BR: Count Yorga, Vampire (1970)

October 19, 2016 | By

CountYorga_BRFilm: Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Excellent

Label:  Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  October 13, 2015

Genre:  Horror

Synopsis: A modern day vampire feeds off naive Los Angeles suburbanites.

Special Features: Audio Commentary Track with film historians David Del Valle and Shock and Roll’s Tim Sullivan / Isolated Mono Music Track / Audio-only: “My Dinner with Yorga: 2005 Robert Quarry Rue Morgue Interview as read by Sullivan and Del Valle (13:05) +  “Fangirl Radio Tribute to Robert Quarry with Tim Sullivan” (45:59) / Sill Gallery #1: The MGM Archives / Still Gallery #2: The Tim Sullivan Archives / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and www.twilighttimemovies.com.

 


 

Review:

Back in 1969, actor Bob Kelljan co-starred with sexploitation / softcore actress Vincene Wallace (Russ Meyer’s Vixen!) in Flesh of My Flesh, a film he wrote and also co-directed with Michael Macready, after which the two formed what became a fortuitous collaborative association that proved quite profitable after their second film, Count Yorga, Vampire, became AIP’s 3rd most profitable film of 1970, netting a sweet $2 million at the box office.

Exploitation was clearly the route for Bob Kelljan to become a writer-director and escape the vicissitudes of a working actor, but Yorga’s origins lay not in a clever reworking of Bram Stoker’s Dracula tale, but as a softcore porn flick shot on the cheap that happened to have an above-average script, and when actor Robert Quarry was cast as the titular vampire in the then-titled “The Loves of Count Iorga, Vampire!” the decision was made to make the project less softcore.

What ultimately emerged via AIP was a GP- (then equivalent PG-13) rated shocker that had hints of naughtiness (the bottom-end of the cast had experience in the sexploitation genre), dollops of gore, but none of the nudity that was reportedly shot but excised from the final cut. The film still retains tangible evidence of risqué material – the Count sitting almost bored on his basement throne, watching two fanged maidens about to go at each other – but it’s clear when “Iorga” was upgraded to Yorga, it became a B-picture where every thread of cleavage was carefully gaffer-taped in place to ensure the film would reach a broad drive-in audience.

Kelljan’s scenario resets the story to present day Los Angeles, and introduces Yorga as a medium at a séance who attempts to conjure the spirit of his dead girlfriend for the benefit of her daughter and giggling friends. Little does Donna (Werewolves on Wheels’ Donna Anders) realize her mum (softcore veteran Marsha Jordan) is one of his fanged maidens, and many of her friends will be dead by the end of the picture.

Donna’s beau Mike (producer Macready) has no idea she’s under the control of Yorga, while Paul (Michael Murphy!) and sexy gal Erica (The Trip’s Judy Lang) encounter the Count when their VW love van becomes stuck in mud just outside of his hillside manor. Erica is soon nicked in the neck, and told to ‘eat lots of red steaks’ by blood expert Dr. Hayes (prolific character actor Roger Perry), but after eating a kitten, Hayes sets up a makeshift blood transfusion between Eric and Paul to halt her transitioning from human to bloodsucker.

The final battle naturally occurs in the Count’s ‘castle’ after Hayes (a van Helsing variant) attempts to keep the Count awake into the wee hours of the morning, just in time for sunlight to pierce the windows and turn the fiend into dust. Whoever dies and survives is ultimately irrelevant, because like a classic Hammer vampire tale, Yorga would return in a sequel, back from the dust and ready for action.

By sticking with a loose and fast crew, Kelljan managed to shoot the film over two weeks on real locations, and although Count Yorga has legions of fans, its main virtues in order of prominence are Quarry’s superb, restrained performance as an eloquent vampire with a horrible streak of brutality; the clever reworking of characters and scenario to an easily identifiable group of bored suburbanites whose silly flirtation with the occult proves deadly; and some genuinely striking scenes (a moment in which Hayes hands over a makeshift ‘stake’ to a beckoning Yorga is a marvelous bloodless moment of good confronting evil) and shocks that are vividly remembered and cherished by fans.

The excision of the softcore material (reportedly shot, and evidenced by surviving stills with very naked Lang and Murphy in the love van) does make the film a little disjointed, but what really harms the film is the lopsided cinematography, with clumsy framing in both handheld and steady shots; poor follow focusing and stuttering panning motions; and continuity issues that must have made editor Tony de Zarraga (Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, The Killer Elite) pull out a few hairs.

