Vampires in the movies are the most human of monsters. They were once people just like you and me. They can pass for human, as long as they stay away from crosses, garlic, and mirrors. They often have feelings for their victims, especially the beautiful, sultry ones with whom they’d like to share eternity. But when they get hungry– watch out! They’re perhaps the most dangerous monsters, because one moment you think you’re talking to a fellow human being, and the next you’re feeling the thing’s fangs in your neck.
Being so connected to humanity, vampires have been a horror staple for as long as movies have been around. While other movie monsters have had their ups and downs in popularity (seen any giant radioactive or man-made Frankenstein monsters in your local theater lately?), the reliable vampire keeps appearing in film after film, decade after decade. On the production side, these human monsters don’t require a huge special effects budget to pull off some decent shocks. And for audiences, vampires are a double bonus: 1.) they provide the basic vicarious thrill of confronting death in a “safe” way on the movie or TV screen; and 2.) they embody the urge to power, glamor and eternal life that we all have to some extent (abundantly evident in today’s Twilightish teen vampire heros).
When it comes to vampires, I’m old school (oh alright, I’m just plain old). I think of Bela Lugosi with his paper-white face and classic cape, or Christopher Lee’s blood-red eyes fixed on his latest victim. In my book, vampires should be honest to goodness, irredeemable monsters thirsting after blood, uncaring about the death and destruction they cause– not angst-ridden, pasty-faced teens worrying about their social standing or their next date. And don’t get me started on the other current craze, the kick ass martial arts-trained vampires of the Blade and Underworld series…
To be fair, sci-fi/vampire mashups are nothing new. In the ’50s and ’60s, when Hammer was reviving Dracula in glorious technicolor, other filmmakers were reinventing the vampire as yet another atom/space age threat. John Beal’s The Vampire (1957) was the victim of a genetics experiment gone awry. Italy’s Atom Age Vampire (Seddok, l’erede di Satana, 1960) was the result of more mischievous science. And the ravenous Queen of Blood (1966) was from another planet altogether. By the early ’70s, both Hammer’s gothic vampire revival and the atom age vampire were played out, and the bloodsucking genre was ready for yet another reset. (Ironically, a film often cited as the final nail in the coffin — forgive the pun — of Hammer Studios is 1974’s The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, a bizarre pairing of Dracula with the Shaw brothers’ frenetic martial artists. While a box office failure, the film was undeniably an early trend setter, considering that martial-artsy vampires are a dime a dozen these days.)
The reset was very simple. Forget the gothic castles and the atomic labs said the low-budget filmmakers– let’s set a supernatural vampire loose on the streets of contemporary Anytown, U.S.A. and see what kind of fun we can have. Perhaps the best-known ’70s vampire in this mold is Dan Curtis’ The Night Stalker (1972). This ingenious mashup of classic hard-boiled crime thriller and supernatural vampire tale is set in Las Vegas. A lot of the film’s energy and entertainment value derives from watching grizzled reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) trying to convince his journalistic colleagues and the authorities that vampires do exist, here and now. Curtis had a lot of fun with the “what if” scenario, going so far as to include a harrowing and at the same time tongue-in-cheek scene in which the vampire gets caught raiding a blood bank.
Another, even earlier entry in the “vampire next door” sweepstakes was Count Yorga, Vampire (1970). Pretty much forgotten today (except for eccentric baby boomers like myself), Count Yorga was something of a micro-budget sensation in its day, like the original Paranormal Activity (2007). Originally conceived as a softcore porn movie under the title The Loves of Count Iorga, Vampire, the producers wisely decided to play it as straight horror instead, and a minor legend was born.
Count Yorga starts out with a crate being unloaded at the Port of Los Angeles. As we watch a wooden coffin unloaded from the crate and onto a pickup truck, which then threads its way through LA traffic and eventually out into the country, a narrator solemnly and floridly rehashes the myth of the vampire, laying out all the ground rules. The truck pulls up to a nondescript country house as the narrator sums up his short lesson on vampires:
For it stands to reason, that if one is superstitious, even on a small, seemingly insignificant level, one must be vulnerable to all superstitions, conceivably, even those of vampires.
