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Saturday, October 8, 2016

HubrisWeen 4, Day 3: Count Yorga, Vampire (1970)

HubrisWeen is a 26-day blogging marathon where a seasonally-appropriate movie gets reviewed every day from October 6 to the 31st in alphabetical order. Click on the banner above this message to go to the central site and see what Checkpoint Telstar and the other participants are covering today.

Written and directed by Bob Kelljan

Robert Quarry:  Count Yorga
Edward Walsh:  Bruda
Roger Perry:  Dr. James Hayes
Michael Murphy:  Paul
Michael Macready:  Mike Thompson
Donna Anders:  Donna

Could this be the first modern-age vampire movie? I know it beat Hammer's Dracula A.D. 1972 to the punch by two years, and although I don't have an encyclopedic knowledge of the genre nothing's coming to mind as an earlier movie with a vampire in it and televisions. Blacula, made two years later, would be another attempt to put a bloodsucking fiend associated with crypts and opera capes in modern California--as well as chasing after the "urban" movie audience by putting African-American performers in the key roles. All in a day's work for American-International Pictures, purveyors of the highest-caliber lowbrow entertainment for decades.

The DVD from the MGM Midnite Movies collection (which has this movie's sequel on it as well for a double feature; too bad it wasn't called Destiny of Count Yorga so I could do a double feature tomorrow!) used a print with the original title of the film, The Loves of Count Iorga, Vampire. But the film was released in the United States with a title that begins with C, so I'm using it for that letter for this year's HubrisWeen. It's hard enough finding two dozen movies to watch in a row in alphabetical order, and I feel fully justified in not throwing this one on for the letter "I".

It's probably worth mentioning that AIP originally wanted this movie to be a softcore skin flick first and a horror movie second (or maybe third); they wanted Robert Quarry for the part, though, and toned down the smut in order to retain his services. For a while, AIP was trying to push him as an up-and-coming horror star on the level of the aging Vincent Price (their marquee actor for that genre) but nothing much came of it. Though if you have this movie, Madhouse (the final film Price made for the studio), Sugar Hill and Doctor Phibes Rises Again on your resume, you've earned yourself a seat at the table at Horror Flick Valhalla.

The opening titles (red on a black screen in a scary-but-not-blood-dripping font) give way to the word VAMPIRE and a wolf's howl mere seconds into the film. It's trying way, way, way too hard and is unintentionally funnier than it is intentionally jarring. There's also a full moon shown, of course, peeking out from behind thick clouds at night, which is how you start your horror movie if you want the audience to know what it's getting in 1970 (which is four years before the genre underwent a seismic change courtesy of two movies--the major studio smash and Best Picture winner The Exorcist and the grindhouse smash The Texas Chain Saw Massacre). So even though this movie came out after the Hammer Studios wave had crested and receded, it's likely that viewers looking for a grindhouse thriller are going to be at least a little bit disappointed. But if you view it as a transitional fossil with characteristics of the Sixties "harmless thrill ride" type of horror movies while pointing the way towards the coming developments in the genre you'll probably find a lot to enjoy.

In lieu of a fog-shrouded moor or European castle at night, the movie starts out at a shipping dock in Los Angeles, where a crate is loaded off a cargo ship and onto the bed of an elderly pickup truck. The presence of a forklift and the rusted-out anti-glamor of the location show that even if the film's about a VAMPIRE it's one that will take place in the modern day and in America, rather than in Europeland. The gate on the back of the pickup truck isn't fastened (or even present), which made me think of Count Yorga holding really, really still every time the truck goes over a bump because he's afraid of getting bounced out onto the unforgiving pavement of the freeway. I bet Renfield's going to get a talking-to about safe working procedures once Yorga can get out of the coffin without bursting into flame.

There's also a narrator over the opening scenes explaining what a vampire is. Was the average moviegoer unaware of them in 1970? Did people really need an explanation that vampires could mesmerize people and see in the dark? Was there anyone who bought a ticket for Count Yorga, Vampire that didn't know about the necessity of hammering a wooden stake into a vampire's heart to kill it? It's something to play over the scenes of a truck driving with a coffin in the back, I guess, if nothing else. And hearing the narrator say "miasma of putrid decay" is pretty cool. Rob Zombie sampled that for something, I hope.

After some more rambling from the narrator (including a point where he corrects his verb tense because vampires still exist) there's that stock footage of a lightning bolt you've seen in a thousand movies followed by a scene where the newly-arrived Count Yorga holds a seance around the world's smallest round table. Donna, one of the people packed around the table, would like to get in touch with her late mother. Yorga tries to put everyone in the mood for talking to the dead and Paul, another guy at the table, fakes a snore and Michael, a third person out of the seven in the circle, isn't a believer in spirits and communication from beyond the grave.

