Monday, August 9, 2010

Wendigo Meets THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA (1971)

We left the Bulgarian vampire Count Yorga a pile of dust at the end of his first adventure, but one year later he turns up at a fundraising costume party at an orphanage in a small community in California, heralded by the blowing of the santa ana winds. He's just bought property in the neighborhood and wants to meet the neighbors. He opts out of the costume contest, claiming that his opera cape, vest etc. aren't a costume. All the aristocracy in Bulgaria dress that way. Still, the guy in the Dracula outfit consoles him when he, the fake vampire, wins the contest. While Yorga focuses his attention on the comely lass with the teary eyes and the princess costume (Mariette Hartley) and the other guests discover a corpse with punctures on her throat, you might be excused for wondering: how is he here? How was he revived? How is his manservant Brudah alive after the treatment he suffered in the first film? Did he pull through and perform a ritual to reconstitute his master? It's not worth asking. All you need to know is that Count Yorga, Vampire, had been a hit for distributor American International Pictures, and the studio wanted more of the same. They were less interested in a continuation or elaboration of what might now have been termed the "saga" of Yorga than a straight repetition of the performance that made Robert Quarry, for a little while, a horror film star. In those more innocent days, it mattered little to audiences how a popular character got from one film to another, as long as they got to see him again. It works the same way for cartoon characters and the stars of comedy shorts.

"What's he doing here?" Robert Quarry returns as Count Yorga as "Count Dracula" looks on.

Fortunately, the studio and audience got more than they bargained for from returning producer Michael MacReady and director Bob Kelljan. My friend Wendigo, a vampire connoisseur, is one of many fans who find Return of Count Yorga superior to its admirable predecessor. In his view, it has more story, a better cast and a bigger budget. Everything looks better here than in the first film.

Going into more depth, Wendigo finds the story much more engaging this time. We don't need an introduction to Yorga at this point, and Wendigo appreciates the way the film gets to the point fairly quickly. Also in the sequel's favor is a new ability to balance horror and humor, when much of the first film's humor was really unintentional. Return brings in actual comic relief in the form of two inept cops (one played by Craig T. Nelson) to defuse the tension every so often so that we're not tempted to laugh when we're not supposed to. Some bits are inescapably comical even when the stakes are highest, as when the hero (Roger Perry) first uses two twigs, then his fingers in the most futile attempt to turn a vampire, given that his antagonist, Brudah, isn't even one. The cops are comical but serve a serious story function as skeptical auditors of the heroes' discoveries about vampires. When they're in peril, however, it's not completely a laughing matter, but you can still laugh at them and with the film. Yorga himself has a humorous bit when he doesn't want Brudah to distract him from watching The Vampire Lovers on a Spanish-language TV station.

Being a bride of Count Yorga is not the glamorous life you might expect.

Wendigo is also impressed by the greater level of savagery in the mass vampire attacks this time out. The swarming by Yorga's nearly-mindless, disheveled "brides" remind him at once of the feeding of sharks and the instantly-influential rampages from Night of the Living Dead, while I was reminded by Yorga's ordering his thralls to go out to attack an entire family of the power of Charles Manson, whose "family" had terrorized California just two years before. Wendigo agrees with this and notes the paranoia the family feels before the attack as an acknowledgment of the fear that lingered after the Manson killings. Yorga himself retains the streak of cruelty from his first appearance. Wendigo saw it most clearly in the scene when he lures a priest (with a promise of a charitable donation) into quicksand, then watches the victim sink in a wonderfully over-the-top single take. The priest hysterically denounces the vampire and brandishes a cross at Yorga just before he goes under. If Yorga feels any effect of the holy symbol, we don't see it.

Yorga's cruelty is tempered this time by a romantic subplot that gives Quarry a chance to stretch his thespian muscles. For whatever reason, Hartley's character, Cynthia Nelson, stirs a "gentle pain" in him, inspired by her belief in the possibility of purity, that he worries must be love, something he knows is dangerous to his kind of creature but pursues nonetheless. Wendigo sees a beauty-and-the-beast angle in this, telegraphed when Hartley wears that princess costume to the party. If not noble, Yorga is sometimes reticent in the sequel. While he warns that he can destroy Cynthia or make her one of his undead thralls, he doesn't want to do it. Making her an eternal vampire bride doesn't seem to be an option, given how his previous female victims have turned out. So when he feels the urge, he forces himself to be content with a kiss on the cheek until he can jump into his swanky Yorga-mobile (a Rolls!) to put the bite on relative strangers. Quarry never turns Yorga into a full-blown romantic vampire; his character is too analytic from a survival standpoint on the feelings that trouble him, and that may demonstrate the limit of a vampire's capacity for love. But that arguably makes him a more tragic figure, since he's clearly more sentient and reflective than his brides, for whatever reason. Life as a master vampire seems to offer little more than sitting on a throne and ordering them about, but being human is beyond him by now.

The vampire may seek a companion to share his gentle pain, but he rides alone. No one messes with his ride!

Return is overall better written than its predecessor, perhaps due to new co-writer (and actress) Yvonne Wilder. Wendigo liked best the way the santa ana winds were invoked frequently as a foreboding of evil or even a force of evil in its own right, as if they brought Yorga to the little town. The direction is also better, with less emphasis on long shots with overdubbed dialogue. If the sequel falls short of the original in any area, Wendigo suspects it may be in the absence of a really strong taunting scene between Yorga and his antagonists like the "Michael!" scene in the first film. Edward Walsh as Brudah is also relatively underused in the sequel; he has no rape scene and there's no hint of tension between him and Yorga like there is in the original. In just about every other area, however, Return is an improvement.

Edward Walsh can be excused for wondering what point there was to the return of Brudah by the end of the picture.

Wendigo is an admirer of Robert Quarry and considers Return of Count Yorga his favorite of the three vampire films the actor starred in, though Quarry is also very good in The Deathmaster as a vampire who is even more in cult-leader mode than Yorga. We've learned that there were plans to do a third Yorga movie, possibly with him as an antagonist for Dr. Phibes, and Wendigo regrets that Quarry didn't get another crack at the part. He feels that Yorga's potential had not been exhausted after two films, and if anything a comeback looked more plausible this time than after the original. Since both films have "evil wins" endings despite Yorga's own defeat and demise in each, it may simply be in keeping with the pessimistic spirit of the Seventies that Yorga would simply recur no matter what might be done to him. That makes him the ideal vampire for his time.

Here's a trailer uploaded by gotohelltown, but take a listen to this cool radio spot as well.

1 comment:

venoms5 said...

I really enjoyed this movie. I saw this one first on a local television station one Saturday afternoon back in the mid 80's. I didn't catch up to the original movie till a few years later on VHS tape.

I especially liked Yorga's mansion of horrors which we get to see more of this time around. Director Kelljan directed SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM and it definitely displays a YORGA atmosphere.