So far, our examination of old fashioned vampires in modern day settings has covered Dracula, in the Hammer Studios films Dracula AD 1972 and Satanic Rites of Dracula, and some guy named Count Sinistre, from the previously obscure British horror film Devils of Darkness. But this trend of placing traditional vampires in a modern (well, 1970s) setting actually started in America, with a low-key film called Count Yorga, Vampire.
At the time of Yorga’s release, there were very few people making vampire movies. Hammer was pretty much the only game in town, and they were still setting their vampire films in the Victorian era. Devils of Darkness was one of the first vampire films to transport a vampire into the current era, at least since the 1932 Tod Browning production of Dracula, which was set in what was then modern-day London. However, one can argue that the differences between the London of 1870 and 1932 is markedly less than the difference between 1870 and 1970, and so for our purposes here, Devils of Darkness is more substantial to our little foray than Dracula. It’s also less substantial because almost no one saw Devils of Darkness, and without a dedicated distributor or studio, it quickly faded from memory and was almost totally forgotten until it finally found its way to DVD (its first home video release) in 2007.
Which means that Count Yorga, Vampire, is really where we can say this short-lived trend began. There was obviously still interest in vampire films. Hammer’s late 60s Dracula films still made money, even if it was obvious that the foundation was beginning to crumble. All it would really take was finding a successful way to modernize the monster without completely divorcing it from its Victorian roots (that would come later, after this transitional stage). Leave it to American International Pictures to step up to the plate and take a swing. AIP is a familiar studio for anyone who follows the world of cult films. They were a B-movie behemoth, and a testing ground for a host of directors and actors who would go on to superstardom. But the real linchpin in their creative machine was a guy named Roger Corman. First as director, and later as producer, Corman proved to be amazingly adept at scouting talent, stretching a dollar, and compacting a shooting schedule. One of his specialties was shooting a film, wrapping it early, then realizing that he still had three days left on a rented set or a contract for Boris Karloff. So he’d make another movie, from concept to script, to final shooting, in those three days.
AIP’s standard operating procedure was to crank out cheap, black and white, double feature movies, and it worked well for them. In 1960, however, most likely heavily influenced by the surprising success of Hammer’s big three of Horror of Dracula, Curse of Frankenstein, and The Mummy, Roger Corman approached AIP executives and pitched them the idea for a more lavish color film with a longer shooting schedule and more ambitious scope. AIP didn’t exactly jump at the prospect, but the combination of Hammer’s success with serious, color horror films and Corman’s proven track record as a director who could crank out decent films that always turned a profit for the studio eventually swayed them, and Corman was given a whopping three weeks and the services of Vincent Price to shoot The Fall of the House of Usher. It was designed very much in the style of the Hammer Gothics, full of vivid colors and costumes placed against a bleak and crumbling backdrop. It was a huge hit for AIP, so much so that Corman was given free reign to shoot a whole series of similar films, each starring Vincent Price and based –often extremely loosely — on the works of Edgar Allen Poe. Despite their modest roots, Corman’s Poe films remain some of the best written, most sumptuous American horror films ever produced.
By 1970, however, the tables had turned. Hammer was starting to resemble one of the crumbling old castles they so loved to set their movies in, while AIP was increasingly nimble and able to adapt to changing tastes and trends in pop culture. When they felt their Hammer style horror films were becoming too old-fashioned, they started spicing things up with more cynical scripts and more liberal displays of nudity. They successfully branched out far beyond horror to produce a massive array of drive-in and B-movie fare, as well as a second series of Poe films, still starring Price but this time directed by Gordon Hessler. It was AIP that decided the vampire film could find new blood by being adapted to a modern setting, and this time, it was Hammer who ended up following AIP’s lead. AIP, at least in the realm of horror, was a child of Hammer, but Dracula AD 1972 would never have existed if not for AIP’s Count Yorga films. Of course, many would argue that we would have all been better off without Dracula AD 1972, but I’m not one of those people. Point is, this was a classic “student becomes the master” reversal.
Oddly, the initial idea for updating the vampire tale was to make it a saucy softcore film. Many people claim that the original version of Count Yorga, Vampire — then bearing the title The Loves of Count Iorga, Vampire — was meant to be a porno film. Not so, though it was meant to flaunt the bare breasts and other things you could get away with thanks to the increased liberalness of the 1970s. When AIP picked up the independently produced film for distribution, they demanded that the sauciness be trimmed in order to achieve a more teen-friendly GP (PG to you young bloods) rating. Some remnants remain, at least in the current version of the film (which is slightly longer than the original theatrical version), but there must have been a considerable amount left on a cutting room floor somewhere, though some production stills of the unused scenes remain in circulation.
