An eerie opening featuring a procession of torch-wielding villagers led by a naked youth on horseback reveals a countryside in the grip of superstition. A suspected ‘vampire’ is dug up and staked, and a ludicrous posthumous ‘trial’ is held, reluctantly presided over by local lord of the manor Karl Ziemmer (Espartaco Santoni), who clearly finds the proceedings as absurd as you or I would do.
Meanwhile, Karl’s bored wife, one Erzebet Bathory (Lucia Bose), laments both the fact that she is growing visibly older and that he seems to prefer watching his falcons tear smaller birds to shreds to spending any time whispering sweet nothings into her ear. Her creepy old maidservant offers a solution: why doesn’t she simply bathe in the blood of virgins like her infamous namesake and ancestor of the 16th century? Erzebet dismisses the idea as nonsense, but when a drop of a young serving girl’s blood finds its way onto her hand by accident, she sees that the skin there indeed appears to have become more youthful in appearance.
From here on her course is clear, and she enlists the help of said creepy maidservant in enslaving Karl’s mind through the power of witchcraft. Under her thrall he stages his own death. The townspeople are all to quick to believe this as he proudly wore a supposedly ‘cursed’ amulet in an effort to debunk their superstitious beliefs – the very beliefs that are played on as he seeks out and butchers young girls for blood for Erzebet to bathe in, masquerading as the very vampire he scoffed at. But could his attraction to young village wench Marina (Ewa Aulin, in her final film role) break the spell and be Erzebet’s undoing?
The main theme running through the film is clearly that everything that lives and thrives does so at the expense of something else. It is alluded to in the dialogue that humans need dead animals and vegetable matter to live, Karl’s falcons thrive in all their beauty by savaging smaller beasts, and when some serving girls are caught messing about with some pigeon’s blood, their defence is that it ‘firms the breasts’. The church maintains control through torture, fear-mongering and repression. To remain young and vital in appearance Erzebet bathes in the blood of young girls, provided by Karl, who has to ‘die’ to make this possible. It probably goes without saying that the presentation of the ruling classes as ‘vampires’ sucking the life-blood from the proletariat is both older than film itself and still applicable today. For director Jorge Grau, working here at the tail end of Spain’s repressive, ultra-conservative Franco regime, this theme would in no way been arrived at randomly.
While CEREMONIA SANGRIENTA (to give its original title) is slow-moving at times it never fails to grip the attention. Grau, better known for the following year’s THE LIVING DEAD AT THE MANCHESTER MORGUE, has a true artist’s eye and his use of costumes, settings and lighting is nothing short of exquisite. A scene in which Erzebet’s tortured conscience conjures images of the undead corpses of she and Karl’s victims in a mirror is breathtaking in its use of light and shadow, bringing to mind the work of Bava. The performances are generally of a high standard, especially from Bose and Santoni, The latter’s appearance is reminiscent of that of Paul Naschy as ‘Alaric de Marnac’ in the same year’s HORROR RISES FROM THE TOMB. This Spanish/Italian co-production is superior in every way to Hammer’s Bathory-inspired opus COUNTESS DRACULA (1971).