Eventually everyone persuades Paul not to be an asshole while Donna tries to pierce the veil between the realms of the living and the dead and they go for a second try. Everyone says they believe in what the count is doing (and the seance looks pretty incongruous in the suburban parlor; there's even an electric lamp in the center of the table rather than a flickering candle. Yorga (I hope his first name is Steve, so he's Count Steve Yorga of the Budapest Yorgas) spouts out a lot of dialogue too florid for a prog-rock spoken word solo and Donna tries to get in touch with the spirit of her late mother. It's quite intense for a series of closeups of a couple actors and Robert Quarry emoting for the cheap seats offscreen and gets even more feverish with a musical sting, a diving camera move from the ceiling into Donna's face, and the actress screaming at the top of her lungs (in the Seventies style, which is much lower-pitched than the classic Fifties "actress saw a monster" shriek). The power goes out at the same time, of course.

Donna goes into a fit of hysterical screaming while someone goes looking for the fuse box in an attempt to restore a little order to the room. The phone's dead so nobody can all a medical doctor but the count says he can help; he uses hypnosis to get Donna to relax, forget the seance and come down from her screaming fit (if Yorga could also read lips, do kung-fu and was an Olympic-class archer, he'd be the protagonist of Operation Double 007). The count isn't just using hypnosis to calm Donna down, though; he's using telepathic powers to turn her into a thrall via the magic of a whispered voiceover. It's possible that Yorga set up the seance just to freak Donna out and use that as an excuse to get into her brain and make her his slave. There's a lot more that the count can do than he's revealing to the other people at the gathering--the power comes back on seconds after he's hypnotized Donna and the guy who went looking for the fusebox says he never found it.

Order restored, it's time to try and salvage something of the dinner party. Yorga has an upset stomach, unfortunately, and that means he hasn't had anything to eat all night and can't even partake of the post-restoration-of-normality brandy that everyone else is happy to go for. The count makes his excuses to Donna because he's got to leave and Robert Quarry gets to say "I believe I brought a cape," when his hostess goes for the coat closet. Since it's 1970 in Los Angeles, it's entirely possible that someone would wear a cape to a dinner party but Yorga looks a little bit too square for that in all honesty. Erica, another one of the guests, offers the count a ride back to his swingin' bachelor castle house in her boyfriend Paul's VW van (another collision between the contemporary and the ancient. And, if he got thick enough curtains, I bet the count could use one of those as a mobile coffin. Let the Renfield drive, sleep in the back, and raise less suspicion than if people realize you sleep in a casket.

Back at Donna's place, nobody will tell her what went down at the seance, purportedly because it would worry her. Not telling her probably doesn't do a hell of a lot for her state of mind either, but there you have it. She spaces out shortly after announcing that she's getting married to her boyfriend Michael in three weeks, just after Valentine's Day (January in Los Angeles looks like late Spring anywhere I'm used to living, so it's nice to have the season nailed down). Donna also explains that Count Yorga was her mother's boyfriend for a few weeks before she passed away, and that he couldn't bear the thought of Donna's mom being cremated so there was a regular burial instead. All of this is perfectly innocent conversation to all the characters (including the tidbit that the count was not at the funeral), but to the audience a whole lot of individual pieces of the narrative's jigsaw puzzle are dropping into place.

Over at Yorga's mansion, a dullwitted manservant opens the front gate for Paul and Erica's van. Brudah the caretaker has a snarling, angry Doberman on a leash but a single look from Yorga settles the dog down. Then it's a long drive through dark woods on a dirt road to get to the mansion (but the lighting crew from this movie should be beaten with a towel full of oranges for how little you can make out during that drive). The count invites Paul and Erica in for a drink. Paul says no; Erica tries to overrule him but he refuses to go inside. It's late, it's dark, the grounds are creepy and so was Brudah. The pair leave but their microbus gets stuck in a patch of deep mud that they didn't hit on the way in (and bother characters discuss this impossibility when they have some time to reflect). Paul shows himself to be a charming dick--emphasis on the dickishness with about half a century's worth of distance and social progress from this movie. Paul's attempt to MacGyver up a road surface with some broken-off tree branches fails to do anything and the pair is good and immobilized for the night.

