A Movie A Day: COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (1970) Ridiculous, right? The age of atomic weapons and we have to use sticks!
Published at: Oct. 27, 2009, 11:57 p.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with the newest October special horror run of A Movie A Day!
[For the entirety of October I will be showcasing one horror film each day. Every film is pulled from my DVD shelf, recorded on the home DVR or streamed via Instant Netflix and will be one I haven’t seen. Unlike my usual A Movie A Day or A Movie A Week columns there won’t necessarily be connectors between each film, but you’ll more than likely see patterns emerge day to day. At the end of each standard AMAD I’m going to include a recommendation of a genre film that is either one of my personal favorites or too good of a double feature with the AMAD title to pass up a mention.]
I went into this movie knowing of the rabid fanbase it has developed over the last four decades. It’s not a large fanbase, but a very loving fanbase. And I can see why. Had I seen this movie at the age of 10 or younger it would have scared the shit out of me.
There are lines crossed in this movie that you don’t expect. I think it was about the time one of Yorga’s brides was found ripping the back out of a kitten and eating it like a feral animal that I really started getting behind this movie.
Sure, it’s cheap, sure there are some iffy filmmaking choices (there’s a scene in a van that takes place at night and is lit about 4 different ways over the course of maybe 5 minutes… from moody nighttime (which it’s supposed to be) to bright, afternoon California sunshine and back again. There’s some horrendous “must have been sleeping with the producer” acting, yeah. That’s all true, but what really makes the movie work is Robert Quarry as the titular Count Yorga.
The setting is Los Angeles during that brief overlap between the ‘60s and the ‘70s where you can see a bit of each decade represented, so it could have come off as ridiculous if not for Quarry. I mean, the movie as a whole does come off a bit silly, but Quarry is always in it to win it.
His Count persona is what you’d expect… dryly charismatic, but it’s what he’s like when he drops that distinguished face and shows the monster he is that really makes this movie work. He’s a mean, taunting dickhead of a vampire and I loved seeing Quarry relish playing that.
It also helps that they give him a Van Helsing (in the form Roger Perry as Dr. Hayes) that cuts through all the bullshit. There’s no reel of the disbelieving doctor slowing the story down. From the moment Dr. Hayes sees the marks on the neck of a Judy Lang, brought in for loss of blood, he pretty much flat out says, “Yep. Vampire.”
No pussyfooting around for Dr. Hayes. And he’s not a thick-necked hero either, but Perry is someone you could actually buy as a doctor. It helps that he’s kinda making it all up as he goes along and scared to death. He’s also a smart guy and tries to match wits with Quarry as he probes to test his theory in keeping the good English-accented Bavarian Count up with conversation until sunrise.
In the finale, a rescue/assassination attempt, the gloves come off and Quarry gets to play the part for all it is worth.
Also, this movie will be like travelogue porn for people living in and in love with the city of Los Angeles. There’s a scene that is just a conversation between two characters as they walk around random parts of 1969/1970 LA that I’m sure puts a smile on the faces of Angelinos.
Did I love, love, love the movie? I wouldn’t say that, but I definitely enjoyed, enjoyed, enjoyed the hell out of it. I might have seen it a bit late in life to become one of the foaming-at-the-mouth converted for it, but even saying that the cynical asshole in me could still look past the obvious flaws of the low budget and limited resources and see the goodness underneath.
Final Thoughts: Quarry, Perry and great character actor Michael Murphy (The Mayor in Batman Returns, a detective in the great underrated Robert Altman gem BREWSTER MCCLOUD, etc) all elevate what could have been a forgettable vampire in the modern age laugh-fest and make it into something that is cheesy, but can still get under your skin.
I’m gonna cheat a little bit here since the perfect double-bill for Count Yorga, Vampire is either it’s sequel (The Return of Count Yorga) which I haven’t seen and can’t comment on or a Hammer film with a similar “Vampire in Modern Times” plot which I covered in my original AMAD run.
So, below you’re going to see a repaste of my review of Christopher Lee in Dracula AD 1972.
Today we have DRACULA A.D. 1972, an attempt by Hammer to move the Count to a modern setting. Of course modern now meaning early ‘70s London, which is just as foreign to me as a viewer as 1800s Romania.
