagonist: female
Nudity: male and female
Does it pass the Bechdel-Wallace test: Yes
Major actors: Julie Delpy, Daniel Brühl, Anamaria Marinca, William Hurt
Director: Julie Delpy
Writer: Julie Delpy
“History is a tale told by the victors. Who are the victors? Barbaric warriors, mad kings, and greedy traitors. Maybe most of our history is made of fables fabricated by those glorious victors.”
The film opens with this quote, establishing male narrator and love interest Istvan (Daniel Brühl), someone who loved Countess Erzebet Bathory passionately. He finds the accusations against her to be dubious, even at the end. The film does make it seem that she was the bloodthirsty killer that history describes. Even if she was a madwoman, a murderer, and a sadistic torturer, the film asserts that she was also the target of character assassination by the men who feared and desired her wealth and power.
Bathory, for those unfamiliar, is the historical “Blood Countess” of Medieval Hungary, thought to have killed anywhere from several dozen to over six hundred women and girls. It is is unproven whether she did this in order to bathe in their blood, and that accusation arose probably as a folk legend years after her death. Even so, her reputation is so gruesome that it is likely to have helped inspire Stoker’s Dracula much more than Price Vlad Dracul’s actual life, and it undoubtedly inspired Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella Carmilla, a female (and lesbian) vampire story that preceded Dracula by over twenty-five years.
It’s no surprise that there are dozens of Bathory-related films, more if you count adaptations of Carmilla. Something about a vampiric woman who preys on other women has stuck in the popular imagination, and her story has been fodder for exploitation cinema for at least fifty years. There are scores of well known vampire films that follow the lesbian vampire trope, well beyond those that focus on Bathory and Carmilla: The Hunger (my favorite vampire film), Dracula’s Daughter, Daughters of Darkness, Vampyros Lesbos, and on and on. So why pick this version? It’s written and directed by a real live actual woman, for starters.
This is a rare and complicated horror film. Unlike most horror, it’s a biopic. Historical horror films are not unheard of, but this goes beyond taking a historical murderer and exploring their depravity. It’s not Monster. Nor is it about the bleeding and the screaming and the nudity. This movie explores Bathory’s life from start to finish, though it focuses on the period between her husband’s death and her own while imprisoned in her castle. The Countess is just as much about her political career and her tragic love of Istvan as it is about her reputation for torturing and murdering girls, using their blood to preserve/restore her youth.
The horror is not merely hers; the entire Hungarian noble system seems to be composed of cruel, backstabbing, murderous thugs (see also Game of Thrones and Dune). That’s where the feminism of this horror film shines. It’s not that Erzebet Bathory is presented as an innocent or even culpable victim of patriarchy; it’s that she’s no more depraved, manipulative, or lethal than her male counterparts, but she’s the one left bearing the brand of capital-M-Monster.
She’s pitiful, surely. If she did in fact murder and torture scores or hundreds of young women and girls, then her final torturous isolation and imprisonment fits her crimes. While it would be unfeminist to leave it that Bathory is a madwoman driven by her neediness for male companionship, the film turns that around and shows how twisted a woman can become if her greatest motivation in life is to have and please a man. Mercifully and masterfully, Delpy avoids beating the audience across the face with the sentiment that “men are bad, men in power are worse, look what they did to her.” The film shows instead of telling, and it holds Erzebet responsible for her own crimes while showing that the men go unpunished.
Then there is her relationship with Darvulia (Anamaria Marinca). Clearly, they have a lesbian relationship. They don’t merely cuddle, though their lovemaking is left off camera. More than a courtesan or concubine, Darvulia is at once Erzebet’s court mystic, financial manager, and lady regent in her absence. These are powerful women who pose a threat to the men in their world.
Darvulia is in love with Erzebet, and Erzebet doesn’t seem to reciprocate. While Erzebet enjoys the closeness of Darvulia’s company and her physical affection, she’s in love with Istvan in a way she probably has never felt for Darvulia (or for her late husband, for that matter). Darvulia is explicitly described as having “shared love” only with women, though Erzebet comes across as disinterested in romance with women. She treats Darvulia as a trusted friend, but swoons over Istvan and asks brazenly for Darvulia’s help to make Istvan hers. Darvulia is jealous, and Erzebet ignores this while nonetheless indulging her in sex. The film could be seen as painting Erzebet as yet another twisted bisexual in the horror genre, but then again the film prompts us to root for underdog Darvulia to get the girl, not for Erzebet to get the boy. This is a historical tragedy, so neither of these will happen.
Delpy also never turns Darvulia into a “tragic queer” trope—Darvulia is not murdered nor does she commit suicide. She suffers little in comparison to other characters, aside from her unrequited love for Erzebet. In fact, she’s one of few women in the film to evade being punished by men or murdered by Erzebet. No one in this “Christian” culture accuses the two of the sin of lesbianism, though plenty accuse both of the sin of witchcraft. Perhaps sex among women is meant to be unthinkable and invisible in this time and place. Even Erzebet calls Darvulia a “virgin” for having sex exclusively with women. Nonetheless, Darvulia casually escapes being punished for her witchcraft or for her homosexuality, both quite notable in a genre in which witches and queers are usually killed off even if they’re among the “good guys.”
It impresses me that this film has such a nuanced relationship between the two women. While many (if not most) of the Bathory-inspired horror films include torrid, one-note lesbianism, The Countess doesn’t play this relationship for exploitation, nor does Delpy’s Bathory sexualize the murders. She romanticizes them, surely, but she makes the drawing of blood about preserving herself for Istvan. She even carries a notion that God endorses her activity. Lesser films instead favor big bare breasts dripping with blood and a lusty Bathory to lap it up.
There is no shortage of blood in this film, of course. The gore is more tragic than frightening, but it’s abundant. To me, the most horrifying scene isn’t about murder at all. After snipping a lock of Istvan’s hair, Bathory uses it in a way that makes my skin crawl, and I laud Delpy for getting that reaction out of me. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and it makes us question whether she’s psychotic or if she’s simply overcome by grief and irrational in her pain.
Delpy has created something beyond mere horror, historical drama, or tragic love story. She’s created a chilling look at a complicated and powerful woman from Western history, and I’m proud to include it as part of SHRIEK.
Join us Tuesday, February 2nd for SHRIEK: The Countess!
You can reserve your space in the class here.
Scarecrow Video is wheelchair accessible. We suggest bringing an extra chair cushion if needed for comfort. The SHRIEK community film class is designed to offer everybody an affordable, accessible way to learn about film and women’s studies. We hope to inspire more women to get involved in filmmaking, especially in the horror genre, where women are severely underrepresented behind the camera.
Evan J Peterson is a journalist, professor, 2015 Clarion West writer, Lambda Literary Award finalist, and author of Skin Job and The Midnight Channel.