From Arrow Video comes Count Yorga, Vampire (1970) and The Return of Count Yorga (1972), cult classics and drive-in delights, featured together in one limited release Blu-ray set titled The Count Yorga Collection, of which I received a promo copy. No cool bells and whistles, just on-screen terror to delight my eyes and tickle my funny bone.
Count Yorga, Vampire introduces us to the main character, Count Yorga played wonderfully by Robert Quarry. His Count is cut from the classic mold of Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee, except this Count runs amuck in Los Angeles, AD 1970. Originally titled The Loves of Count Iorga and planned as a softcore, adult skin flick with a vampire theme, plans changed as Quarry and director Bob Kelljan came together and thought that they might be able to make a legitimate horror film that remained sexy with bits of humor (there are some B grade adult stars to be seen and some very sexy moments that made the final cut). They actually managed to succeed, for the most part, in making a low budget horror classic.
Count Yorga, Vampire opens to find the Count coming ashore at the port of Los Angeles and heading off to his mysterious mansion in the hills. The red pick-up truck used to transport the coffin reminds me of Fred Sanford’s truck and I really was hoping they would run by Sanford And Son’s salvage shop, but they did not (because sadly that show didn’t air until 1972). We next encounter the Count conducting a seance for a girl who recently lost her mother; mum was dating the Count before her passing. Turns out handsome Count Yorga is collecting brides, thus the original film title, which we actually get to see at the beginning of the movie.
As Yorga slowly hypnotizes, seduces, bites, and captures his female victims, their lovers/boyfriends (which include Michael Murphy and Michael Macready, whose father George does the creepy opening narration) go calling on old Yorga to free their lady loves. Not gonna happen. Foolish mortals! A vampire’s “intelligence is far superior than humans.” How dare they think they can defeat Yorga! Well that they do, kind of, with the help of their friend, Doctor Jim Hayes (Roger Perry), a blood doctor and the Van Helsing of this modern Dracula tale. We see Yorga take a stake to the heart and turn to dust after his slow, grunty death. Now back to “kind of,” as the shock ending paints a terrible portrait of our “final boy’s” fate.
The Return of Count Yorga is more of a reimagining than a sequel (and more of the same from the first film). There’s no explanation as to why Yorga is still alive, how he was resurrected, or how he moved to San Francisco along with his man-servant, Brudah. Which is fine really as it works either way, although I was disappointed at no explanation or acknowledgement of the first film. It seems to me it would have made a better story. Meh, oh well, onward we go…Yorga has now bought a large estate near an orphanage, which he may have also bought, none of this is explained. Neither is the nearby cemetery where, at his bidding, his brides pop out of graves to help him nab a young boy running between the tombstones.
Next we see the Count as he wanders over to the orphanage Halloween party in search of fresh blood, pun intended. At the entrance, he meets Cynthia Nelson (Mariette Hartley) and falls madly in love at first sight rather than first bite. More on this in a bit. The costume party scene is a fun one as we glimpse more of Count Yorga’s dark humor and disdain for humans as he interacts with party goers, one is even dressed as Dracula and wins the costume contest. Another great scene has a kid playing the piano ask Yorga if he likes this music to which Yorga quips, “Only when it’s played well.” Silly humans.
Now back to Cynthia, Yorga is in fact looking for love, someone to spend those cold S.F. summers (and eternity) with, as they convert more women into vampire brides. By the way, Yorga likes to watch as his undead zombie-like harem frolic with one another in their coffin-filled lair. In a brutal, terrifying move, Yorga has his brides abduct Cynthia and slaughter her family in a home invasion that resembles the Tate-LaBianca murders. A truly chilling scene, though bloodless. Yorga desires this woman so much he consorts with a gyspsy woman who lives on the property (again…why is she there? What greater role does she have for him to consult with? Nobody knows?) about his love for this woman, who warns him that she will not want him once she finds out he’s a vampire and had her family killed. The gypsy woman suggests he kill her. He does not.
