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Cult Movie Picks - December 2012
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Count Yorga, Vampire

Count Yorga, Vampire

By the early seventies, the vampire genre was in dire need of some new blood. Hammer Studios' popular Dracula franchise with Christopher Lee had become increasingly formulaic and horror fans were becoming bored by their predictability. But change was in the air and the vampire film would soon enjoy a resurgence led by the arrival of the low-budget sleeper Count Yorga, Vampire in 1970. The movie's unexpected box office success not only spawned a sequel, The Return of Count Yorga (1971), but paved the way for Deathmaster (1972), Blacula (1972) and its sequel, Scream, Blacula, Scream (1973), starring William Marshall, and a number of more sexually explicit vampire thrillers such as Vampyres (1974). Hammer Studios even attempted to recapture their shrinking horror fan base by placing Christopher Lee in contemporary London in the woeful Dracula A.D. 1972 and offering more offbeat hybrids such as the serial-like Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter (1974) and The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974), which introduced martial arts into the vampire genre.

Count Yorga, Vampire stood out from the rest because of a casually hip approach to the traditional vampire film conventions, placing them in a believable modern context while injecting occasional moments of black comedy and tongue-in-cheek dialogue. It didn't hurt that the film was briskly paced with several memorable key sequences - a nighttime attack on a couple in a van, a vampirized woman feasting on a kitten, the climactic raid on Yorga's castle - and that the death scenes were appropriately gory. There were even a few moments that jolted moviegoers out of their seats with unexpected shock cuts of vampires lunging toward the camera. The final shot, in particular, rendered as a freeze frame, ended the movie on an appropriately ghoulish note, even if it was a direct steal from Roman Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967). Most important of all to the film's success was Robert Quarry's performance in the title role; he was genuinely sinister and projected the right mix of cultivated charm and menace that worked well against the almost lighthearted and disbelieving nature of his would-be victims.

The movie wastes no time with unnecessary exposition and begins with the arrival of Count Yorga's coffin over the opening credits as it is transported from the port of Los Angeles (a sequence that would be reused for the opening to Blacula) to his gated mansion in the hills above the city. There is no backstory or revelation of his identity and when we first see the count, he is conducting a séance at the home of Donna (D.J. Anderson), who is grief-stricken over her mother's recent death. We also learn that Yorga, a recent arrival from Europe, was romantically involved with Donna's mother. Despite an attempt to communicate with the deceased woman, the séance is unsuccessful due to the incredulous response of her friends, including Dr. James Hayes (Roger Perry), Michael (Michael Macready), Erica (Judy Lang), and Paul (Michael Murphy). Donna's agitated state is soon alleviated by Yorga's therapeutic hypnosis therapy which also allows him to control her mind via telepathy. Later, after giving Yorga a ride home, Paul and Erica get stranded on an isolated hillside road when their van becomes struck in the mud. Forced to spend the night in their vehicle, they are attacked after making love but unable to remember anything about the assailant. Erica's enormous loss of blood from the attack, however, raises Dr. Hayes's suspicions of her condition. When she begins to display an unnatural craving for fresh blood, he begins to investigate Yorga on his own, eventually sharing his suspicions with Paul and Michael. The ensuing events, which take place over a three day period, quickly escalate into a vampire epidemic with Dr. Hayes finally leading an assault on Yorga's lair after the L.A.P.D. refuse to believe his wild theories.

In the early stages of development, Count Yorga, Vampire was originally called The Loves of Count Iorga, Vampire (this title still appears on some prints of the film) and was intended to be a soft core sexploitation horror film. Once producers Michael Macready and Bob Kelljan (who also directed and wrote the screenplay) signed Robert Quarry for the title role, this approach was dropped in favor of a more straightforward treatment. Filmed on an ultra-low budget of $64,000 and shot at night so that Quarry would be free to work on the Paul Newman/Joanne Woodward film WUSA (1970) during the day, Count Yorga, Vampire became a surprise hit for the distributor A.I.P. (American International Pictures), which trimmed some of the film's more excessive violence (the kitten-eating sequence) to earn a PG-13 rating. You can still see evidence though of the film's earlier soft core sex approach in a few abbreviated scenes - two vampire brides of Yorga begin to caress each other while their master watches, Erica becomes sexually aroused in bed as she awaits Yorga's arrival, Dr. Hayes and his secretary are glimpsed in the aftermath of an obvious sexual liaison at the office. Another indication is the appearance of Marsha Jordan, one of the leading ladies of '60s sexploitation, as Donna's mother. Some of her telltale film credits include Bachelor Tom Peeping (1962), in which her character was named Bouncy Bouncy, Key Club Wives (1968), and I Want More (1970).

It has to be admitted that Count Yorga, Vampire is several steps down in quality from the Universal horror classic Dracula (1931) with Bela Lugosi and even the more modestly budgeted but richly atmospheric Hammer Horrors such as Horror of Dracula (1958). The makeup and some of the lighting effects are glaring examples of the film's low budget and there are ludicrous elements that could have been improved or excised such as Yorga's Igor-like manservant Brudah (Edward Walsh) or the rushed finale which fails to suspend disbelief after establishing a clever and plausible narrative for the first two-thirds of the film - Dr. Hayes and Michael OVERSLEEP on the afternoon they plan to invade Yorga's lair and destroy the vampires, only to arrive there at dusk with disastrous results! Yet, there is more to enjoy in Count Yorga, Vampire than to denigrate and it certainly struck the right balance of horror and hip humor to make it a cult favorite among younger viewers upon its original release. Roger Perry makes a particularly engaging, laid-back Van Helsing-type opponent to Quarry's Yorga and Robert Altman regular Michael Murphy (Brewster McCloud [1970], Nashville [1975]) stands out in an early role for his completely believable disbelief at the strange goings-on. A sequel was inevitable but The Return of Count Yorga lacked the offbeat appeal and unexpected creepiness of the original, despite Robert Quarry's welcome reprise of his vampire count.

Producer: Bob Kelljan, Michael Macready
Director: Bob Kelljan
Screenplay: Bob Kelljan
Cinematography: Arch Archambault
Film Editing: Tony de Zarraga
Art Direction: Bob Wilder
Music: Bill Marx
Cast: Robert Quarry (Count Yorga), Roger Perry (Dr. James Hayes), Michael Murphy (Paul), Michael Macready (Michael), D. J. Anderson (Donna), Judy Lang (Erica).
C-90m. Letterboxed.

by Jeff Stafford

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