Count Yorga: Robert Quarry and the Last Gasp of Gothic Horror

Count Yorga, Vampire, is a 1970 horror film written and directed by Bob Kelljan and released by B-movie specialists American International Pictures, the studio made famous by workhorse director and producer Roger Corman.  Twilight Time has re-released the film in a limited edition Blu-ray with some nice supplements to round out the viewing experience.

Count Yorga is one of the first vampire movies that takes place in a contemporary setting. This was done more for budgetary reasons than anything else. It’s pretty much a straight gothic horror movie a la the Universal Monsters and the Hammer Dracula films. Yorga’s LA mansion is basically a castle inside. There’s a real “man out of time” thing going on here. This would be one of the last gothic horror films before the modern era. Rosemary’s Baby went a long way toward making the genre obsolete and The Exorcist changed everything.

Yorga was originally going to be a softcore porn, a quickly produced nudie cash grab. But while they were shooting the thing, lead actor Robert Quarry, who played the titular vampire, convinced Kelljan and the producers at AIP that the movie could work as a straight horror flick for the drive-in circuit.

Quarry is a very good character actor stuck with pretty average material. He really succeeds in elevating the film. It’s better than it really has any right to be. The script is rather generic, following Yorga as he builds a harem of vampire women for himself while he kills their boyfriends.

Yorga2

Quarry had a long acting career that lasted from the 1940’s to the late 1990’s. He was a professional who wanted to work. So he took whatever gigs he could get. As a result, though his career had its peaks and valleys, he was always able to make a living doing what he loved, and he was never out of work. Working for places like American International Pictures never made him rich, of course, but there were always roles available. He became a cult star after appearing in Yorga, and AIP decided to start grooming him to replace the aging Vincent Price. Price found out about the plans to replace him through the grapevine and as a result things were tense between the two for the rest of their lives. This did not make things very easy when they worked with each other in the very passable AIP film Madhouse.

Count Yorga, Vampire has a 43% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which, if it were up to me, I would bump up to 50%, simply because I don’t think it’s quite below average. It’s maybe a little formulaic, but totally worth watching, especially for Quarry’s nuanced and charismatic performance.

The movie opens and we see a wooden coffin being transported down a highway on a flatbed truck. Yorga is inside, of course, buried in soil from his home country of Bulgaria. This is never explicitly stated, but we can infer it based on how closely the Yorga character mimics the traditional vampire rules established mostly in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and the rules state that not only does a vampire have to sleep during the day, but he has to do so in soil from his homeland. So there ya go.

The real action starts with Yorga leading a seance. Mostly, the three couples at the table treat this scene as a goof, except for Donna, who contacted Yorga to help her get in touch with her recently deceased mother. But Yorga is serious about the whole operation and shames the group into taking the thing seriously. Quarry’s unusual performance keeps the whole thing from turning into total camp. And whoo-hoo, if we didn’t know that this movie takes place in the late-60’s to early 70’s, the sideburns on the guys and the straight mop haircuts on the women give the game away immediately.

After totally freaking everyone out and hypnotizing Donna (essentially making her his first victim, and a future part of his pimpin’ harem of horny vampire women), Yorga decides to make his exit and says, “I believe I brought a cape,” providing a nice laugh and a reminder of just how out of place the regal count is in early 70’s Los Angeles.

Yorga needs to hitch a ride home, so Paul (Michael Murphy) and Erica (Judith Lang) take him back in one of those classic Volkswagen fuck vans. And, as you might expect, after the two of them drop Yorga off, alone in their van and stuck in the mud, they decide they should do a little humping. Because that’s just what you do in a fuck van. It’s a very classy scene, too. Candlelight, all that. They do it under a blanket, though. Interestingly, when they decided to make the film a straight horror flick instead of a softcore porn, all the nudity was cut out so that the movie could be shown to a general audience drive-in crowd. It was essentially a PG movie. However, in the film’s commentary, Tim Sullivan mentions that stills exist from the nude scenes. Presumably they show Michael Murphy’s hairy ass pumping away unenthusiastically, his face a portrait of wistfulness as he wonders how exactly his life took this particular turn.

Even though there’s no nudity in Yorga, the eroticism is played to the hilt. Makes sense, of course, since vampire books and movies are inherently erotic. The penetration of the fangs, the draining of energy, the “little death.” All that.Yorga’s entire mission consists of building a harem of sexy women and killing off their men. One doesn’t really care too much about the male victims since they’re kind of just placeholder characters next to Quarry’s Yorga. You start to think maybe if you were one of these women that Yorga turns into a vampire it wouldn’t be so bad, because he’s interesting, flamboyant, attractive, and their men are pretty much dullards.

Yorga3

And whether the laughs are intentional or not, the outdated modes of interaction between men and women are sure to give modern audiences at least a giggle. After Erica is bitten by Yorga, she goes to see her doctor, a man named Hayes, and a bizarre scene plays out. Dr. Hayes strokes Erica’s hair and he talks to her as if she’s a fragile china doll. And then his French assistant walks in. Dr. Hayes has obviously hired her for reasons other than her filing skills. She even does a curtsy. Also, please note that the heavily sideburned Doctor smokes the entire time and his advice to Erica mostly consists of eating as many steaks as she can, rare as possible. Indeed, good thing she’s not a vegetarian.

“And don’t forget to eat those steaks!” the good doctor says as she leaves his office.

