Sunday, June 14, 2020


I was there!

It was fifty years ago this week that Bob Kelljan's game-changing  COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE first went into theatrical release. I was there, half a century ago, in a car with my mother and sister at Cincinnati's Twin Drive-In and wasn't really aware of how totally invested the three of us were in the movie until Robert Quarry's elegant, eponymous bloodsucker got staked in the climax, which caused every car horn assembled there to honk on earnest approval. It remains the only "standing ovation" I ever witnessed in a drive-in - a sudden, joyous realization that everybody out there under the stars had been caught up in its spell as much as we had - and we enthusiastically joined in.

I tend to remember it as a bigger, more mainstream film than it actually was - probably because it carried the AIP imprimatur; on renewed acquaintance, I see it's really a very early example of the kind of 1970s film Stephen Thrower herds together in his magisterial volume NIGHTMARE U.S.A.; that is, a DIY independent horror picture with rough edges and moments of dated silliness, but also some startling moments of grace, that uses the known clichés of the horror genre against its knowing audience, resulting in new kinds of tensions and shocks. When Yorga responds to a handmade crucifix being wielded in his direction with mocking laughter, I remember the bottom of my 15 year old stomach dropping out and a new feeling of terrible exposure to monstrous evil. It was what the atheism subplot of DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE hinted at, but didn't have the courage to enact.

"May I?" asks Robert Quarry.
Robert Quarry justifiably gets most of the attention the film does, but I think it’s Roger Perry as the doctor who carries the picture. Particularly impressive is the moment when Yorga disarms him by casually asking “May I?,” thereby taking physical possession of the busted chair leg he’s brought to stake him; it's a remarkable show of Evil effortlessly trumping Good by abusing Good’s tendency to civility, especially when he then returns the weapon to him in an elegant gesture perfectly timed to his remark that the intelligence of vampires is such that they can make the most intelligent mortal look a fool.

Producer Michael Macready’s humorless, hunch-over-and-stare acting remains one of the film's few demerits; it’s a shame when he outlives the more capable actors, presumably for financial reasons - another reason why Perry’s contribution is so important. What surprised me most unfavorably on renewed acquaintance is how shaky (and frankly, overlit) so much of Arch Archambault's hand-held photography is, but there are just as many impressively observed shots - like the one of Yorga's hand softly lifting the edge of a drawn window shade to see what's happening on his grounds. (Archambault subsequently shot ANGELS DIE HARD and THE JEKYLL AND HYDE PORTFOLIO.)

I felt certain that Bob Kelljan would go on to become a major new horror director, but despite fairly strong follow-up efforts THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA (1972) and SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM (1973), this didn't happen. He subsequently moved into series television, racking up eight episodes of STARSKY AND HUTCH, five CHARLIE'S ANGELS, and numerous one-shots before his premature death at age 52 in 1982. I'd like to see FLESH OF MY FLESH, the erotic film made by Kelljan and Macready prior to YORGA in 1969, to see if it holds any indications of the promise found here. Of course, as the story goes, YORGA (or IORGA, as Michael Murphy can sometimes be heard pronouncing it) was initially undertaken as an adult film until Robert Quarry persuaded the filmmakers that horror films could be commercial as well. 

Roger Perry, Michael Murphy and Donna Anders.
As I recall, COUNT YORGA VAMPIRE was restored to its original title (THE LOVES OF COUNT IORGA... VAMPIRE) and length sometime around the turn of the new century. The AIP cut was a few minutes shorter, reducing its raw sensuality and violence to a GP level - which certainly worked to the film's commercial benefit. It was the #1 box office champion of its opening week and, according to Quarry, the film went on to become the third highest grossing film in AIP's history. To watch THE LOVES OF... shows us that restoration can sometimes be a mixed blessing; it’s great to have the more graphic horror material intact (the discovery of Erica feeding on a kitten remains a shocker - and further empowers the transfusion scene, which nicely mirrors and updates Mina's "Unclean! Unclean!" scene in Stoker's novel), however the inclusion of some lame content that I remember as absent from the theatrical cut - like the stupid redhead in Perry’s bed, and the stupid but “efficient” blonde working as his receptionist - make me wonder if the AIP cut didn’t do the film some favors that should be preserved as a variant for historical reference. I believe the now-uncirculated AIP cut last appeared on home video on laserdisc.

(c) 2020 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.