It was with much sadness that I heard of the passing of legendary Hammer actress and leading ‘scream queen’ Ingrid Pitt on 23rd November 2010 – just two days following her 73rd birthday and only a few weeks after my Hammer Horror tribute post on this very site (see ‘Hammer Glamour’ in the archive on this very blog) in which Ingrid received an honorary and well deserved mention.
This post, then, is a brief tribute to a true Horror legend – and a woman with a fascinating and dramatic past – who came to be known as “England’s first lady of horror.”
Ingrid Pitt was born Ingoushka Petrov in Warsaw, Poland in 1937 to a German father and a Polish-Jewish mother. During World War Two, Poland’s Nazi occupiers placed Ingrid and her mother in Stutthof concentration camp and the young Ingrid (she was five at the time of her incarceration) witnessed the real-life horrors of the Holocaust at first hand. The harrowing tale of these times – and how, against all odds, she survived is related by Ingrid in her 1999 autobiography, Life’s A Scream (which I read on its release).
Having survived Nazism, Ingrid found herself the subject of another totalitarian regime – Soviet Communism – in post-War Eastern Europe. No fan of State dictatorships, young Ingrid sought escape. Motivated by a very real dedication to serious acting, she joined the Berliner Ensemble, where she worked under actress Helene Weigel, the widow of Bertolt Brecht. But her outspoken criticism of Communist officials meant she had the State secret police to contend with.
She escaped East Berlin hurriedly on the night of her planned stage debut, diving into (and nearly drowning in) the River Spree, which runs through the German capital. Ingrid was pulled out of the river by a US Army lieutenant (the eponymous Mr Pitt) and, reader, she married him!
Unfortunately the marriage did not last – in all, Ingrid was married three times. She returned to Europe – at first, Spain; eventually England…and Hammer Film Studios! The rest, as they say, is history!
Ingrid’s movie career was long and impressive. I will mention just a few personal faves: Where Eagles Dare (1968 – in which she played opposite one of my all-time favourite actors, Clint Eastwood; not a horror film this time but a war movie); The House That Dripped Blood (1970 – this time definitely a horror film!…and a very good one too; a compendium of tales produced by the main contemporary rival film studio to Hammer; Amicus); The Vampire Lovers (1971 – a true Hammer classic based on the equally classic Sheridan Le Fanu vampire novel, Carmilla; note: if you’re a vampire fan and you’ve not yet read this novel…go get yourself a copy!…it was a direct influence on Bram Stoker); Countess Dracula (1971 – another Hammer classic…and arguably the role for which Ingrid became universally best known…this one was based on the legend of the real-life bloodthirsty Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Báthory who believed that bathing in the blood of virgins would restore her youth).
Ingrid also had a small role in the original – and legendary – British horror movie, The Wicker Man (1973) – yes, the one with that dance by Britt Ekland! Robin Hardy, director of The Wicker Man, said of Ingrid: “’She was a very attractive person in every sense. She was a perfectly good actress but a very decent person as well.”
As a Hammer scream queen, Ingrid features in the Marcus Hearn book ‘Hammer Glamour’ (…still at the top of my Xmas wish list!) and retained her own fan club right up until her death, Sadly, she was taken ill and collapsed while on the way to a birthday dinner organised by her fan club. “It’s great meeting the fans,” she wrote on her fansite, Pitt of Horror. “They tell me I am more beautiful now than when I was making films a quarter of a century ago. All lies, of course, but sweet.”
Seven months before she passed away, she finished the narration for “Ingrid Pitt: Beyond the Forest,” an animated short film about her experience in the Holocaust, a project that had been in the pipeline for some five years. It will be released in 2011. She also wrote a story under the pseudonym Dracula Smith, which was illustrated within her Fan club magazine; the rumour mill suggests this is also likely to be snapped up for production.
Ingrid Pitt traversed continents, survived two totalitarian dictatorships and created some of the most memorable scenes in Hammer’s unique and inimitable archive. She held a student’s pilot licence and a black belt in karate. Her daughter, Steffanie, is also an actress – after all, it’s in the blood! RIP Ingoushka – and fangs for the memories!