Oh shit, poor Dr. Hayes. Played by character actor Roger Perry, he’s at least the second most interesting male character next to Yorga, but only because he’s such a dufus. After Erica’s condition worsens, Hayes suggests to Paul and his buddy Michael that she might indeed be a vampire (he references a colleague, one of the world’s best “blood experts”). They rightly laugh at him. So he points at them (a cigarette once again between his fingers) and says, “Can you prove that vampires don’t exist?” Well, no, but you can’t prove a negative. But, of course, this line and a few others convince Paul and Michael that what doctor Hayes is saying might be true. And they’re convinced rather quickly, too, for the sake of the film’s runtime, of course.

Did I mention Count Yorga has a medieval dungeon in his basement? I wonder, did it come with this particular style of Los Angeles house? Hollywood types are quite weird, after all. Maybe it’s a sex thing. After all, it’s where Yorga’s harem of vampire women sleep. But maybe Yorga had the thing designed that way so that he’d feel more at home in the place? If so, what did the contractors think? Not much, probably. Like I said, Hollywood. Probably most expensive houses have a medieval dungeon orgy room in their house. I would if I could afford one. Anyway, it’s just a fantastic touch, that bit of gothic horror that refuses to leave the movie set, despite the modern setting. Hell, I’m sure they were simply re-using a dungeon set they had lying around.

And it all kind of all fits with Yorga’s flamboyance, too. Yorga was a seducer of women, but Quarry, out and proud, had fun “slamming” it up, bringing more to the surface than possible from the days of Lugosi’s Dracula. All this works wonderfully as Yorga sits at his piano, playing a piece of classical music while channeling his inner Liberace.

Yorga4

The movie ends as you might expect: with all but one of the men dead and a final confrontation wherein Yorga is also killed. (Or is he? Well, no. There’s a sequel.) Sadly, most of the women in his harem are dead, too. But, finally, we get a bit of a jump scare before the credits.

Though the message is muddled at times, the movie really has a lot to say about the sexual politics at the time, the cult of celebrity, and, well, plain ‘ol cultism. The plot is rather predictable, but it’s an enjoyable piece of filmmaking that edges toward the borders of camp. It’s also a long-overdue innovation of the gothic horror genre just before it was destroyed completely in the 1970’s.

In the commentary included on the Twilight Time Blu-ray release, Tim Sullivan and David Del Valle constantly repeat this refrain. Gothic horror, characterized by a strong emphasis on atmosphere, a historical setting, and romance, was well on its way out by the time Yorga was released. Clearly, after the optimism of the 50’s and early 60’s was destroyed by Vietnam, Altamont, and the Manson murders, there was a desire for horror that reflected modern, cynical sensibilities. Pure escapist fantasy wasn’t enough anymore. Though Yorga hints at this change, it never fully embraces it.

A couple of other interesting things I learned from the commentary: Yorga was apparently the first vampire movie which used both top and bottom fangs, to the consternation of Robert Quarry, who found it impossible to speak with the oversized mouthpieces. Also, Del Valle notes, Yorga wasn’t the first vampire movie to take place in the 20th Century. The Return of Dracula, released in 1958, preceded it, though it’s much more stylized.

Also included on the Blu-ray are two audio interviews. “My Dinner with Yorga” is an interview between Tim Sullivan and Robert Quarry with David Del Valle playing the part of Quarry. Sadly, the original audio tapes have been lost. Quarry laments the current state of acting, saying, “Now it’s all about working in a gym and being able to take your clothes off.” He also has a great line about his fangs: “They gave me a lisp that made me sound like Daffy Duck.”

In the other audio interview, Jessica Dwyer of the Fangirl Radio podcast interviews Tim Sullivan, a cult director in his own right and good friend of Robert Quarry. He reveals to Dwyer that the Yorga character was at first going to be a softcore porn feature length rip-off of Barnabas Collins from “Dark Shadows.” No surprise there, as AIP was always looking to make money from a trend by ripping it off and then milking it until the trend was over. They made beach movies and biker movies until the drive-in crowd got tired of them, and then moved on to the next thing.

Yorga5

Sullivan gets really into talking about Quarry, who had plenty of peaks and valleys in his career and liked to spend his money, which didn’t really help during those “valleys.” He was consigned to permanent poverty after a violent mugging in 1980 and lost most of his money paying medical bills and other recovery expenses. Though never out of work, mostly because of low-budget horror director Fred Olen Ray, Quarry lived in poverty for the rest of his life. But he was somewhat rescued by director Frank Darabont in 2008. Darabont was a huge fan of Quarry’s work and when he heard that Quarry was basically living in squalor, the Green Mile director organized a screening of both Yorga films that played to a full house, a last moment in the sun for an actor who had thought the world had forgotten about him. Next, Darabont set him up in the Motion Picture & Television Country House, the well-known retirement home for actors. Fans donated about 10,000 dollars worth of goods to furnish his new place. Though Quarry died a year later, one assumes he was far happier than he might have otherwise been.

It’s a touching story and Sullivan gets very emotional telling it. And I guess that’s the big thing about this Blu-ray. The movie might be just a bit above average, the last dying gasp of a genre rather than the kind of revolution it wanted to be, but it was somehow elevated beyond all that by the presence of Quarry. Without him, the movie would probably just disappeared. As it stands, a lot of people are talking about it, and for good reason. Count Yorga, Vampire might be essentially a one-man show, but that makes it all the more interesting a story.

About Patrick King 23 Articles
I wrote short stories and a novel before I wrote my first pop culture piece in 2010. Maybe this means I have a certain "literary" perspective that I bring to my criticism. Maybe it means I'm pretentious. Probably both. I get a kick out of art house films and more "lowbrow" entertainment like cartoons and professional wrestling. You can find more of my writing on my personal blog, Mugwumpcorporation.com

1 Comment

  1. Great actor! His most famous line when asked “where are your fangs?” he responded “where are your manners?”

Leave a Reply