If you were asked to name famous vampires your list would consist of things like Dracula, Nosferatu, Spike, Angel, Edward Cullen, and – depending on how weird you are – Blackula. But one that would probably fail to surface on most lists would be Count Yorga.
Originally released in 1970, the first of his movies, Count Yorga, Vampire was a quiet, laid back kind of movie that felt more in line with the Dracula stories that had come before, yet managed to find a firm fan-base, and almost became a huge franchise. Now, Arrow Video have brought it, and its sequel, to Blu-ray for new audiences to discover.
Originally planned to be a soft-core porn movie, Count Yorga, Vampire tells the story of a group of friends who hire a supposed medium, the titular Count Yorga (Robert Quarry), to perform a seance for them. When one of the group, a young woman hoping to make contact with her deceased mother, becomes hysterical during the ritual, Count Yorga uses hypnosis to calm her down – something that raises some eyebrows amongst the group.
With the night over, Yorga is offered a lift home by a young couple who take him to his mansion in the hills. However, when their camper-van gets stuck in the mud on the way out, the couple decide to sleep out the night there and get help in the morning, but are attacked during the night by the vampiric Count. Thus begins a series of events that see the Count picking off members of the group one by one, slowly turning or killing people, whilst those that remain come to the realisation that their lives are being threatened by a vampire.
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There’s something kind of laid back about Count Yorga, Vampire. The film begins with a coffin being loaded into the back of a truck and driven through Los Angeles, up into the hills (footage later reused for Blackula), whilst a soothing narrator introduces the audience to vampire lore. The slow shots and the tone of voice almost settle you in, helping to calm the audience rather than build tension, and from here the film seems to occupy this odd space between horror and chill.
And in a lot of ways the human cast, and their reactions to the Count bring to mind the original Dracula novel, with some scenes even feeling like direct references. There’s talk about an expert doctor from Europe who brings to mind Van Helsing, there are blood transfusions to help revitalise someone slowly being drained by the Count, and long discussions on vampire myth and ways to fight them. There’s a lack of urgency throughout that makes the film feel like it’s from an older time.
But despite this there’s a certain level of charm to the movie. It’s almost amusing to see a group of our heroes try out their plan to kill the vampire by going round to his house and chatting with him, trying to get him to forget to go to bed before the sun goes up. It’s one of the politest murder schemes I think I’ve ever seen. But the most charming aspect of the film has to be Robert Quarry, who manages to bring a level of sophistication to a role that was never designed to have it.
This was a film that was going to be filled with sex and titillation, but Quarry refused to do it unless it was made into a real horror film, and his refusal to star in a soft-core porno film can be felt in his performance. He seems to be wanting to raise the movie beyond its salacious origins, and trying to make something that wouldn’t feel out of place alongside the Universal or Hammer vampire movies. And he pretty much succeeds.
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Whilst the film was never a huge financial or critical success, it was popular enough to have a sequel. A year later, The Return of Count Yorga was released. But how did the Count survive getting staked through the chest in the first movie? Best not to worry, as the film certainly doesn’t care. Instead of explaining any of this we jump into the action as the revived Count Yorga wanders off his estate to a nearby orphanage, who are having a fundraising costume party. Which is pretty lucky, as the Count looks like you’d expect from a fancy dress vampire.
At the party the Count meets a young woman named Cynthia (Mariette Hartley), who he instantly falls in love with. Knowing that he needs Cynthia in his life, the Count begins a scheme to turn her into a vampire, killing her family, trapping her in his home, and building an army of vampire women to do his bidding. However, his actions have come to the attention of Cynthia’s fiancé, who makes it his mission to destroy the evil vampire.
The Return of Count Yorga is a much more enjoyable film than the first one. Despite only being made a year later, it feels like it’s from a different era. Gone are the long conversations, the people sitting around drinking brandy trying to get the vampire to forget the sun, and instead we get scenes where vampires smash into homes and murder families, and 70’s Lotharios are attacked on their boat.
The first movie feels like something that could have existed int he 50s and 60s, whilst this is much more in line with 70’s horror. It has a level of cheese that makes it delightful, and some genuinely great moments of humour. And it seems that between the events of the films the Count developed a personality that can only be described as ‘catty bitch’, and his scathing comebacks throughout are definite highlights.
The sequel seems to have a bigger budget, with better locations, and a tighter script. But there’s still a lot here that I’d describe as ‘delightfully bad’. There’s a moment when the Count kills a man at the docks, and the shot is done from underwater with whale sounds over it like we’re watching the scene through a whale POV for no apparent reason. The big fundraising party only has about twelve people in it, because I guess they couldn’t afford extras.
And there’s a scene where the script seems to forget a woman is deaf as she’s woken up and drawn to the window by the sounds of kids fighting outside. It’s these tiny moments that make little sense that make the movie incredibly charming. It also has the first vampire using sign language that I can remember seeing, and features the first ever appearance of Craig T. Nelson (best known for Poltergeist and The Incredibles) on screen as a cop who gets to be in my absolute favourite moment in the movie.
Alongside the two movies, this new set comes with a load of new extras that will be sure to entertain fans. Both films come with a brand new audio commentary, as well as an archival one from previous releases, that goes into the making of the film, as well as their cultural impact. There are several special features and interviews that take a look at the film and speak to those who were fans of it, such as director Frank Darabont.
Perhaps the most interesting, however, is ‘Fangirl Radio Tribute to Robert Quarry’, an episode of the podcast show where they talk to filmmaker Tim Sullivan, who knew Quarry personally. His story of becoming friends with Quarry in his later years, of discovering that he was living in squalor, with his carers stealing from him and abusing him, and the things that Quarry’s fans and friends did to turn his life around and give him a final few years of happiness and comfort is a genuinely amazing and moving story, that I dare anyone to listen to without tears.
You may never have heard of Count Yorga before, but he’s a character with a lot of fans, whose films are beloved, and this is the perfect opportunity to discover them for the first time. And if you’re already a fan, this is a wonderful set of films that have been lovingly restored, and given their best presentation yet.
The Count Yorga Collection is out on Limited Edition Blu-ray on 24th October from Arrow Video.