The US indie horror series that brought the vampire into the modern era.
I first saw the Count Yorga films on consecutive weeks at some point in the mid 1970s, when they turned up on British TV. It would be fair to say that I was pretty blown away by both of them at the time. Too young to see horror films in the cinema, my experience of the genre had been mainly dictated by what UK broadcasters (and at that time, that meant the BBC and a single ITV station) would show, and that tended to be Hammer, Amicus or Universal movies. The new era of edgy horror had yet to make it to television. And so Count Yorga was a fascinating revelation – traditional vampire films, but in a modern setting that felt more like the US cops shows on TV at the time. With their mix of the gothic and the mundane, they were unlike anything I’d seen before – and the shock endings seemed especially nihilistic and daring when compared to the other horror films, where the hero prevailed and the villain expired at the conclusion of the film.
It’s perhaps inevitable that, seen now, the two Yorga films feel less impressive than they did then. Now, I can see the pacing issues, the variable acting from the supporting cast, the iffy dialogue and the low-rent production values (especially in the first film). Yet both films still have a certain something about them, and much of that is to do with Robert Quarry, who is genuinely magnificent as Yorga – a relaxed, modern figure of a vampire (even if he is still dressed like Dracula), yet capable of being instantly menacing and violent. The effortless assimilation of this traditional vampire into the modern world is especially impressive when you think of how Hammer struggled to do likewise a couple of years later in Dracula AD 1972 – if Christopher Lee saw these two films, he must have been especially bitter that his own Dracula series failed so spectacularly to marry the gothic style to the modern world.
It’s well known that Count Yorga, Vampire started out as a softcore horror film (The Loves of Count Iorga, a title that remains on some prints; interestingly, the Arrow Video release is titled The Loves of Count Yorga,) before switching gears – apparently at Quarry’s insistence – to a more straightforward genre film. While this change took place before production began, you can still see the remnants of what might have been – there’s a flatness of style that resembles some of the cheaper softcore movies of the era, and the film has several scenes that feel like curtailed / restrained sex scenes. In order to get the PG certificate that was the standard for American International horror movies of the time, the baby was thrown out with the bathwater – it feels censored, with scenes that should have nudity featuring awkwardly place covers that the actresses have to keep pulling up over their breasts. As it turned out, the nudity wasn’t the only problem – some of the violence had to be cut in order to avoid an R rating, including the infamous ‘dead kitten’ scene, much published in books and magazines but removed from many prints. It’s easy to understand how this scene would have upset censors – it’s one of the most disturbing images in early Seventies horror, as one of Yorga’s victims is caught eating a worryingly real looking kitten (I have the nagging feeling that a real dead cat was utilised for the scene – hopefully secured ethically, but this is a Seventies film, so God knows). But this is also the point where you know for sure that you are not in a cosy Hammer Horror world any more.
The film makes little effort to explain where Yorga has come from or how he ended up in Los Angeles – he’s just there, first encountered holding a séance and then slowly working his way through a small group of people (this corruption of interlinked women is very much in the tradition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula). Rather too quickly, Doctor Hayes (Roger Perry) decides that Yorga is a vampire and soon gathers the partners of the victims (again, as in Dracula) to destroy him. But this is less easy than it might seen – Yorga is their intellectual and physical superior, and the would-be vampire killers are shown to be wildly out of their depth.
There are many worthy moments in the film. Yorga’s deformed servant Brudah (Edward Walsh) is suitably creepy and one of the better vampire familiars in cinema, allowing for a few action scenes that don’t involve the Count losing his cool. There’s a touch of cynical comedy in the film, as Hayes tries to convince the police that a vampire is loose in Los Angeles, and the first confrontation between vampire and vampire hunters is an impressively tense moment, as they try – stupidly – to engage him in conversation until sunrise, Yorga becoming increasingly irritated by their obvious games. This sense of confrontation is what was missing from Dracula AD 1972 (though The Satanic Rites of Dracula does allow for a similar verbal fencing match between Dracula and Van Helsing). But the film is also badly paced and visually unappealing, making it a decidedly mixed bag.
The Return of Count Yorga, made a year later, is a much slicker affair, but also a much tamer one. There is no suggestion here of curtailed sex scenes – in fact, there’s no sex at all, and the violence is equally restrained. Clearly, this was designed as a PG-rated horror from the start, and while some PG horror of the era was surprisingly subversive and nasty (the US censors had a rather blase attitude to horror at the time). But the film looks a lot better, even if it still suffers from an overly leisurely pace.
It’s a film that opens with an iconic visual moment – arms thrust out from grassy graves, and vampire women rising from the dead to attack a young boy. This is atmospheric, creepy and unsettling, and the vampires feel more like zombies than the glamorous undead – a definite Night of the Living Dead influence at work. Yorga – who is mysteriously revived, alongside servant Brudah, without explanation – has moved in next door to an orphanage, with the seeming intention of preying on the children while corrupting women and replenishing his collection of brides. But when he meets teacher Cynthia (Mariette Hartley), he unexpectedly falls in love. In an impressively shocking scene, he sends his brides to slaughter Cynthia’s family, as he kidnaps her and puts her under his spell.
After this, the film becomes a mix of the first movie – Roger Perry returns, playing a different character (Cynthia’s fiancé David) with similar convictions (again, he tries to convince the police and colleague that Yorga is a vampire) – and the ‘romantic vampire’ trope that we also saw in the vaguely similar Blacula films (the second of which was also directed by Yorga helmer Bob Kelljan). This results in a rather uneven story, with not very much happening in the middle of the film. However, it builds to a suitably frantic – and, in keeping with the first film, bleak – ending.
The acting is better all round here – Hartley is an impressive female lead, Perry’s character is more rounded and motivated, and the supporting cast are all fairly solid. And visually, the film has a real atmosphere – the siege and attack early on are genuinely creepy and shocking. You do wish, however, that a little more effort was made in terms of continuity and consistency. A year is not that long – does it really make sense to have the same actor appear in a different role? Surely the available talent pool wasn’t that small. This, and the rather vague resurrection of Yorga and his entourage (something to so with ‘Santa Ana Winds’) leaves a lot to be desired.
The two Count Yorga films are interesting examples of early 1970s transitional horror. On the one hand, they are early examples of the modernised gothic, taking the genre out of the costume drama and into the real world (at one point in Return, Yorga watches Hammer’s The Vampire Lovers on TV – an amusing comment on the difference between the cozily distant gothic and the modern day domestic horror). On the other, they are still part of the PG (that’s American PG – in the UK, these films were, of course, strictly adults only) horror world – restrained and somewhat sanitised for a family audience. Within a couple of years, American horror would become a very adult affair.
There was a last gasp for Quarry as a vampire in 1972, when he played Yorga substitute Khorda, an undead hippy cult leader that channels Manson more than Dracula, in The Deathmaster – it’s an oddly disappointing affair, and there is little evidence – despite the claims of critics at the time – that the film had any connection to the Yorga series (some have claimed that it started out as a third film in the series) beyond being another PG-rated AIP film.
Count Yorga is an interesting time capsule character. Not perfect, but historically important. Quarry, who is great, could have been a horror icon in a different age, and Yorga might have been an ongoing character in a series of films. Romantic vampires seem popular right now, so he probably deserves a revival. Until that happens, this pairing is well worth a look.