Which means, after Erica decides that it's too scary to leave the van, that it's time to make love while stranded in a mud patch with a creepy Bulgarian manservant lurking around somewhere. I don't get it either. I was born in 1975 so I have no first-hand experience with the social mores of the Seventies (I don't honestly remember them). Maybe audiences would have bought it. Maybe it's just there to get a couple actors' shirts off and pad the running time a bit (but less than two minutes, which will allow crueler viewers to joke about Paul's stamina). When Paul gets out of the van for a two AM pee break he thinks he hears something--or someone--out in the night stalking the van. Later that night Erica takes a peek out the window and sees Count Yorga standing right outside (it's a quite cool reveal--not exactly a jump scare but one that shows how patient this movie's vampire is). Apparently he can't enter a vehicle without an invitation, I guess, which is a pretty cool update for vampiric myths. Paul jumps out to confront Yorga and gets beat down with a single hit and Erica gets herself drained, but not fatally.

She, like Donna, can't remember anything that happened the previous night. Paul only remembers an attacker and getting knocked out by the iron fist of his assailant (he suspects Brudah). Mike and Paul talk it over a bit, and Paul mentions that the mud that bogged his microbus down the previous night vanished completely by the morning. And Brudah said that the count left for the day, which would mean that he snuck past the stuck van and didn't offer to help or even talk to the people inside.

At her appointment, Dr. Hayes tells Donna that rare red meat is the prescription to help her with her current feelings of dizziness and fatigue--whatever happened to her the previous night left her with a couple of puncture marks on her throat and a nearly life-threatening blood loss. The doctor doesn't use the "V" word here, because he's a rational man and doesn't think of supernatural causes for his patient's out-of-nowhere case of pernicious anemia. An antibiotic shot and bed rest are the things he can think of, and honestly that's probably what someone would get now.

Back with Mike and Paul, they're starting to put a couple more pieces of the puzzle together (while out walking in a park and down a quiet street in the bright sunshine rather than poring over tomes in a dusty castle library). They realize that hypnotizing someone works best when they're relaxed, and Donna was far from relaxed when the count worked his will on her. Trying to phone Erica leads nowhere, which gets the pair of them worried enough to go to her apartment and see if she's all right. Well, she's on the mend (sort of), but at the cost of eating her pet cat. Mike calls the doctor for an emergency house call and transfusion (done manually with a really upsetting looking syringe). Erica's delirious and hysterical but her fever-dream ravings don't clue anyone in to what's going on at this point, but the audience knows that things are going to get much, much worse for her because her injuries might be fatal--eventually--but that won't end Yorga's influence on her.

Back at the count's mansion, he goes into his basement lair (all the really cool bachelor vampires have one) and looks over the two women sleeping deathlessly on marble slabs. There's fangs and cleavage on display and Yorga telepathically wakes them up, commanding them to kiss (this is one of those scenes that probably got trimmed down from the original softcore skin flick version). Rather abruptly the film switches back to Paul, Mike and Dr. Hayes in Erica's apartment, where the doctor informs the two men that another doctor ran a blood test on Erica and thinks she was bitten by an actual, actual, actual vampire.

Mike and Paul don't immediately decide this must be what happened, which is another plus for the screenplay. Dr. Hayes barely believes it's a possibility himself, but the other specialist is one of the best hematologists in the world. Then Hayes says it's just about impossible to prove something doesn't exist (which is true), so perhaps vampires are real (probably not so much). I remain unconvinced, which is why the vampire would be able to kill me if one set up shop in Ann Arbor and had a taste for diabetics with Type O-Negative. Hayes and the two men spitball a little bit about how to prove Count Yorga is a vampire and what to do if he is (going to the police is ruled out immediately because they'd just laugh and do nothing). Dr. Hayes says he's not convinced about the whole Yorga = Nosferatu thing yet, but he's willing to talk himself into it with enough evidence. And he's the one most on board with the theory out of the trio of amateur investigators. Dr. Hayes pointedly doesn't tell the two men what happens to people who were bitten by vampires before he leaves, but everyone in the audience knows it's bad news.

Back at Yorga's place he's staring out a window at a Movie Thunderstorm, reminding the audience that he's in this. Then he telepathically commands Erica to rise from her bed (wearing slinky pajamas because the filmmakers liked putting women in slinky pajamas) and open the window, whereupon the count appears and stalks towards her. He tells her that he can make her immortal (as one of his vampire brides) and bends down to her neck. All his teeth are pointy, which makes me wonder how he left only two puncture marks on Erica's throat the first time he attacked her. Some blood-smeared neck nibbling takes place now, with Erica obviously delighting in Yorga's attentions (this film was rated PG-13 on DVD; that rating didn't exist when it was originally released but it's probably the right choice for 2016). Paul goes upstairs to check on his girlfriend shortly after Yorga's arrival only to find her bed empty and the window open.

