Arrow Video: The Count Yorga Collection (1970 - 1971) - Reviewed

Courtesy of Arrow Video
Arrow Video continues to scour the annals of 1970s exploitation horror cinema with devilish glee, churning out deluxe special editions of renowned or otherwise forgotten gems of the era for modern moviegoers to enjoy.  Among their latest ventures into the heart of distinctly American International Pictures exploitation filmmaking are writer-director Bob Kelljan’s Count Yorga, Vampire films, gathered in a blu-ray collection for the first time.  With the first Count Yorga, Vampire film followed by its sequel The Return of Count Yorga, both films (restored in 4K by Arrow) represent low-budget classical vampire horror being transposed to the present modern day with a unique twist on practicality versus superstition. 

From the director of Scream Blacula Scream, the Count Yorga films aren’t necessarily parodies or satires but fully fledged horror films with an impish sense of dark humor with real world nonbelieving characters suddenly thrust headfirst into the awaiting vampire fangs.  With both films slated for the drive-in circuit where they became enormously successful, the Count Yorga films proved to be a star power vehicle for character actor Robert Quarry as the titular Yorga, quickly being ushered in as a new kind of horror star.  While his career was tragically cut short by a drunk driver that left him wounded before fading from the limelight, Arrow’s collection of the Count Yorga films will ensure his short-lived legacy of horror isn’t forgotten.
Count Yorga, Vampire (1970)
The titular Count Yorga, Vampire first appears onscreen amid a group of young friends gathered together for a séance involving Erica (Judy Lang) trying to contact her mother, the ceremony itself overseen by hip debonair medium Count Yorga (Robert Quarry).  The group is comprised of boyfriend Michael (producer Michael Macready), Paul (Phase IV actor Michael Murphy) and Donna (Donna Anders) who are jointly skeptical of the endeavor, until Erica seems to have a fit that shutters the evening but not before the mercurial Yorga returns to spread his neck biting bloodthirst, spurring a series of bizarre murders including a particularly gruesome moment when Erica is seen eating her cat.  From here, Michael hastily enlists the help of renegade vampire hunter Dr. Hayes (Roger Perry) and the two find themselves engaged in a battle to the death amid lusty female vampires who aren’t ready to let the doctor and boyfriend do away with their eternal master.

Basically a loose rewrite of Bram Stoker’s Dracula with the names and timelines changed, one of the charms of Count Yorga, Vampire is the modern day skepticism pitted against inexplicable supernaturalism.  Initially intended to be a softcore porno before being revised as a standard horror feature with some elements of the first porno shoot surviving the final cut, the film proved to be a vehicle for Robert Quarry to show off his charismatic acting chops.  The ensemble cast is generally good with Roger Perry channeling Dr. Van Helsing and Michael Murphy playing an outright skeptic who is gradually convinced by the things he sees.  Mainly however the film functions as the other side of the coin American International Pictures put out alongside the Blacula films, catering to the then-Hammer Horror oriented vampire craze.
Visually Count Yorga, Vampire is, not unlike Mario Bava’s Shock, really rough around the edges.  Shot by Arch Archambault largely in shaky handheld that occasionally loses focus, the film has a bit of an inelegant look to it.  Whether it was intentional or not, it has the feel of a regional documentary rather than an ornate or polished horror film.  Still, scenes of the handsomely costumed Count Yorga in his luxurious mansion do exhibit an aura that is kind of ambient and slow-motion shots of open fanged vampires running at the camera will raise a few hairs.  The soundtrack by Bill Marx who would also return for the film’s sequel The Return of Count Yorga as well as Scream Blacula Scream is serviceable orchestral string heavy horror fare that gets the job done but isn’t particularly memorable.

While not the most graceful vampire film in the world, Count Yorga, Vampire will get your attention if only for the pleasure of watching Robert Quarry seduce and munch on the necks of beautiful women to be part of his newly built vampiric empire.  Against the low budget, the film nevertheless is an entertaining little exploitation horror flick that proved highly successful at the drive-ins, thereby prompting a decidedly more polished sequel for the following year.  Longstanding horror fans seeking out the likes of Horror of Dracula or Blood for Dracula with their grisly gory thrills might come away a bit underwhelmed from Count Yorga, Vampire though the film’s aforementioned cat scene was enough to earn the film a PG-13 upon rerelease.  Any way you slice it, this was a solid microbudget bloodsucker.
The Return of Count Yorga (1971)
Despite what you may have seen or heard in the last Count Yorga flick, The Return of Count Yorga reunites the cast and crew a year later in a completely new vampire adventure with the titular monster that has zero connection to or continuity with the previous film, starting fresh anew despite reusing some of the cast members we saw die in the last movie.  Setting his sights this time on a Californian orphanage, the Count happens upon a costumed party replete with a couple of characters dressed like vampires.  

As with the first film, his arrival and announcement of vampirism is met with laughing skepticism but soon after hitting on Cynthia, much to the chagrin of her fiancé David (Roger Perry again in a different role), Yorga unleashes a brutal assault on her family from the claws and fangs of his vampire brides.  Cynthia doesn’t know it yet, but Yorga is fixing for her to be his new bride, as seen in her premonitory nightmares.

Though reusing much of the same people as before, this Return of Count Yorga is a decidedly much classier affair than the first outing.  Switching this time to the legendary cinematographer Bill Butler, the man who shot Jaws, the film’s visual aesthete this time around is ornate, delicately composed and exceedingly well lit.  A major step up from its predecessor, Butler’s cinematography gives the proceedings a far richer classically gothic horror feel to it.  

Composer Bill Marx is back of course though tonally this Yorga outing is far more sinister and threatening including but not limited to a terrifying scream laden multiple vampire brides attack.  The cast here, though comprised of much of the same actors, also conjures up more thrills than before including a truly frightening moment where a deaf woman happens upon a murder scene and is unable to scream.  Oh and look for a very young Craig T. Nelson in his screen debut as a skeptical detective who bites off more than he can chew, no pun intended.

Arguably even more successful than the first, The Return of Count Yorga more than makes up for the shortcomings of the first in what would’ve been a film trilogy with a third film planned that never came to fruition.  The films themselves, while not as well known among modern horror filmgoers today, proved to be an indelible influence on such directors as Frank Darabont who cited the film’s longstanding impact on him as an 11-year-old boy.  If nothing else, they point to a brief moment in which Robert Quarry was fermenting into a full blown horror star who sadly never got much due outside of these films.  For film historians, the Count Yorga Collection points to an important period in American International Pictures’ legacy when they were giving us modern day vampires in America the likes of which filmgoers of the regular and drive-in venues have never encountered before.

--Andrew Kotwicki