Starting its life as a soft-core porno, Bob Kelljan’s Count Yorga: Vampire was hastily reworked into a horror flick in order to secure its star, the handsome Hollywood-ite Robert Quarry. Yorga was only Kelljan’s second feature film and Quarry’s first real foray into horror, and in some ways it really shows. As a vampire film, Count Yorga: Vampire is little more than a slightly savvy Dracula rip-off, following the keystone events of Stoker’s novel with irritating rigidity and lack of creativity. Even the name Yorga feels like the kind of gobbledygook title coined by someone more interested in canning a film than telling a story. The only thing really going for Kelljan’s sophomore feature is the socially guarded- yet charming- turn from Quarry, who proves his undying charisma in a role often worn thin with this kind of “classic” cape and cravat business.
But then that’s the real problem for Count Yorga: Vampire it’s stuck between eras. Hammer had already released three Dracula adaptations by the time Quarry donned the cape, all of them taking place in a Gothic past, Kelljan was wise to bring his vampire to the hip youngsters of LA 2 years before Hammer brought the Lee’s Count to the swinging London of Dracula AD 1972. It’s just a shame that he doesn’t do much with it, even Count Yorga’s lair, cool as it may be, is a hark-back to the traditional castles of Hammer, but it doesn’t quite fit. Kelljan manages a couple moments of great horror (including a particularly shocking scene with a kitten) but overall his first Yorga film is characterised by its lack of flare, some seriously jealous American lads, and a charismatically forgiving vampire.
A year later, Kelljan returned to the character again with Quarry, making a far more interesting, visually impressive, and surprisingly funny film. The Return of Count Yorga feels like a purposefully more fleshed-out flick, and definitely more deserving of the drive-in crowds who lapped up Quarry’s American-accented Bulgarian vampire. In it, Yorga inexplicably reappears (after total decimation at the end of the last film) to continue his hunt for brides in a small sleepy town. For the second venture, Kelljan is on significantly better form, injecting some much needed pizazz into proceedings. For one thing, The Return of Count Yorga is a way more stylish feature, thanks to the addition of famed cinematographer Bill Butler (Jaws and Rocky 2). There are some really gorgeous images in here, some terrific lighting, and a couple of acid-haze flashbacks which seem entirely at ends with the dull mopey aesthetic of the first film.
The Return of Count Yorga also benefits from better characters and more interesting ideas. A lot of that probably comes from the additional writing talents of Yvonne Wilder, whose work on Yorga’s second outing was, surprisingly, her sole writing credit. Special mention goes to Rudy De Luca and Craig T. Nelson’s underused, but hilarious, detective duo who embody the thematic shift between the two films, adding a couple of great laughs to the film’s climax. The dialogue is more explicitly self-aware too, making for sharper viewing, whilst the story facilitates some great tension thanks to those well-turned characters. Overall it’s just an infinitely better film and a far more impressive frame for Quarry’s undeniably enjoyable turn as a “classic” vampire. As Quarry himself stated, he tried to play the character straight, and it really works. He honestly charms from start to finish appearing way more likeable than Christopher Lee, though admittedly never as dangerous.
Kelljan would go on to prove his worth with Scream, Blacula, Scream another superb sequel to a lowly origin story, not to mention a few cult flicks before disappearing into the world of daytime procedural TV. Quarry would go on to have considerable success with the Drive-In crowds, but arguably never swung a break as iconic, or well-written, as Yorga. What started as a dopey porno rip-off, blossomed into something genuinely fun. The Blu-Ray release from Arrow is skimpy on extras but deserves considerable credit for reintroducing the world to one of Quarry’s best performances.
Count Yorga: Vampire
Dir: Bob Kelljan
Stars: Robert Quarry, Roger Perry, Michael Murphy, George Macready
The Return of Count Yorga
Dir: Bob Kelljan
Stars: Robert Quarry, Mariette Hartley, Roger Perry, George Macready, Walter Brooke