Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Blood and Brocade

The Erzsébet Báthory legend is one of the most persistent stories in the horror myth pool, partially because it's so utterly ghastly and partially because it's a so-called "true story." I mean, I certainly remember being riveted by it when I first discovered it as a teen horror geek, particularly as a queer teen horror geek. It goes something like this: In 1610, Hungarian noblewoman Erzsébet Báthory (1560-1616) was tried and convicted of murdering peasant women with the aid of her servants. For this crime, she was walled up in her castle for the last five years of her life. The tally of her victims ranges anywhere from 36 to 650, though no one knows for sure. There is some evidence that the whole thing was a frame-up either by the Catholic Church and the Hapsburgs, who wanted to turn the Holy Roman Empire Catholic and turn back the reformation, or by King Mattias of Hungary, who owed the Bathorys a huge amount of money after they financed his war against the Ottoman Turks. Is the Bathory story propaganda? Maybe, but even so, Elizabeth Bathory is still listed in the record books as a the most voracious female serial killer in history. As if her story weren't ghastly enough, somewhere along the line, someone appended the notion that Bathory was a lesbian who bathed in the blood of virgins to maintain her youth. This is unsupported by the historical record, but the myth pool doesn't care about history, it cares about stories. So like Lizzie Borden and the forty whacks, Erzsébet Báthory has been convicted of crimes of dubious or even fictional veracity in the popular imagination. She is forever "The Blood Countess," and the font from which the lesbian vampire archetype flows.* I'm sure she burns in hell this very day, deserved or not.

Bathory (2008, directed by Juraj Jakubisko) attempts to rehabilitate Erzsébet with indifferent results. It restores to the myth the notion that Erzsébet was the victim of the machinations of her enemies, but it falls under the sway of the myth even as it does this. It can't help itself. It presents the image of Bathory bathing in blood (later revealed to be water colored red with herbs--yeah, whatever) and it presents Bathory as a murderess, who kills while under the influence of hallucinogens and in fits of pique. Basically, Bathory wants to have it both ways and makes a muddle of the whole thing.

Bathory postulates a "truer" history of its title character and plunges the viewer headlong into the long and bloody conflict between the Christian nations of Eastern Europe (including Hungary, The Holy Roman Empire, Transylvania, etc.) and the Ottoman Turks. The wars keep Erzsébet's husband, Ferenc away for years at a time. Even when he's at home, Ferenc is no prince charming. He rapes Erzsébet while she's pregnant, causing her to miscarry with their son. He's subsequently captured by the Turks, though with the aid of his friend, Thurzo, he escapes. In Ferenc's absence Erzsébet amuses herself with an affair with a visiting artist. When Ferenc returns, he's suspicious of the artist and contrives to poison him, but Erzsébet drinks the poison by mistake. The artist escapes and Erzsébet survives, barely. She's tended for the poison by the healer, Darvulia, who many in the kingdom regard as a witch. Under Darvulia's care, Erzsébet's behavior becomes erratic, sometimes violently so. The servants in her castle begin to die in mysterious ways. After Ferenc's death, Erzsébet's enemies circle. She drives Darvulia away because she believes she has betrayed her. Two Catholic monks arrive to investigate the rumors being spread about her by the local Lutheran pastor. And her life unravels.

For a movie that wants to overturn the popular image of Erzsébet Bathory, this film does a piss poor job of it. It substitutes one myth for another, less interesting one. If this film makes any claim to historicity, it completely torpedoes itself with the occasional anachronism, the ridiculous notion that Erzsébet Bathory had an affair with Caravaggio (who never left Italy during his lifetime and is known to have preferred boys), and the jarring inclusion of several steampunk-ish devices carried by the monks. It even quotes Shakespeare at one point (The Bard being almost exactly Erzsébet's contemporary) before the date of the First Folio. It may disclaim the whole bathing in blood bit, but it never the less includes the image. It also never refutes the fact that Erzsébet Bathory was a murderer, even as it builds a case that her eventual imprisonment was more political than anything. It has a view of renaissance nobility that's jaundiced at best. It's okay to murder the help if you're a noble, I guess, so long as you don't torture them and bathe in their blood. And, really,Erzsébet's crimes are shown to be no worse than those of other nobles of the time. Medieval nobility could pretty much get away with anything so long as they were powerful enough. Of course, there's a serious flaw in the film's basic conception. An audience that wants to see a film about Erzsébet Bathory is going to want to see the trappings of the myth. The filmmakers start things in a box, and they aren't able to fight their way out of it with rationalizations.

That all said, Bathory is certainly handsome. It's got gorgeous costumes and it's filmed in the same region in which Erzsébet Bathory actually lived. It doesn't lack for production values. It does lack a little bit for mood. Oh, it has some dark dungeons, true, but it's mostly well-lit to show off the costume design. The cast is not an a-list by any means. Anna Friel is as close to a star as the production comes, and she's mostly good in a role that requires her to be brittle, vicious, and sexual by turns. She's matched with a callow Hans Matheson, who has mostly made a career on the BBC. Matheson is pretty, I'll give him that. The rest of the cast is a mixed bag, featuring a polyglot of accents from across the continent. It's distracting.

In any event, Bathory's main flaw is that it wants to be a prestige production. Like many prestige productions, it tends toward bloat. This might have been a dandy movie at a much shorter running time (it runs well over two hours). It also undercuts its pretensions with pulp. As a sop to the horror audience, we occasionally get ghastly medieval tortures. As a sop to pervs, there is plenty of sex and nudity. What there ISN'T is a coherent idea of what it wants to say. The script for this mess is all over the map, and no amount of production value can rescue it.

*The other font of lesbian vampires, Carmilla, is known to have been influenced by the Bathory myth.

Current tally: 2 film

First time viewings: 2

From Around the Web

Aaron over at Horror 101 with Dr. AC kicks off his challenge in high style. Like your humble bloginatrix, Aaron is doing the Challenge as a charity fundraiser and he's already banked 20 bucks for Friends of Children. Drop by and wish him luck.

Ashley over at Pussy Goes Grrr kicks of the season with an introduction to spooky TV specials.

Eric at Expelled Grey Matter regrets his first choice for the Challenge, the risible Children of the Living Dead.

Tim Brannan joins us again this year at his gaming/geek culture blog, The Other Side. He's kicking things off with The Woman in Black (2012).

Also from the gaming world is Renee over at Gaming as Women, who is turning the movies she watches for the challenge into interesting suggestions for gaming scenarious, including a very interesting mini-game based on Jenga and the movie, Frozen.

1 comment:

Timothy S. Brannan said...

Very cool.

I am still going to try to find this one. I enjoy the Bathory mythology and have seen most of the movies on the subject.

Looking forward to seeing what else you have for me to watch!