Bob Kelljan, 1970
Starring: Robert Quarry, Roger Perry, Michael Murphy, Donna Anders
A mysterious coffin is shipped to a foreboding California mansion. Meanwhile, a young woman named Donna holds a séance to attempt to contact her dead mother. The strange Count Yorga, recently arrived in California from Bulgaria, performs the ceremony and later uses hypnosis on Donna when she has a hysterical breakdown. Two of Donna’s friends, Erica and Paul, drive the Count home and are forced to sleep in their van after the roads become bad. That night they are attacked by Yorga, but strangely don't remember.
Erica has some odd marks on her neck investigated and goes through some strange personality changes. Her doctor, Hayes, notices inexplicable blood loss and later, she attempt to eat her pet kitten. Paul contact Dr. Hayes out of desperation. Meanwhile, it is revealed that Yorga has a number of vampire brides at his disposal, including Donna’s dearly departed mother. Though reluctant at first, the three men -- Hayes, Paul, and Donna's boyfriend -- suspect vampirism and all available clues lead them right to Yorga’s mansion, where he is hoping to add some new brides to his collection.
Initially, Robert Quarry’s Count Yorga was intended to face off against Vincent Price’s character Dr. Phibes. Later, Quarry wound up as a foil to Price in both Dr. Phibes Rises Again and Madhouse, though as new, human characters instead of the aristocratic count. Quarry was actually intended to replace Price as American International Pictures’ primary horror star, but unfortunately horror became less popular and Quarry never really rose to stardom. He did return as a second vampire character in The Deathmaster, a film he also produced, which was intended to be a loose vampire version of the Manson family.
In addition to Quarry’s delightfully campy performance, there are some average appearances from Roger Perry (The Thing with Two Heads), Michael Murphy (MASH, Manhattan, Batman Returns), and Michael Macready (Terror House, no relation to Kurt Russell’s MacReady in The Thing). Donna Anders (Werewolves on Wheels, Dream No Evil) is likable as the lead and there are some lovely ladies throughout.
Speaking of ladies, Count Yorga was initially intended to be a softcore film. Allegedly it was Quarry who convinced AIP to make it a straightforward horror flick, but sexual elements remain and certainly far outweigh any overt gore or violence. As a result, American International Pictures had some trouble acquiring a PG rating to release the film theatrically.
Count Yorga was one of the few British or American vampire films of the ‘70s to focus on vampires in a modern setting and it is essentially an updated rehashing of Dracula, tracing many of the same plot points. Quarry helps the film to stand out as more than just another Dracula clone, however, and Yorga’s snobbery, sarcasm, and wit help the film to feel fresh after all these years. As with Dracula, the works of Jean Rollin, Jess Franco, and Hammer’s many vampire films, there is a direct relationship between vampirism and perverse sexuality. In one memorable scene, Yorga hypnotically compels some of his vampire brides to have sex with one another. And as with the later 1979 Dracula and the somewhat unfortunate Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Yorga is just as interested in finding a romantic connection as he is a sanguinary one.
Director Bob Kelljan also helmed Return of Count Yorga, and the Blacula sequel, Scream, Blacula, Scream. He does a decent, if average job with Yorga, which should appeal to fans of ‘60s and ‘70s vampire films, namely the latter efforts of Hammer and their increasingly ridiculous (though enjoyable) Dracula films with Christopher Lee. While I adore Count Yorga, it is far from perfect and suffers from a distinct lag in plot and lots of dialogue-heavy scenes. The characters accept vampirism a little too readily and the conclusion happens far too quickly. The twist ending may be a little predictable for modern viewers, but it’s still enjoyable.
Count Yorga’s success insured a sequel, the lesser Return of Count Yorga. These are available on a double feature DVD from MGM’s Midnite Movies label, but unfortunately it is out of print and has become relatively expensive. Hopefully someone will rescue Count Yorga and finally release it -- and its sequel -- on Blu-ray with some nice special features.