With increased sexiness out, Count Yorga’s next and far cleverer method of updating the vampire film was to approach it with a more cynical attitude. All of these movies have to feature a variation on the, “Vampires? You must be joking! This is the 20th century!” line, but Count Yorga takes the line to heart. You really must be joking. A vampire, cape and all, in 1970′s California? Ridiculous! And Count Yorga’s attitude is basically, “Yes, isn’t it?” even as the film is biting you on the neck. It’s a tricky tightrope act, to both poke fun at and respect the classical vampire film, but what makes Count Yorga special is that it manages to pull it off.
We first meet Yorga, played with acerbic perfection by Robert Quarry, as he presides over a seance attended by a typical group of jaded young couples. As with Sinistre in Devils of Darkness, the long-lived vampire is able to adapt to modern times and fit in by traveling in small circles where quirkiness and strange behavior is easily dismissed. Yorga himself is a bit of a prick, though it’s entirely understandable given the fact that the guy has been alive for hundreds of years and probably had to suffer all manner of fools. Quarry is great in the role, mixing this biting sarcasm with a world-weary melancholy to create a character that is undeniably a villain yet oddly sympathetic. Hammer attempted, with far less success, to inject this same sort of world-weariness into Dracula in The Satanic Rites of Dracula, but they didn’t study Yorga’s game plan close enough to really pull it off. Christopher Lee’s Dracula was always a presence but rarely an actual character, even when he was on screen. Yorga, on the other hand, is much more complex and much more human, and thus his attitude is far more understandable. His disillusionment with pretty much everything around him in the “normal” world is an interesting counterpoint to the same disillusionment the modern couples have with the supernatural. “What a bunch of pointless nonsense,” both sides seem to be thinking.
Nonsense or not, the supernatural bears its fangs when one of the couples gives Count Yorga a lift. The movie’s humor is very subtle, very dry, and best characterized by things like a vampire having to bum a ride home after a seance or Yorga’s wonderful, “I believe I had a cape” line as he prepares himself to leave. These moments aren’t entirely played for laughs, and the film doesn’t desperately scream at you and point out things that are supposed to be funny. It’s really up to you to decide whether or not you think it’s amusing.
Yorga continues to chew his way through the women in the circle of friends, just as the men struggle to come to grips with the idea that there really could be a vampire praying upon them and their girlfriends. This culminates in a bout of verbal sparring in which our principal heroes, Michael and Dr. Hayes, visit Yorga at his estate and attempt to engage the count in one of those battles of double entendres and “I don’t know what you really are…or do I?” types of conversations. Yorga is visibly bored and irritated by the whole thing, and the confrontation ends just before sunrise, with Yorga basically doing nothing more than kicking the guys out. The proper finale follows shortly thereafter, in which Yorga’s home is raided in an attempt to recover the kidnapped and hypnotized Donna, and Michael and Dr. Hayes discover a bit too late that Yorga’s pad is crawling with hungry vampire chicks.
As with any low-budget productions, Count Yorga, Vampire has a number of obstacles to navigate in an attempt to turn budgetary limitations into assets. For starters, the concept of an old world vampire in a new world setting is very limited in its scope. There are no scenes of Yorga hitting the town or going to a club. Instead, the film is limited to a few sets, revolving around Yorga’s mansion, creating a feeling of claustrophobia and timelessness despite the intrusions of modern trappings like vans and telephones. Yorga is keen to control his environment and keep himself in a setting over which he can exercise more effective control. In the same sense, it allows him to survive in modern times but surround himself with comfort items from his past, like an old fart sitting in his den listening to pre-Rollins Black Flag records and complaining about how punk rock is so crappy now. Yorga can survive because he has learned how to shrink the modern world into a controllable sphere where he can exist on the very fringes, reaching in to pluck out a victim every now and then but generally remaining below the radar of modern society. He relies additionally on the jaded nature of modern people — obviously, a vampire attack is utterly preposterous. Like all vampires in these movies, though, he eventually screws up and picks on a group of people who are slightly more open to the possibility and also happen to have one of those doctor friends who happens to know a lot about the occult.
