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Fifty Years Later: Bruce Markusen Remembers the Bloodsucker from ‘Count Yorga, Vampire’

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Bruce Markusen Remembers Vampire Flick 'Count Yorga' Fifty Years Later

Everyone loves Dracula. Well, I don’t mean that they love his evil ways, the bloodsucking, the flesh-tearing, the lack of morality and all of that, but they do enjoy watching movies about him and seeing him on screen. There’s just something about Dracula’s presence in a horror film that draws fans to the subject matter. And yet no one seems to have much love for the vampire known as Count Yorga. As a matter of fact, there are probably a number of younger readers who have never even heard of Count Yorga. Either way, it’s rather sad that Count Yorga has been reduced to the dustbins of Hollywood lore. At one time, Count Yorga was an intriguing movie character, and one who ultimately deserved a better treatment from filmmakers of his day.

So who exactly is this Count Yorga character? He was first introduced to us 50 years ago, thanks to the release of the feature film, Count Yorga, Vampire. The movie, a product of American International Pictures (AIP), made its debut in theaters on June 12, 1970, and while it didn’t become a box office sensation, it drew a good audience that summer, making enough money to spawn a sequel one year later.

In terms of its quality, Count Yorga, Vampire is not what anyone would call an example of great filmmaking. It is not high art, and it is certainly not a classic among the genre of vampire films. As noted horror historian David Skal once told me, “It really is a terrible film.” But in the next breath, David noted that Count Yorga is also a very “watchable” film. It is entertaining and fun, full of suspense and violence, some blood, and a lot of erotic tension.

Count Yorga, Vampire 1970

The latter characteristic should come as no surprise. After all the Hays Code had been officially dissolved in 1968, leaving directors to explore all sorts of themes involving sexuality and lust. Even more significantly, AIP had originally planned Count Yorga, Vampire to be called The Loves of Count Iorga and marketed as an X-rated film, one that would fit neatly into the category of soft pornography. For some reason, the producers changed their mind, toned down the sexual themes, and opted for a more conventional horror film. Even with the revisions, the filmmakers did keep part of the original story, specifically a group of beautiful female vampires, who were essentially the “brides of Yorga.” Thanks to the female vampires, and some mild nudity here and there, the film retained significant sexual overtones.

Clearly, Count Yorga, Vampire is not a film intended for younger viewers, but a movie meant to be watched by a more sophisticated adult audience. Perhaps that explains why it has developed a small cult following that includes rabid horror fans like myself, who were simply too young to see it when it first appeared in theaters back in the day.

The film’s plot centers on the titular vampire, who has traveled from Bulgaria (not Transylvania) to 1960s Los Angeles, where he is initially seen as a guest at a small house party. There Count Yorga conducts a séance for the mother of one of the participants. The Count used to date the mother, but she died suddenly from a kind of blood anemia. The participants in the séance include a young unmarried couple, Erica and Paul, who agree to give The Count a ride home, After dropping off Count Yorga, the couple’s van becomes stuck in the mud, forcing them to sleep in the van. They are then attacked during the night, but wake up the next morning, with Erica realizing that she has two bite marks on their neck. She consults a friend, Dr. James Hayes a blood specialist who will soon begin an investigation into the true identity of Count Yorga. This will lead to several frightening confrontations with Yorga, before ending with a climactic skirmish in The Count’s mansion.

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By the end of the film, it is clear that Yorga is not only a vampire, but a sadistic one at that. He delights in tormenting some of his victims, before bringing them to their doom. Yorga’s maniacal laugh, evident in a scene in which he uses his power to unleash his female coven against his principal accuser, is good enough to send shivers.

