Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Count Yorga, Vampire (1970)

Count Yorga, Vampire (1970), also known as The Loves of Count Iorga, Vampire, written and directed by Bob Kelljan, casts the vampire ethos in a New Age, free-love light with Robert Quarry playing a villainous vampire. The concept for this film was supposedly originally a porno, with hot vamps making out with one another and the sexual scenes playing out more luridly than they do as in the film. The ideas behind these scenes were not thrown out, and Kelljan has one scene in which a couple copulate just yards away from the villainous count's estate. An incredibly brief moment of lesbianism between an older blonde vamp and a redheaded one hints at the eroticism originally envisioned, now made into more of a teasing, cut to be mainstream version.

Count Yorga, Vampire is a grade B movie that seems all the more comfortable being a grade B movie because it could have been a sleazy porno. The film is clunky, awkward and frequently misshapen. It commences with a pleasantly cheesy narration by one of the film's stars, George Macready, who admonishes any skeptics of the vampire legend to realize that vampires are indeed quite real. From there, the movie drops us into a seance conducted by the vampiric titular character. Count Yorga is a Bulgarian immigrant whose handsome (but in this context subtly creepy) features and somewhat mellifluous voice entrance a woman, Donna (D.J. Anderson), whose mother very recently died. This extended sequence concludes with Yorga telephatically telling Donna that whatever he tells her to do--through mind control and otherwise--she must do.

The copulating couple is Paul (Michael Murphy) and Erica (Judith Lang). They, along with Donna's vaguely defined male friend, Michael (Macready), constitute the initial non-vampire cast. Approximately thirty minutes in, Dr. James Hayes (Roger Perry) will join them, but by then one of them--the beautiful Erica--will be well on her way to joining Count Yorga in being a night person.

In one of the weaker plot twists in horror movies, as the two couples depart the count's immodest home in the countryside outside of Los Angeles, the dirt road that will lead them back to a main avenue, the VW bus carrying Paul and Erica becomes stuck in a mysterious mud puddle. As Paul verbalizes that the mud puddle's existence makes no sense because it's a narrow road and surely they would have encountered this mud puddle on the way to the count's digs earlier, and there was no rain, and the mud only seems to exist in a very small part of the road, and Erica says now he's making her worry, laughs are more likely to be heard than worried speculative whispers.

The movie becomes somewhat stuck in the mud, too, as the count tediously waits for the couple to simply give up and screw in the bus rather than try to leave. Afterwards, Paul is knocked unconscious by Count Yorga and poor Erica is bitten. The next day sees Erica being told by Dr. Hayes that she's lost a considerable amount of blood. The bitemarks on her neck cause Dr. Hayes to silently wonder if she has just possibly been assailed by a vampire, but fearing embarrassment he decides to simply let things be, though he insists that she eat steaks, preferably raw ones.

In the most effective stretch of scenes in the film, Erica's transformation is made whole by firstly a violent, inhuman act of hunger and secondly by a complete consummation of her endless, vampiric life created by the terrible Count Yorga. Unfortunately, the film loses sight of Erica after this, and she herself--and her ghoulish fate--becomes at best a tertiary concern. Rather, the film predictably and mistakenly follows the mundane reactions of the three men, Paul, Michael and Dr. Hayes, to the crisis, and for an incredibly long period of time drops the issue of Donna and her mother.

Vampires are an innately sexual symbol, and eroticism is as inherent in the genre as anything else. Count Yorga, Vampire only marginally takes advantage of the very free-love atmosphere of the time period in which it was made. It succeeds in setting this aspect up, though admittedly with an incredibly tame, obstructed sex scene in the VW bus, bizarrely set just down the road from Count Yorga's home. It follows this with the latter half of the best and most traditional sequence in Count Yorga, the ultimate staple of vampire films--that of the inveigling, romantic vampire biting the object of his desire, in this case Erica, his fangs buried in the fleshy throat of his victim and lover. The libidinous subtext of all vampire stories is most explicitly about the vampirically virginal woman having to be suffer pain in order to "reach" the dark, satanical world of experienced vampires, a metaphorical trapping ubiquitous in the vampire canon.

Since vampires represent death (they may enjoy eternal earthly life but as inherently diabolical creatures they are disallowed from entering heaven), it's hardly surprising that they feast on blood, which most unequivocally represents life and the power and force thereof. Their pitiful hunger may be most emphatically derived from their desire for sensual pleasures, distilled into purity by the blood that travels through our veins, in lieu of the more abstract and soulful pleasures of mortal humans. The ways to kill them may differ between accounts--in this low-budget movie, possessing cheap wooden chairs and broomsticks is a good idea in order to make homemade stakes--but in many ways they are already dead despite the bewitching claims by recruiting fanged phantoms that they partake in immortality.

Neil Jordan's excellently mournful adaptation of Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire illustrated the desperate, depressing truth. In that book and film, debasing centuries of feasting on human and animal prey resulted in complete moral disintegration and perpetual horror. Francis Ford Coppola brought the comprehensive understanding of the death of the soul that served the chronicles of The Godfather, The Godfather: Part II and Apocalypse Now like the undercarriage of a vehicle to the naturally enticing vampire genre in Bram Stoker's Dracula. Werner Herzog remade Nosferatu with a considerable emphasis on the naturalness of the vampire's actions. Kelljan seems to partially understand this. Count Yorga's battle of wits with Dr. Hayes at approximately the one-hour mark, which extends into the next evening, gently demonstrates the weariness and dreariness of vampiric "life," to be echoed in the Coppola and Jordan spins on the tale. The vampire is ultimately a bored specter, often compelled by curious mortals to despondently answer the same laundry list of questions over and over again. A cruel, monotonous fate.


christian said...

Good piece. I always liked elements of this film. Culturally, it was such a big hit that Robert Quarry was groomed to be the next Vincent Price or Christopher Lee (pissing them both off), which didn't happen.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thanks. Despite my criticisms, I definitely liked aspects of it. It has a creeping charm, made with an intelligent inquisitiveness.

I really ought to check out the sequel from the very next year, with the amazingly original title of The Return of Count Yorga.

Hmm, maybe wooden chair legs for stakes proved unreliable.

Alexander Coleman said...

Well, I finally watched the sequel last night.

Alas, the original was better.