Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Wendigo Meets COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (1970)

Count Yorga is the first modern vampire I can remember watching on TV as a kid, the first one who didn't come across as a complete throwback to some gothic fantasy Europe. Something has always impressed me about Robert Quarry's smooth voice and manner and the way his vampires integrated themselves with relative ease among then-modern people, whether the bourgeois dolts of Bob Kelljan's film (which calls itself The Loves of Count Iorga...Vampire onscreen) or the hippies of The Deathmaster. Though Yorga is supposed to be Bulgarian, he came across to me as the nearest thing to an American vampire that I'd seen to date. Seeing the film now, Yorga impresses me even more as a swinging vampire of his era, a Hefneresque fiend in a fiery red smoking jacket -- though when shot from the right angle and in the right light, he now makes me think a little of Jude Law gone to seed.

Those eyes. Those hands. Robert Quarry is Count Yorga, Vampire.

My friend Wendigo first saw Yorga on TV, too -- we're both too young to have seen him in the theaters. He liked Yorga in part for his resemblances to Christopher Lee -- he was a vampire in color, with fangs, -- and like me, he dug seeing a vampire in a modern setting. What really intrigued him was Yorga's little harem of vampire brides. Wendigo hadn't seen a zombie movie yet, but Yorga's brides were the nearest things to zombies he'd seen -- not for any putrescent cannibalism but for the stiff robotic mindlessness with which they moved and attacked. As for Yorga, Wendigo recalls that he was the first vampire he'd seen that he knew wasn't Dracula.

Today, Wendigo recognizes Yorga (and Quarry with him) as a groundbreaking movie vampire. Yorga updates the Dracula concept of the master vampire into modern times, unlike the lone vagrant vampire he'd seen in The Night Stalker around the same time. Nearly forty years on, Wendigo is most impressed by Yorga's utter coldness (a counterpoint to the cool I perceive in him), the way he casually sacrifices one of his brides to save himself by throwing her on the point of a vampire-hunter's sharpened bit of broken furniture -- or is that a broom handle?

As for the film Count Yorga, Vampire, Wendigo always saw an element of black humor alongside its viciousness, an attitude more typical of slasher films that view its mundane characters as so much fodder for the villain. There's a bigger body count here than in many earlier vampire films (though the brides and Yorga's cretinous rapist lackey Brudah must share credit for some kills). The heroes come across as basically or ultimately ineffectual, despite the usual scenes of learning vampire lore. They seem uncomfortable with the requirements of vampire hunting ("This is the atomic age and we have to use sticks!" one complains). As late as 1970, a group of people could still be sweepingly ignorant of vampire lore in a way that seems implausible in our genre-saturated modern day. Their cluelessness may be best illustrated in one of the movie's most unintentionally infamous scenes, when they confont Yorga at his mansion and try to talk him into betraying himself. That is, they want to keep him up all night chatting inanely about the supernatural on the premise that his desire to go to bed proves that he's a vampire. By this logic, any of us who might hustle these people out the door around 4:30 a.m. should expect to be staked the next day. You'd think that these people might try something like Van Helsing's mirror trick to force Yorga's hand, but from a movie perspective, I suppose, that wouldn't be original, no matter how practical it'd be.

Nowadays Wendigo notices Kelljan's limited budget and skills more than he did in the past. We know the story of how Loves of Count Iorga was originally conceived as a porno film, and you can still see how some scenes come to the brink of sex but stop for the sake of a rating. When Yorga's brides wake up and stiffly embrace each other while the master watches intently, you can deduce that some Hot Lesbian Action was once forthcoming, but given how Kelljan directs the brides, you don't regret the omission. One detail that reminded Wendigo strongly of porn was actually the way Kelljan filmed dialogue scenes in long shots, shot so far from the actors that we can't see their mouths move, with the actual dialogue in voiceover because the director didn't or couldn't film live sound. That was a typical narrative shortcut in porn back when porn had narratives.

Edward Walsh as Brudah, more in the Andreas tradition (see Return of the Vampire) than the Renfield line, only without Andreas's conscience.

Speaking of shortcuts, Yorga skips much of the usual establishing business of vampire films. We see a coffin arrive on a Bulgarian freighter, and we see Brudah throw it on a pickup and drive down the highway, but the next thing you know there's this guy conducting a seance with a bunch of whomevers (including some people we don't see after this scene), seeking the spirit of a woman who recently died (and he knows how). Only eventually do we learn that this is Count Yorga, but Quarry instantly commands the screen in a way that leaves the man's identity beyond doubt. This is a pretty simple story, so shortcuts make sense.

"Vampires? You mean, like?..." Vampire hunting in Count Yorga is a bit of a charade.

A more common sin of all cheap cinema committed here is the artless use of day-for-night shots. A van is stuck on Yorga's property overnight. From inside the van, we can see light blazing through the shaded windows; but it's pitch black outside, but a blazing light illuminates the side of the van. Despite these deficiencies, there are some good scare or shock moments, especially when the vampires attack with an in-your-face ferocity not often scene before, and particularly when Yorga, whom we thought in full flight moments earlier, comes out of nowhere to tackle our remaining hero as he steps into a hallway. On top of that, since this was the Seventies, we have a decade-standard unhappy ending for just about everyone involved, people and vampires alike.

Count Yorga, Vampire didn't make it onto Wendigo's top-ten vampire-film list from last year, but he'd definitely place it in a top 20 or top 25. He actually likes The Return of Count Yorga better, but he'll have more opportunity to explain that in a week or so. Both are seminal Seventies horror films that make the most of limited means to create a memorable experience we find ourselves frequently willing to relive.

This copy of the trailer was served up to YouTube by TrailerFood.


dfordoom said...

I saw Count Yorga a couple of years back. It was OK, but didn't really excite me. Mind you by the time I saw it I'd seen plenty of modern urban vampires movies so it didn't seem quite a ground-breaking as it might have done in 1970.

venoms5 said...

I absolutely love this movie and its sequel even more! I first became aware of the first movie after seeing a single b/w shot of Yorga from the ending. The pic was inside a book on Dracula movies in our school library.

I saw the sequel first, though, on a Saturday afternoon. A very creepy movie, I finally caught up with the first YORGA on VHS tape and it wasn't until the MGM midnite movies tape that I realized the US version was missing some gore footage.

I like the sequel a slight bit more than the first mainly for that frightening sequence with the vampire women rising from the ground and laying siege to that house without any musical accompaniment. That, and Yorga's mansion was a bit more macabre and the film was a bit more flashy.

My favorite scene from the first movie would have to be the scene where Roger Perry, brandishing a table leg, is invited in the second time by Yorga. Yorga cordially asks for the wooden item while self assuredly proclaiming a vampires superiority to man just before confidently handing the makeshift stake back to him. The whole time, Perry is noticeably nervous and sweating.

Great write up, Sam!