I think that’s why the movie worked so well for me, actually. Sure, it’s cheesy. The dying hippie age is presented full force with an opening party sequence with folk rock band Stoneground, giant afros and massive joints.
But it’s not played for laughs. If someone remade this movie today, it’d be a horror comedy set in the cah-ray-zee ‘70s, tongue-in-cheek like DICK or AUSTIN POWERS. But you really can tell that the filmmakers were just capturing that particular time and place when updating the tale, so it’s easier to jump into the story.
Of course all that is helped by wonderfully note-perfect performances from Christopher Lee as Count Dracula and Peter Cushing as Van Helsing’s grandson who has kept up his family’s research into the occult.
Cushing isn’t showy, which is why I think he’s criminally overlooked as an actor. There’s a scene in this film which isn’t really a blip on the radar, but is a perfect example of how great Cushing is.
Van Helsing is speaking with an open-minded Scotland Yard detective investigating the bodies that pop up after Dracula is resurrected. He’s convinced this detective that it is the work of vampirism, not a cult murder “like in America,” but obviously this guy can’t really take that story to his bosses, so they’re at an impasse.
We get the typical “I hope you’re wrong,” scene and Cushing’s dialogue is the cliché “I wish I was, inspector. I wish to God I was.” A thousand different actors could read that line and come up as cliché as the writing, but not Cushing.
When he delivers this line he sells it. Part of it is his inflection, a subtle pause. When he says it he’s nakedly sincere. Part of it is his body language, the look in his eyes. He looks tired. It’s mini-masterpiece of a performance, but in a small scene in a Hammer exploitation picture.
The point is that Hammer represented a certain level of quality. No matter how outrageous or low budget the picture, their regulars were real actors who always treated their work with the utmost professionalism, not treating it as a “horror picture.” We don’t have that today. People in exploitation know they’re in an exploitation picture and act accordingly, which almost keeps the audience at arm’s length.
I think that’s why I liked DEATH PROOF over PLANET TERROR. Both were good fun, but Kurt Russell didn’t know he was in an exploitation film and the entire cast of Planet Terror definitely did, know what I mean?
Anyway, there’s no escaping a certain kitsch factor, but the way it’s presented allowed me to buy into the world and very much enjoy the movie as a movie, not as a joke.
Outside of the two lead performances, director Alan Gibson cast some really interesting people. The two stand-outs are Christopher Neame as Dracula disciple Johnny Alucard and the screen-meltingly hot Caroline Munro. You’ll probably remember Neame from LICENSE TO KILL or as the Commander from SUBURBAN COMMANDO (video game nerds might remember him from the cutscenes of JEDI KNIGHT – DARK FORCES II) and Munro from MANIAC, STARCRASH, DR. PHIBES or THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD.
Munro is just a goddess and has a relatively small part in the film, but smokes up the screen every second she’s on. Neame is a larger role, taking the Dracula apprentice role that would become a staple in ‘80s films like FRIGHT NIGHT. He’s so desperate for the power… no longer can henchmen be silent simple-minded hulks, but charming and/or insane power-hungry men.
Neame plays the role with that charm and inanity combination and really is freaky. He leads a Black Mass that resurrects the Count and it is very effective. It really is a creepy scene thanks largely to Neame’s barely checked lunacy.
The finale is also a great one. Christopher Lee attacks in all his red-eyed wonder while Peter Cushing does his best. Remember this isn’t the Van Helsing we know, but his grandson who has never seen evil firsthand. It’s an interesting dynamic and it makes for a thrilling and intense final fight.
Final Thoughts: I was really drawn into this movie. The direction is alive, but not showy. The camera moves constantly, so it’s not a stagey picture. Combine that with great performances again by Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, smoking hot leading ladies Munro and Stephanie Beacham and genuine suspense and you have a movie that should have been a joke, but is actually a very successful attempt to shake up the genre.
Here are the final run of Halloween AMAD titles:
Tuesday, October 27th: THE SADIST (1963)
Wednesday, October 28th: CHRISTMAS EVIL (1980)
Thursday, October 29th: WHATEVER HAPPENED TO AUNT ALICE? (1969)
Friday, October 30th: WHO SAW HER DIE? (1972)
Saturday, October 31st: CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962)
I’m about to throw on The Sadist and will have that review out to you shortly! See you then!
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