Ingrid Pitt: Scream Siren
Ingrid Pitt, who died late last year aged 73, was a beacon of bravura ghastliness, a frequent onscreen bather and Hammer’s most celebrated female star. With her fierce, distinctive beauty, trailblazing sexuality and formidable flair for conveying psychological complexity in even the most flimsy of material, she leaves an indelible impression on the horror genre. Off-screen, she survived a harrowing childhood â€“ during which she was interned in a concentration camp â€“ embraced her infamy as a horror icon and was a prolific writer and friend to her fans.
Her parents were fleeing Nazi Germany for England (via Poland) when Pitt (born Ingoushka Petrov) arrived on 21 November 1937. Her father was a Prussian scientist whose expertise the warmongering Nazis were eager to harness â€“ despite his resistance â€“ and her mother was a much-younger Lithuanian Jew. Born amid this global turmoil and into great personal danger, Pitt spent her infancy in hiding and on the run, before she and her mother were eventually captured, separated from her father and imprisoned in the Stutthof concentration camp for three torturous years. She said later: ‘Without doubt my entire life was overshadowed by my childhood and the tormenting acts of violence and hate I had to witness.’
Pitt’s acting career began post-war when, as a young woman, she talked her way into the prestigious Berliner Ensemble (based in East Berlin), where she was taken on to prepare hot drinks. The experience was short-lived, however, as she was forced to flee the Volkspolizei ahead of her first significant performance, a dramatic episode that culminated with her being fished out of a river by a US Lieutenant â€“ a man who she eventually married. When her new husband was transferred back to America, Pitt followed. After giving birth to baby Steffanie and seeing her husband volunteer to fight in Vietnam she decided to give acting another go and joined the Playhouse, a touring American theatre company.
The experience was ultimately a miserable one and the desperate, virtually penniless single mother moved to Madrid. When a photograph of her sobbing at a bull fight was published in El Pueblo it was spotted by Ana Mariscal, one of the top Spanish directors who â€“ unfazed by Pitt’s inability to speak Spanish â€“ cast her as a boozy nymphomaniac American in Los duendes de AndalucÃa (1966). While working in Spain she also secured small roles in the English-language productions A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) and Dr Zhivago (1965).
After a stint working in a restaurant she was befriended by Willy Wilder (Billy’s brother) and offered the lead role in The Omegans (1968). After some TV work, including Ironside (1967), she won a role in Where Eagles Dare (1968) alongside Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton, a duo who had a (rather un-gentlemanly) bet as to which of them would bed her first. When they revealed this to her later, the provocative Pitt confounded and amused them by asking, ‘Who won?’
It was in England in 1970 with Roy Ward Baker’s The Vampire Lovers that Pitt really found her niche. The Vampire Lovers was made towards the tail-end of Hammer’s horror film production (though the company has been recently revived, of course). Hammer had been known and loved for their horror output since the late 50s, after the success of titles such as The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958), and it had built on this reputation with its mastery of the macabre throughout the 1960s.
However, by 1970 Hammer was suffering the knock-on effect of the introduction of colour television and an audience fatigued with its Gothic horror shtick. In an effort to reinvigorate the brand and its fortunes the studio decided to go all out, so to speak, with one element always simmering fairly unsubtly under the surface of its productions â€“ namely, sex. The Vampire Lovers was the first Hammer film to see whether upping the ante in this way would indeed sell. The Hammer publicity machine went into overdrive and Pitt was dubbed the ‘Queen of Horror’ and ‘The Most Beautiful Ghoul in the World!’
In The Vampire Lovers, Pitt plays Mircalla Karnstein, a lesbian vampire who tricks her way into the homes of aristocrats and preys on their daughters. She is quite the fervent seductress, as she says to one of her perky victims, ‘I want you to love me for all your life’. Despite the incessantly prurient nature of the piece and the frequent nudity, Pitt manages to bring sophistication and depth to the role, eliciting sympathy for the murderess and deftly conveying her loneliness and longing.
That same year, she also sent up her burgeoning scream queen persona by starring in Amicus Productions’ The House that Dripped Blood, Peter Duffell’s hugely enjoyable portmanteau picture, which brought together Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Joss Ackland and Denholm Elliott in a quartet of vignettes. Pitt is a billed star and features in the final (and the only comic) segment ‘The Cloak’ alongside Doctor Who’s Jon Pertwee. She plays Carla, a trampy horror actress and on/off-screen love interest of Pertwee’s veteran horror star Paul Henderson, who delivers the vignette’s suitably bloodthirsty punchline.
Shortly afterwards, Pitt was expected to reprise her role as Mircalla in the sequel to The Vampire Lovers, Lust for a Vampire (1971), but, as she describes it: ‘I was lined up for Countess Dracula and after seeing the script for Lust [for a Vampire] with [my] character little more than a means for titillation I was glad of the excuse to get out of it.’
It was a fortuitous conflict as Ingrid Pitt’s most memorable role was to be that of the bloodthirsty Countess Elizabeth in the aforementioned Countess Dracula (1971). It’s a slightly misleading title as she doesn’t play a vampire as such â€“ rather a fantastical version of real-life 16th-century murderess Countess Elizabeth Báthory. Branded a ‘devil woman’ and a ‘witch’ by the villagers, in Peter Sasdy’s film the ageing Countess is a depraved, conscienceless killer who discovers that the blood of young women has the power to restore her youth and beauty.
Armed with this knowledge, she callously slays her chambermaid and hurriedly arranges for her right-hand man and lover Captain Dobi (Nigel Green) to kidnap her long-absent daughter Ilona (Lesley-Anne Down) so that she can, without suspicion, assume her identity. Unfortunately, the de-ageing effects quickly wear off and her insatiable appetite fuels a desperate, murderous campaign. Fully exploiting the advantages of youth, she quickly takes a young lover, Imre Toth (Sandor Elès), much to the annoyance of Dobi.
Pitt is terrific in a multi-shaded role that allows her to develop her villainess into a full-blooded, nefarious icon, rivalling those of her male Hammer peers. She is alternately zealous, wanton, vivacious, pathetic and grasping. However, despite her charismatic, committed performance she suffered the indignity of having her voice dubbed in post-production.
Pitt’s most famous horror film is probably The Wicker Man (1973), although her role in it is very small. She plays, rather amusingly, a petulant employee of the office of the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages. However, despite her limited role and screen-time she still manages to appear sans attire in one farcical sequence where, Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) bursts in on her during his search for a missing girl, and is startled by the sight of her lying provocatively in a bath (a recurring motif in her horror films).
It is for these four films â€“ The Vampire Lovers, The House that Dripped Blood, Countess Dracula and The Wicker Man â€“ that Ingrid Pitt is best remembered. She wholeheartedly approved of being cast as baddies saying, ‘Being the anti-hero is great â€“ they are always roles you can get your teeth into’.
Pitt continued working in less memorable film and TV roles (in such fare as Doctor Who, Wild Geese II and Smiley’s People) virtually up until her death on 23 November 2010, and was a regular and enthusiastic participant at fan conventions. Pitt was also a hard-working and accomplished author and columnist, publishing several books, including a frank and eventful autobiography Life’s a Scream in 1999, as well as The Peróns, Katarina and The Bedside Companion for Vampire Lovers, among many others.
Ingrid Pitt is and will remain one of the great female horror stars â€“ a comely, unconventionally beautiful villainess who was smart, wickedly witty, compassionate and determined.