Before we’ve had a chance to think over this somewhat fractured logic, lightning shoots across the sky, ominous thunder sounds, and the narrator’s talk of superstition and vampires segues into a seance being conducted by the dark, handsome and exotic Count (Robert Quarry). Clustered around the table are several young, affluent, urban-professional couples (‘Yuppies’ I think they used to be called). One of the women is trying to contact her recently deceased mother. Paul (Michael Murphy), is the resident skeptic, and makes fun of the proceedings, much to the Yorga’s visible irritation (don’t worry, he’ll pay dearly later for his disbelief). With thunder sounding in the background, the seance and its medium quickly get much too intense for even the most skeptical of yuppies, and it ends with the distressed daughter Donna (Donna Anders) screaming hysterically and then fainting.
Starting things off with a seance, conducted by a dark, dashing vampire no less, is a nice touch. It skirts the usual vampire conventions and throws off the audience, if only just a little bit. We know from the title that this Yorga guy’s a vampire, but we’ve never thought of vampires as occult mediums before. Is he the real-deal, or just a monstrous con man? Well, if you pay attention and don’t just make out with Mary Sue in the back of your dad’s Ford Fairlane (Count Yorga is, after all, the penultimate drive-in flick), you’ll see that Yorga is both the real occult deal and a con man– preying on the gullibility of hapless yuppies as he scouts for fresh blood. (And if you stick out to the end, you’ll see what really happened to poor Donna’s mother.)
Count Yorga’s ultra low budget (an estimated $63,000) shows in its use of a few simple shooting locations and its lack of sophisticated special effects. It more than compensates with imagination, mood, lighting, decent make-up, and much-better-than-you-might-expect acting, especially from Robert Quarry in the title role. The Count’s first attack — on one of the yuppie couples who’ve been stranded on a back country road in their VW minivan — is swift, exciting, and… symbolic. It’s as if the older generation embodied by the middle-aged Count is wreaking its vengeance on the younger generation for all that nauseating free love and rebellion crap of the ’60s.
The film sags somewhat in the middle as the distressed yuppies recruit a Van Helsing-type in the person of trusted medical doctor Jim Hayes (played by veteran TV actor Roger Perry). Skeptical at first (he is a man of science after all!), Hayes becomes convinced of the existence of supernatural evil after all the undeniable evidence is in. Tragically, he makes the ultimate neophyte vampire-hunter’s mistake of confronting the evil in its own abode… at night. In the last climactic minutes, we’re treated to a very interesting verbal exchange between the man of science and the man of occult evil … the good doctor sits tensely across from Yorga with the wooden stake intended to destroy the monster firmly in his grip. In the next very effective scene, Hayes finds himself trapped deep in Yorga’s lair, yelling for his vampire-hunting colleague, and in turn being mocked by the confident Yorga, who has him exactly where he wants him. There is also a nice homage to Dracula’s brides– make no mistake, Yorga is no slouch in the vampire bride department!
The Count’s ultimate fate is a bit anticlimactic, but the micro-budgeted horror flick was so surprisingly good that it quickly spawned a sequel, The Return of Count Yorga (1971). Despite the best efforts of Quarry and veteran TV actors Mariette Hartley and Craig T. Nelson (and a larger budget), the Count returned no more.
- Count Yorga, Vampire (1970)
- Erica Productions, Inc.
- Directed by: Bob Kelljan
- Written by: Bob Kelljan
- Starring: Robert Quarry (Count Yorga), Roger Perry (Dr. Jim Hayes), Michael Murphy (Paul), Michael Macready (Mike Thompson), Judy Lang (Erica)
- Check out: The MGM Midnite Movies edition
Fascinating Factoid: Producer and actor Michael Macready enlisted the services of his father, George, for the part of the solemn, portentous narrator who gives the audience a short lesson on vampires at the beginning of the film. George, a venerable and very effective character actor, appeared in over 140 movies and TV shows from the early 1940s through the early ’70s, from big budget classics like Gilda (1946), to low budget horror features like The Alligator People (1959), to TV series like the original The Outer Limits (1964). His last role was in The Return of Count Yorga.
For more reviews of obscure but worthwhile B horror and sci-fi films, see my blog, Films From Beyond the Time Barrier.
See also Films From Beyond on YouTube.