Despite the low budget, Count Yorga, Vampire manages to succeed based on the wit of the script and the strength of Robert Quarry in the lead. There are bumps in the road with the script, most likely because of the quick rewrite from softcore titillater to GP horror film, but overall they are pretty easy to ignore. As I said, some remnants of the softcore version remain. Yorga whiles away boring nights by sitting on a throne in his basement and watching his vampire brides make out with one another — a scene that was probably considerably longer and didn’t cut away right before the lip lock and fondling in the original vision of the movie. Additionally, there’s a make-out session in the van, because what else are you going to do when you get your van stuck in the mud on someone’s private property if not go at it in the back? I mean, that’s what you got a van for in the first place, right?
Ultimately, and despite erroneous claims that this was originally going to be a porno film, I assume The Loves of Count Iorga, Vampire would have ended up looking like Hammer’s saucier 70s vampire fare like Twins of Evil and Vampire Lovers. It wouldn’t have harmed the film any, I don’t think, but ultimately, I think it works pretty well in the final form, as a very low-key, slow-moving, but hypnotically entrancing study of a jaded vampire that doesn’t lapse into either self-indulgent pity or over-obvious satire. How you ultimately react to such a film depends entirely on how you feel about such movies, whether you consider them engrossing or just boring. I really liked it, and I thought that it was wonderful at creating a sort of weird, claustrophobic, and moody atmosphere.
Not that the movie is entirely comprised of guys sitting around debating vampirism. This is a low-budget horror film distributed by AIP, after all. So in between the soul-searching and pondering and Yorga sneering at the mere mortals around him, you get scenes like a woman eating her own cat and plenty of vampire attacks. It’s just that ultimately you come for Robert Quarry’s performance as Yorga. Everything else is just dressing. Sweet, bloody dressing. Quarry was a steadily employed television actor before being cast in the role of Yorga, and he really shines here in what is probably his most triumphant role. Many people among the population of those who tend to rank such things, rank his portrayal of the bored and always somewhat irritated Count Yorga as one of the best on-screen vampires of all time. Casting an older, solid actor in the role is a prime example of what movies like this to right that so many modern movies do wrong. When Quarry plays Yorga as a long-lived and jaded vampire, he is able to lend the character the appropriate sighing surrender mixed with annoyance. Yorga has an abundance of life (or afterlife) experience, and Quarry communicates that in a way the current crop of much younger actors cannot. Quarry continued to work well through the 80s and 90s, often in low-budget horror and exploitation fare, before more or less retiring in 1999. however, it looks like his services are being called on once again, as he is apparently appearing in a movie called The Tell-Tale Heart, which also stars scream queen staple Debbie Rochon and another legend of 70s vampire films, Ingrid Pitt, who starred in 1970′s Vampire Lovers from Hammer, which contained the nudity and softcore content that was nixed from Count Yorga.
Writer/director Bob Kelljan, whose only directing credit before Count Yorga was the naughtily titled Flesh of My Flesh (he had previously been an actor in both television and low-budget drive-in fare), crafted a tightly framed minor horror classic that manages to be well-paced despite the dearth of action. He used Yorga to become a successful television director, working steadily until his death in 1982. He makes Yorga into a creepy little film that never sacrifices its downbeat atmosphere and general creepiness in the pursuit of comedy, and yet manages to produce a number of — if not funny, then certainly witty — moments that will make you smile. It’s wicked, and at times, it’s even kind of scary, especially if you’re watching it late at night — which is more than can be said for most horror films.
Count Yorga, Vampire ended up being a solid money-maker for AIP, and so a sequel was commissioned with a slightly larger budget. Kelljan and Quarry returned, as did some of the rest of the cast, despite the fact that the original’s downbeat ending pretty much leaves everyone dead. The Return of Count Yorga is more or less the same movie, only with Craig T. Nelson as a cop. It’s quite enjoyable as well, even if it is a rehash but with Craig T. Nelson. Count Yorga’s greater effect was to launch that mini-revival of vampire fiction that saw everything from Hammer’s two Dracula movies, Marvel Comic’s Tomb of Dracula, and two Blacula films that put a blaxploitation spin on the modern vampire story (the second Blacula film was actually even directed by Kelljan). Although largely forgotten and relegated to the back waters of cult film fandom today, Yorga was influential and successful during its time, and DVD has helped a lot of new viewers rediscover this unique twist on an old tale.