As the ‘60s gave way to the ‘70s, vampires on film were stuck in a rut of crumbling castles and cotton candy cobwebs. It was time for an update; to rid the screen of the stagecoaches and street lamps. It was time for Count Yorga, Vampire (1970), a fun little romp brought into the modern age by a world class turn from Robert Quarry as the titular bloodsucker.
Yorga was released by American International Pictures (we’re back in AIP territory – and it’s a glorious place to be) in June stateside, with a rollout around the world shortly thereafter. But that wasn’t the easiest thing to do; the filmmakers had to submit Yorga a few times to the MPAA to achieve their desired rating – a GP (equivalent to a PG at the time), which they eventually received. And wouldn’t you know it? The film was very successful, especially on the drive-in circuit. Now, you wouldn’t think it would be hard to turn a profit off a $64,000 budget, but there were a lot of bottom feeders flooding the market; for one to rise up from the mire was unusual and rare. But it did, with audiences taking a shine to its old suit, new shoes model.
Our film opens with ominous narration (provided by veteran character actor George Macready – Paths of Glory) warning the viewer of vampires and superstitions. Next, in a scene that seems as old as film itself, we see a crate (a coffin, perhaps?) being unloaded at the harbor. We then cut to a séance in the canyons of L.A. – three couples, including Donna (Donna Anders – Werewolves on Wheels) and Michael (producer Michael Macready – Terror House), Erica (Judy Lang – The Trip) and Paul (Michael Murphy – Strange Behavior). The séance, to try and reach Donna’s recently deceased mother, is being conducted by Count Yorga (Quarry – Madhouse), who recently arrived from Bulgaria and was the boyfriend of Donna’s mom before she mysteriously died (uh huh).
Yorga hypnotizes Donna during the séance; when it’s over Paul and Erica offer the Count a ride home (what, he can’t fly there?) and she becomes bat food during a vehicular mishap, unbeknownst to Paul. When Erica becomes a little, shall we say, anemic, Paul takes her to his friend, Dr. Hayes (Roger Perry – Roller Boogie), who surprisingly, doesn’t discount vampirism as the cause of her problems. Before long, Hayes convinces Paul and Michael that Yorga has a hold on their ladies, and they race to stop him before they become his willing brides.
Count Yorga, Vampire started out as an adult film entitled The Loves of Count Iorga, Vampire (and that title card is still used!) – a decidedly different adventure that Quarry, if he came aboard, would not participate in. So, it became a straight up horror film, with most of the erotic elements removed. Which I think is good; the Europeans were killing everyone anyway with their sexualized takes on vampire mythology – Yorga’s not completely chaste, but this throwback to a simpler era lends the film a certain charm.
Director Bob Kelljan (Scream Blacula Scream) isn’t looking to reinvent the wheel here; the story follows all the traditional beats of your standard bloodsucker – maidens are kidnapped, heroes attempt to rescue – but the bell bottoms, polyester and VW vans helped attract the modern day viewer in a way that the bodice rippers had ceased to do. However, his script does still honor tradition; Yorga has his own Renfield, Brudah (Edward Walsh – Hard Times), a hulking buck toothed brute with an affinity for the ladies, and the Count succumbs to the standard accoutrements – crosses, stakes, and sunlight. And his appearance is a hilarious anachronism in modern day L.A., except a caped psychic doesn’t sound that unusual for the times – or the area. The script is witty too; the banter between Yorga and Dr. Hayes (assuming the Van Helsing mantle) has a playfulness that strengthens the traditional adversary relationship in vampire filmic lore.
What the film doesn’t offer, however, are the lush visuals associated with Universal and Hammer. Certainly the settings contribute to this; a very low budget affords little in the way of scenery, although Yorga’s mansion is quite impressive, and is well utilized in the action packed finale. I do wish the cinematography was a little stronger as some impressive shots are offset by the occasional lack of focus; but then again no one would hire Freddie Francis to film a skin show.
Why Yorga works as well as it does is due to the performances. Murphy would go on to have a long and well regarded career in and out of the genre, and Perry gives a humorous turn as our good doctor. But a vampire film lives or dies by its creature of the night; up to this point Lugosi and Lee had offered very different but equally impressive turns as the most famous Count of them all. Add to the list Quarry; and while he’s not playing Dracula, his command of the screen ensures him a place alongside those greats. Tall, handsome, with piercing eyes and a regal tone, Quarry plays Yorga as the most insidious of vampires; gracious and charming until he no longer needs to be. Whenever Quarry is in view the film positively throbs with excitement, leading to a final showdown nearly as potent as the best of the bloodsuckers.
Count Yorga, Vampire ushered in a new era in horror; moving forward, vampires (with the occasional callback to its gothic roots) would walk the streets under electric lights and neon crosses, content with their place in the modern world. Just remember that Robert Quarry was there first – and did it best.
Count Yorga, Vampire is available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time.