Again the lovers/boyfriends, led by the young Doctor David Baldwin (the returning Roger Perry, with a thick goatee) go hunting Yorga, once more to no avail. Nothing new there either. What is new to Return of Yorga are the two comic relief cops that get involved. Played by a young Craig T. Nelson, making his movie debut ,and Rudy De Luca (one of the original founders of the Comedy Store in L.A). Lots of running around the large estate and getting lost within its many connected and intertwined rooms, hallways, and staircases. Said rooms set up another quite chilling scene where Cynthia gets trapped inside one, filled with dusty old relics, as the brides eerily whisper and call out her name. This all leads to the thrilling conclusion where Yorga takes an axe to his chest from the woman he loves, then he’s pushed off the balcony to his death by the doctor. All seems well for a moment until…the shock ending reveals Doc’s already turned vampire!
Count Yorga, Vampire makes the most of its low budget, enhancing its scenes with low, sparse lighting, silence wisely used to build suspense, and creepy realness. This is the stuff that makes horror movies work for me, atmosphere and grainy old, hard-pressed film. Count does that very well along with its actors playing straight and loose, making for a good horror show. We see Count Yorga’s killing lunge for the first time. The brides are sexy but not over the top. The nighttime shooting and lack of lighting add to the creepy realness of it all. The opening and closing narration also induces chills and an atmosphere of terror.
The Return of Count Yorga has more money behind it and looks better: bigger sets and locations, they actually got to use one mansion the whole shoot, as opposed to the two needed for the first film. More financing doesn’t guarantee a better movie as it seems they were out to merely remake the first movie, do the things that worked well just bigger, “better,” and more often. Didn’t work so well for me. The brides are more like living dead zombies with bad makeup and bad teeth. Yorga’s kill lunge is employed too often and it’s just not the same. Again, the plot and story could have been better instead of a simple rehashing which induces more unintentional laughs than scares this time through.
The special features dispersed over the two disks are great. True supplemental material that adds to and enhances the magic that makes the Yorga movies work.
Disc one and two contain archival audio tracks by David Del Valle and C. Courtney Joyner who make a great team. Their commentary is always informative, filled with anecdotes about cast and crew while laced with fun facts like how the scene of Yorga’s arrival in L.A. was reused in Blacula 1972. Plus all the other little nods to past horror classics that one may not have caught.
“I Remember Yorga” is a wonderful featurette with filmmaker Frank Darabont where he discusses seeing Count Yorga, Vampire for the very first time as a kid, how it scared the hell outta him, and then watching it again as an adult, how it influenced him. Fascinating to listen as Darabont tells us how much he loves low budget shockers just as much as he loves the giant spectacles like Lawrence of Arabia. He is knowledgeable and relatable, a great interview.
The Fangirl Radio podcast episode with Tim Sullivan is a good companion to the Darabont interview as Tim and Frank would eventually team up to help the struggling Robert Quarry in his later years. It’s another great interview that illuminates the life of Quarry well and discusses the stardom he could have had if the horror movie landscape had not changed soon after Yorga’s release. Films like The Exorcist (1973) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) unleashed a new type of horror upon the world and the popularity and demand for those old school actors like Quarry, Christopher Lee, and Vincent Price was in rapid decline.
Other features include:
- New audio commentary by film critics Tim Lucas and Stephen R. Bissel separately on disc one and two.
- “Chamber Music of Horror” – an interview with David Huckvale where he gives a closer look at the scores of Bill Marx, who was the adopted son of Harpo Marx. I really enjoyed this one. An informative and educational look into the film’s score that goes beyond the Yorga movies. Explaining how certain music, notes, sounds, and silence can add layers of suspense and terror to any good horror film.
- “The Count in California” – an audio appreciation with Heather Drain and Chris O’Neil is a good, short listen although the word “titular” is repeated too often.
- “A Vampire in LA” – a brand new interview with actor Michael Murphy is a fun reminiscence of the filming of Count Yorga, Vampire by someone who was there.
- Kim Newman’s archival interviews are always insightful and fun to watch.
- “The Count and The Counterculture” with Miatland McDonagh is another fascinating look at Yorga and his/its place among vampire films through the ages and the impact they had not only the counterculture but pop culture as well.
Also included on both discs are the theatrical trailers and radio spots that can be a little silly at times but I always find them a bit chilling like Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride.
The Count Yorga movies are a great “modern” take on the classic gothic vampire genre. With their sex appeal, dark humor, quick run times (both just over 90 minutes apiece), and shock endings, which in 1970 were fresh surprises, that still hold up today. The Return of Count Yorga may have had better production value but it’s mostly more of the same from the first movie, which works better there due to its creepy low-fi nature. Still, a sexy collection of movies that I’ll take over those sappy, sparkling critters any day.