Count Yorga, Vampire (1970) takes an Old World vampire and places him in the hip world of Los Angeles in 1970. Whereas other films play similar setups for laughs, Count Yorga goes for the chills. Two couples are trying to deal with the pernicious anemia that seems to be striking the women in the group when their friend, a blood specialist, makes the bizarre suggestion that their recent acquaintance, Count Yorga, may in fact be a real vampire. Once the women disappear, the men attempt to rescue them from the clutches of the presumed vampire. The film builds suspense by shifting its focus around amongst the non-vampire characters, leaving the viewer guessing as to who might actually survive. Writer/director Bob Kelljan mixes old and new horror tropes, giving the film an interesting and enjoyable feel. While not the most “action oriented” of vampire horror films, there are enough nice chilling and creepy moments that pay off, creating a fun and effective hybrid of a tale.
The film opens with a bizarre sequence that shows a coffin shaped box being unloaded at the Port of Los Angeles, overtop of which is played an old fashioned narration that spells out exactly what a vampire is. The scene shifts to a hip apartment where the distinguished foreigner Count Yorga (Robert Quarry) is conducting a seance for Donna (Donna Anders), her husband Mike (Michael Macready), and two other couples. They are attempting to contact Donna’s recently deceased mother (Marsha Jordan), who was also Count Yorga’s lover. After Donna falls into convulsions, Count Yorga calms her down with hypnosis. Later that evening, one of the other couples, Erica (Judy Lang) and Paul (Michael Murphy), drive the Count back to the estate he recently moved to in the Los Angeles hills. After dropping him off, their Volkswagen Microbus gets stuck in a mud patch and they decided to wait in the van until morning. Little do they know that they are being stalked. The Count, in full vampire mode, knocks out Paul and attacks Erica. The next morning, they remember the attack, but not the attacker. Erica is checked out by her doctor and their personal friend, Dr. Jim Hayes (Roger Perry), who, while concerned about the strange puncture wounds on Erica’s neck, is more concerned about her anemia. Paul and Mike notice similarities between Erica’s and Donna’s recent behavior and voice their concerns with Dr. Jim. The doctor presents a suggestion from one of his colleagues – Count Yorga is a vampire. Paul and Mike greet this with no small amount of skepticism, but when Donna disappears, they begin to believe. Can the three friends vanquish the Count before they lose their loved ones forever?
Though Count Yorga is the title character, the film instead focuses more on Dr. Jim and the two couples, Erica + Paul and Donna + Mike. During the seance, it appears that Donna will be the main object of the Count’s “affections,” but that focus quickly shifts to Erica after the attack in the microbus. Really, though, it is more about Paul’s reaction to Erica’s plight than about Erica herself. In fact, the women in the film are given very little agency; they are essentially objects over which the men and the Count fight. Later in the film, the focus shifts to Mike, then to Dr. Jim, and even back and forth at least once or twice before the climax. It is not that it has an ensemble feel; it is more akin to the “hero” of the picture changing as it goes along. While this might seem like a lack of focus on the part of the screenwriter, it comes across more as an intentional shift to keep the audience in suspense as to who may survive the ordeal.
Part of what is interesting about Count Yorga, Vampire is its successful combination of the old and the new. It manages to place an Old World vampire in Los Angeles in 1970 without playing it for laughs. The opening narration that sets out exactly what a vampire is has a distinctly old fashioned feel to it, in no small part to the fact it is voiced by distinguished and veteran actor George Macready. The film is peppered with classic old school horror tropes, such howling wolves (in Los Angeles!), well-timed streaks of lightning, and the Count’s hulking manservant Brudah (Edward Walsh). The Count even has what looks to be a castle-style stone dungeon in his modern home in the Los Angeles hills. (Then again, it is Los Angeles, so maybe that is not that strange a thing to find.) Robert Quarry straddles the Old and New Worlds with his portrayal of the Count. When in full vampire mode, Quarry’s performance calls back to the old melodramas, with overly broad gestures and growls. This contrasts with his portrayal of the Count when he is acting civil and more human; here Quarry’s performance has a more modern feel to it, projecting a subtle air of menace. The non-vampire characters react to the idea of a vampire the way one would expect modern people would; with incredulity. Once they realize that they are indeed dealing with the undead, they come across as not being 100% convinced that they are correct. Their reactions feel very genuine. Even when they embrace old horror tropes, they put a modern spin on it, e.g. rushing to the vampire’s lair in a station wagon instead of a horse drawn carriage or breaking old broom handles to create impromptu stakes. Even though the end of the Count himself is fairly old fashioned, the finale of the film is very much a grim “1970’s ending”.
The horror in Count Yorga, Vampire ranges from traditional gothic chills to gore to even a psychological showdown. There are some really nice Hammeresque scenes of the female vampires advancing on their intended victims; they have a classic fiendish look to them. When Erica and Paul drop off the Count at his estate, there is a great shot of the car in the foreground and the dimly lit shadow of the house is in the background, where a mysterious female figure is seen silhouetted in its doorway. If one replaces the Volkswagen Microbus with an old fashioned carriage, this could be a scene in a film from decades early. While the gore is kept to the minimum, there is one particularly gruesome scene where Paul and Mike come upon Erica eating the family cat. (Ok, she is clearly holding a cute, sleeping kitten who has been covered in tomato sauce, but Judy Lang’s performance sells it.) The most effective and surprise scenes involve Dr. Jim and Count Yorga interacting. Clearly, they both know what is up and that they want to kill each other, but they are acting “civil”. These present some tense cat-and-mouse moments, where the audience is waiting to see who will attack first; Perry and Quarry do an excellent job here. Sadly, the final disposition of Yorga is a little rushed and anticlimactic, but the writer/director Kelljan finishes off the film with a nicely creepy, and very 1970’s, capstone.
Count Yorga, Vampire takes a premise that sometimes is played for laughs and instead goes for the scares and chills. The shifting focus among the characters produces an air of suspense as to who will survive. While one would think that the combination of old and new would present issues, it works surprisingly well. It may not be the scariest of vampire films, but it does have more than a few nicely creepy moments, with the cat-and-mouse interplay between Dr. Jim and the Count being one of the highlights. Those looking for a vampire picture that is at once both new and familiar will enjoy visiting with Count Yorga, Vampire.
Count Yorga, Vampire (3.3 / 5)