The title character of Count Yorga is played by an accomplished American actor, the late Robert Handsome and debonair, Quarry is quite convincing in the lead role. His looks, including sharp facial features and dark hair, made him ideal to play a vampire, making us wonder what he might have done with an opportunity to play Dracula. With regard to Count Yorga, he brings some charm and sophistication to the role, along with an overriding arrogance. He also sports some lavish clothing, including a shirt with la ridiculously large collar (typical of 1970s fashion), a gaudy chain and pendant, and a garish red cape.

Quarry was an interesting character himself. He was highly intelligent, with an IQ of 168, and reportedly finished high school at the age of 14. In the 1960s, he overcame a bout with cancer and continued to act. Given his talents as an actor, it seems like he should have been given better material to work with, but by the early 1970s, he was settling for roles in B-films like Count Yorga. After making a run of horror films in the seventies, he became involved in a serious car accident that kept him from making movies from 1980 to 1986. Ever resilient, he made another comeback and continued to work until 1999 before retiring. In 2009, Quarry succumbed to a heart condition, passing away at the age of 83.

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There’s little doubt about Quarry’s talent and perseverance. Apparently, he also had quite an ego, at least if you believe the stories about him and Vincent Price on the set of the film, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, the sequel to the very successful movie, The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Price had heard rumors that AIP planned to replace him with Quarry, which created resentment between the two veteran actors. The two men sniped at each other constantly throughout the filming. Despite those problems, the two co-starred in another horror film, Madhouse, which came out in 1974.

In addition to Quarry’s work as Count Yorga, another good individual effort is turned in by Roger Perry as Dr. Hayes, a blood specialist. Perry is particularly engrossing in a late-night scene where his character politely confronts Count Yorga about his knowledge of the supernatural, specifically vampires. It’s quite obvious that Perry knows Yorga’s true identity, but he questions The Count slyly without making a direct accusation. Given the apparent tension, it’s a scene that makes The Count uncomfortable, along with the viewers, especially as the late evening hours are about to give way to the morning daylight.

Director Bob Kelljan, who would die from cancer at a young age in 1982, succeeds in making Count Yorga, Vampire very dark and atmospheric, with a coherent, well-paced plot that picks up steam after a sluggish beginning. A creative director willing to take a chance, he also includes a fair share of gore, including a scene in which one of the characters can be seen eating a cat. The sequence is graphic and stomach-turning, particularly for the era of the early 1970s.

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Unfortunately, Count Yorga also has its share of weaknesses. It’s obvious that AIP gave Kelljan little money to work with, resulting in sets that look B-movie cheap. The special effects are almost nonexistent; when they are used, they also look cheesy and cheap. The conclusion of the film also comes a bit too swiftly, with the final encounter between Count Yorga and one of his pursuers lacking in both flair and drama.

In spite of the drawbacks, Count Yorga, Vampire represented Kelljan’s greatest commercial success. AIP released a sequel one year later, The Return of Count Yorga, with Kelljan again at the helm. The sequel, while entertaining at times, would fall short of the original’s effectiveness.

Much like Kelljan, Count Yorga, Vampire has become relatively forgotten within horror history. While Quarry’s rendition of the vampire will never receive the attention of its Universal or Hammer counterparts, his rendition of Yorga is striking and memorable, from his physical appearance to his erudite manner and evil laugh. It’s a performance that makes him a respectable successor to Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, and even Jonathan Frid of Barnabas Collins fame.

With vampire films having become so popular over the last 20 years, it’s surprising that no studio or director has taken a crack at remaking Count Yorga. With a larger budget, not to mention the availability of special effects that have improved dramatically over the last 50 years, a new Count Yorga would make for an interesting arrival on the horror scene. The challenge would be finding someone to match the intelligence, articulation, and sophistication of Robert Quarry. While he never gained the fame of a true horror icon, his talents were considerable. All these years later, Quarry still makes Count Yorga well worth the look.

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Check out what Bruce is up to on his Facebook page: Ghostly Gallery.

RELATED: BRUCE LOOKS BACK AT “THE MUNSTERS” EPISODE “HERMAN THE ROOKIE”

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