Count Yorga, Vampire/The Loves of Count Iorga, Vampire (1970) ***
It hadn’t occurred to me until I got finished watching Count Yorga, Vampire, but I’m pretty sure this had been the first vampire movie set in modern times to be made since 1957’s Blood of Dracula, at least in the English-speaking world. What makes this so remarkable is that, in its aftermath, a veritable deluge of vampire flicks with contemporary settings were made, extending all the way up to the present day— even the comparatively staid Hammer Dracula series had jumped on the bandwagon by 1972! It’s enough to make you really wonder why the idea never crossed anyone’s mind during the whole of the 1960’s. Maybe the industry just needed a good movie to copy...
I could definitely do without the intro, though. Some voice-over jackass over-enunciating about vampire lore over images of a truck carrying a coffin down the highway, ticking off the salient details for us as if we’d never seen any of the hundreds of vampire flicks that have been made since 1922, is not a good way for a movie to make a first impression. But then the first real scene gives us cause to hope that the filmmakers have some respect for our intelligence after all. You’ll note that in a movie called Count Yorga, Vampire, there really isn’t much possibility for suspense related to either the identity or the nature of the villain. It is thus encouraging that our first look at Count Yorga (Robert Quarry, from Dr. Phibes Rises Again and Deathmaster) establishes him in no uncertain terms as a man to worry about. He has come to visit a woman named Donna (Donna Anders), in order to conduct a séance whereby his host might make contact with the spirit of her recently deceased mother, who came down with pernicious anemia shortly after becoming the count’s lover. Donna’s boyfriend, Michael (Michael MacReady, from Something Evil and Terror at the Red Wolf Inn), is there too, along with the couple’s friends, Paul (Michael Murphy, of Phase IV and Shocker) and Erica (The Trip’s Judith Lang), and a few other people about whom we needn’t concern ourselves, on the grounds that they will never be seen again after the first change of scene. Neither Michael nor Paul takes Yorga’s séance very seriously at first, but the count clearly has some kind of powers, because no sooner has the séance gotten properly underway than Donna starts screaming at the top of her lungs. Yorga then hypnotizes her to quiet her hysterics, which is awfully odd in itself— as Michael will later point out to Paul, people generally need to be perfectly relaxed in order for hypnosis to take hold. While Donna is under, the count plants two post-hypnotic suggestions in her mind. First, he instructs her to forget all about whatever traumatic thing it was she experienced during the séance. Then, alarmingly, he instructs her telepathically to do whatever he says, whenever and wherever he says it.
Donna is apparently fine when she emerges from her trance, and Count Yorga announces that he must be leaving. In any event, the party has pretty much broken up (scary paranormal shit has a way of doing that to parties), and Donna certainly could use some rest after that shock she no longer remembers. Erica offers to give Yorga a lift home, an idea which Paul seems not to like too much, but the count takes her up on the offer, so the issue is pretty much settled. The closer he gets to the count’s mansion, the less happy Paul becomes. First, he seems to have a sneaking suspicion that his girlfriend likes the mysterious Bulgarian boyar just a little too much. Secondly, the count’s estate is just fucking creepy, and you probably wouldn’t want to spend much time there, either. His manservant, Bruda (Crypt of the Living Dead’s Edward Walsh), is the sort of silent, scarred thug that always seems to hang out with vampires in these movies. The grounds of the mansion are ludicrously expansive, and so densely wooded that neither house nor road is visible for much of the driveway’s great length. Finally, anyone who can silence a snarling, foaming German shepherd with a single glance (as Yorga does at the front gate) is probably not somebody you want to be around any longer than is necessary. So when the count suggests that Paul and Erica stay the night at his place, Paul voices his refusal fast enough to cut his girlfriend’s contrary answer off before it’s even gotten past her incisors. But a strange thing happens on the couple’s way home: their van becomes mired in a patch of viscous mud halfway up Yorga’s driveway that was not there when they drove in toward the mansion. Looks like they’ll be sticking around after all. At Paul’s insistence, they sleep in the van, however, and during the night, they are attacked. Count Yorga sneaks up behind Paul while he’s taking a piss in the bushes, and whacks him senseless. Then he lets himself into the van, and has his toothy way with Erica. Neither victim remembers exactly what happened come morning.
Paul’s sure about one thing, though— Count Yorga has to have been involved somehow. He shares his worries with Michael, who refers him to a doctor friend of his, by the name of James Hayes (Roger Perry, from The Thing with Two Heads and Roller Boogie). Dr. Hayes notices two things about Erica immediately. First, she has lost a tremendous amount of blood, though it is not remotely obvious how, and second, she has a pair of strange puncture wounds on the left side of her throat. Hayes orders a transfusion, and then treats Erica in much the same way as he would an anemia patient. He knows something fishy is going on, though, even if he can’t quite be sure what it is, and he begins looking into the problem with great seriousness. Ironic, then, that Hayes’s labors should lead him to such an unorthodox conclusion— that Erica may well have been attacked by a vampire. Michael and Paul are incredulous at first, but both men stop scoffing when Count Yorga returns to finish the job he started on Erica that night on his estate. Not only does the count drink his fill of Erica’s blood, he also abducts her, taking her back to his mansion so that she can take her place alongside Donna’s mom in Yorga’s undead harem.
This unexpected development jolts the three men into action, transforming them into reluctant early-70’s analogues of Jonathan Harker, Arthur Holmwood, and Abraham Van Helsing. Paul’s impulsive rescue attempt comes to naught, however, ending with him dead of spinal injuries inflicted by Bruda, and Erica still firmly ensconced in her role as the count’s concubine. Nor does a rather subtler strategy, in which Michael, Donna, and Dr. Hayes drop in unannounced at Yorga’s mansion and attempt to keep him up until sunrise with their increasingly tedious conversation, yield any results. Or at any rate, it yields no results that anyone but Yorga would be pleased with. All it does is convince the vampire that Hayes and his friends are on to him, and induce him to act on his vague desire to add Donna to his collection after eliminating her protectors from the picture. Eventually, Donna does fall under the count’s influence, and Michael and Hayes are forced into a more direct confrontation with Yorga, the results of which unequivocally announce that the 1970’s have begun.
It’s easy to see why this movie spawned so many copycats. It makes for an unusually good update of the basic Dracula plot, and Robert Quarry is an excellent Old-World vampire. Indeed, it’s rather a shame Universal didn’t use him instead of Frank Langella when they remade Dracula nine years later. The story has one major defect, in that everyone seems far too ready to accept the notion of a literal vampire showing up in 20th-century America, but for the most part, it is able to rise above this weakness and deliver on a number of fronts. It accomplishes this mainly on the strength of a thematic openness which sets it apart from its predecessors in the subgenre. Count Yorga, Vampire is the first movie about a heterosexual, male vampire that I know of in which vampirism is given the same explicitly sexualized treatment that Jean Rollin’s Rape of the Vampire/Le Viol du Vampire introduced in the late 1960’s. Not only do Yorga’s attacks on Donna and Erica look all but indistinguishable from make-out sessions gone bad, there is also a scene in which the count calls upon two of his zombie-like concubines to perform for him; the action may happen offscreen, but it isn’t hard to imagine what’s going on. The explicit equation of vampirism with sexual perversity is given a further edge here by Count Yorga’s interest in both Donna and her mother. I mean, really— when was the last time you saw a mother-daughter tag-team of harem girls serving the same man? That’s like incest once removed, or something. All told, it proves a point that is easy to lose track of in this day and age: it really is possible to present a frankly eroticized take on the vampire legend without descending to the levels of either Anne Rice or Jesus Franco.