The vampire is perhaps the most commercial of horror icons, offering a romantic angle that opens up its appeal for a wider audience. However, there is a big gap between the Dracula of the Universal and Hammer days and the modern post-Anne Rice style of vampire. The bridge between these two eras is Count Yorga, Vampire. This low-budget indie emerged from the drive-in circuit to reinvent the vampire myth in a way that perfectly fit the cynical and paranoid tone of America in the ’70s.
The film begins with the Count, played by Robert Quarry, posing as a mesmerist at a private party where the couples treat him with a flippant attitude. What they don’t know is that he is taking stock of the women, preparing to add them to his harem of undead ladies. When Erica (Judy Lang) is stolen from her boyfriend Paul (Michael Murphy) by the Count, Paul teams up with her doctor, Jim (Roger Perry), to get her back. They have to battle their own indifference to superstition to deal with him – but even when they are able to believe, Yorga will prove a resourceful foe because he knows mortal foibles very well.
Count Yorga, Vampire is a disarming piece of work because it doesn’t play into the romantic angle of the vampire myth. Instead, Yorga is an arrogant conqueror with no trace of sentimentality towards mortals. Quarry gives the character a very subtle interpretation, communicating his disdain through facial expressions and the way he wields a faux-politeness towards his opponents. He gets a few nice foils in Murphy, who is convincing as an alpha male comes to regret sneering at the Count, and Perry, a likeable update of Van Helsing who brings wit and daring to the table.
The script and the direction utilize a similar subtlety. The script, penned by director Bob Kelljan, uses the shocks sparingly during the first and second acts of the film to create a subtly creepy evocation of how a clever vampire could prey on a group of hip, disbelieving humans who are too jaded to recognize the threat he poses. The third act pays off this slow burn with a series of escalating human/vampire battles where the violence is sudden and decisive. Kelljan’s direction is similarly crafty, exploiting the ironic contrast between mod, sunny Californian locales and the old-world threat of Yorga. The atmosphere is quietly creepy throughout and Kelljan’s use of hand-held photography and zooms at key movements enhances the threat.
Count Yorga, Vampire isn’t as popular or well-known today as it was by horror fans during its heyday but it’s well worth rediscovering for horror scholars. It’s a vital little piece of vampire movie history that remains quietly effective today.