Although Arch Archambault had served as cinematographer on a few prior movies, including Richard Comptom’s first two films The Gun Runner (1969) and Angels Die Hard (1970), at least with the Yorga diptych, he was no cinematographic ace: a midnight discussion between Erica and Paul in the immobilized love van was clearly shot in the daytime; and in a scene where Hayes, Paul, and Mike discuss the possibility of an actual vampire, there’s a moment when a distant crewman’s head is seen in a mirror. (In the Yorga sequel, a chase scene around a dining table is intercut with the cast running past blatantly visible light stands!)

Bill Marx’s score (the raw recording session cues are isolated in mono on Twilight Time’s super-loaded Blu-ray) is fine, and contains an effective, unconventional seduction theme and some striking instrumentation, but a few cues for the ‘labyrinth chase’ in Yorga’s castle are a little amateurish. Marx would score several of Kelljan’s exploitation films, including the Yorga sequel, Scream Blacula Scream (1973), and Act of Vengeance / aka Rape Squad (1974).

Regardless of the film’s technical flaws, some starkly weak performances (co-producer / co-star Macready is exceptionally wooden) and sudden doses of bizarre dramaturgy (the blood transfusion borders on bathos; and when Hayes argues the only ploy to end the killings is accepting Yorga is a vampire and staking him dead, Mike’s response is a tepid “wow….”), Count Yorga is an important step in the evolution of the vampire mythos. Kelljan’s film is rightly credited as one of the first if not most important attempt to credibly transpose a classic vampire into the present day, making it possible for other scribes to play with the archetypes, mythos, and tropes.

The commentary on TT’s disc is part film history, and an overtly affectionate tribute to stage-trained Quarry, whom David Del Del Valle knew during the 70s and early 80s, and co-commentator & Shock n’ Roll’s Tim Sullivan knew during the actor’s final years.

From his intro in the séance scene it’s clear Quarry was a fine actor and should’ve enjoyed a prolific career. Friends with Christopher Lee and Vincent Price, Quarry was seen by AIP to be a possible successor to Price, but as Del Valle points out, when The Exorcist (1973) pushed the boundaries of occult horror to new graphic levels in every department, AIP’s drive-in fodder seemed quaint, and Quarry’s talent never fully blossomed into a long-term career.

AIP cast him in The Return of Count Yorga (1971), Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972), Deathmaster (1972), Sugar Hill (1974) and Madhouse (1974), and his non-horror roles include Rollercoaster (1977), WUSA (1970), and early in his career, A Kiss Before Dying (1956), which also co-starred George Macready (My Name is Julia Ross, Gilda), father of Yorga’s producer / co-star. (The elder Macready narrates the bookend narration to Yorga, and appeared in the sequel.)

According to Del Valle and Sullivan, TT’s HD transfer comes from a fresh 35mm print commissioned and paid for by Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Mist). A huge fan of the film, in 2004 Darabont held a screening of both Yorga films at the Egyptian Theatre, which also featured a post-screening Q&A with the actor, Darabont, and Sullivan.

The disc’s other extras include a 45 min. podcast tribute to Quarry via Fangirl’s Jessica Dwyer and Tim Sullivan; and an audio recreation of the 2004 dinner interview between Sullivan and Quarry, with Del Valle reading from the interview transcripts, as the original audiotape is now lost. (A reprint of the original Q&A is also archived at Icons of Fright.)

In a quirk of timing and licensing in North America, The Return of Count Yorga was released separately by Scream Factory, which includes original promo material and a commentary by film historians Steve Haberman and actor Rudy De Luca.

Britain’s Arrow Films released U.K. editions of both films in their Count Yorga Collection in 2016, and Del Valle did double-duty by recording a new commentary with Courtney Joyner for each film. Arrow’s set also includes a 33 min. appreciation of the films by genre historian Kim Newman.

Del Valle and Sullivan’s commentary for TT’s disc is superb, but there’s one omission that might cause Canadians to raise their fingers and decry ‘Wait a minute!’. Yes, there have been subsequent erotic variants of the vampire mythos, but perhaps the most ostentatious is Sexcula (1974), the hardcore (and CanCon) tale of Countess Sexcula, and her quest to help a cousin solve a male servant’s case of grievous of limp pickle.

 

 

© 2016 Mark R. Hasan

 


 

External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  — Composer Filmography  
Vendor Search Links:
Amazon.ca —  Amazon.com —  Amazon.co.uk

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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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