By the way, my friend Chad Plambeck (who runs Micro-Brewed Reviews, linked on the sidebar to the right) took an amazing photo at the Super Monster-Rama Drive-In movie event when they showed this flick a couple years back. Because I love you all, here it is:

That picture's cooler than the time one town over from the drive-in started their Labor Day fireworks an hour or so after nightfall and the movie audience got to see them going off over the screen when Vincent Price went into "kill everyone left in the cast" mode at the end of The Abominable Dr. Phibes. And by the time you read this it'll be too late to go to Monster-Rama 2016, but there's an April and September show in 2017 that you may well wish to keep your eyes peeled for. Ideally I will be there and be square.

Mike calls Dr. Hayes at home and tells the doctor that Paul's gone charging off to Count Yorga's mansion on his own, which in all likelihood will be a suicide mission. Hayes tells Mike to get Donna and go to his place, since she'll be safer in a group than by herself, especially with Yorga collecting brunettes. Dr. Hayes gets out of bed and gets dressed to go do whatever it is he's going to do, and his girlfriend Cleo says that vampires don't sound too far-fetched, with newspaper reports of a murdered and exsanguinated infant being found in a marsh near Los Angeles making her think that there could be one out there (and making Dr. Hayes realize that things are worse than he originally thought). When Hayes calls the police they tell him off and hang up on him; dozens of cranks call in every night to warn the police about vampire attacks and he's not funny or original.

Well, now that the characters and the audience know the cavalry isn't coming it's time to catch up with Paul as he opens the gates to Count Yorga's mansion and prepares to storm the front door all by his lonesome. He gets in through Yorga's unlocked front door just in time to hear someone steal his van out front, which means this rescue mission is going worse than even I expected it to. Moments after he gets inside the mansion Yorga chokes him out and Brudah snaps his spine just to be sure. The count tells his servant to get ready for more guests, which is smooth and understated. Just what one would expect from a debonair monster.

Dr. Hayes, Mike and Donna arrive and the doctor's plan is actually pretty brilliant, all things considered:  They're treating their mission more or less as if they were crashing a dinner party:  If they can keep the count talking till sunrise they can destroy him just by breaking a window. All it will take is some effort from the trio and they'll be able to destroy him without any undue risk. Donna invites the group into Yorga's pad and everyone gets to admire the Doctor Strange bathrobe that Yorga's rocking in this scene.

This plan goes awry about as badly as it can:  Yorga gets tipped off that Dr. Hayes and Mike know what he truly is, and it probably was a mistake for Dr. Hayes to mention that he's a hematologist (he couldn't have lied and said he was an ear, nose and throat specialist?). There's also some darkly funny stilted conversation between all the various men about Yorga's mystical abilities and country of origin--again, I think it's genuinely to this movie's credit that the "just keep the guy talking for a few hours" plan fails utterly and that Dr. Hayes thought it up on the fly. It's quietly brilliant, in that the group didn't stop off at a hardware store for mallets and stakes before going to the mansion. It's exactly the kind of unworkable doomed idea that a smart person would come up with on the spur of the moment. Hayes dooms his plan (and himself, if Yorga and Brudah have anything to say about it) by tipping his hand awkwardly and obviously and the count says they're certainly going to meet again.

Back at Michael's pad, the two surviving men in the investigation team are drinking huge mugs full of coffee and talking about how they're going to kill Count Yorga. Mike's just not feeling it, and the doctor's "don't worry, the body will disintegrate into ashes when he kill him so there won't be any forensic evidence to tie us to the murder" <word> doesn't raise Mike's confidence level a single angstrom. To be fair, that's a hell of a slender thread to hold all your hopes. Through the power of yelling, the doctor convinces Mike that there's only one way to save Donna and Erica from a centuries-long term of service as Count Yorga's undead brides (he has several of them, which means he's a polygamist and two of them will be mother and daughter, which means ewwww). The plan is for both men to get some sleep, meet up at the doctor's office and go back to Yorga's mansion to kill him while he's vulnerable.

What neither man figures on happening is another quietly genius element of the story:  The hypnotized Donna turns off Mike's alarm clock thanks to Yorga's long-distance telepathic command and the would-be hero oversleeps, meaning that he and Dr. Hayes have to charge towards Yorga's mansion later than they wanted to (waiting until nightfall would be suicidal--they'd have no chance whatsoever against Yorga at full power and he knows where to find them). For all his talk of how his adrenaline was going to keep him going, Hayes conks out in his office chair after reading up on vampires for several hours as well. Nice going, protagonists. In a nod to the secular end of the Sixties, neither Mike nor Dr. Hayes owns a crucifix, so they'll have to improvise those just like they're improvising stakes by smashing a chair and snapping a broom handle.

Donna gets to Yorga's mansion while the sun is up and the mute, brutish and ugly Brudah has his way with her before she can join the count's harem in a sequence that frankly adds nothing to the film other than a little bit of titillation for the men in the audience that would like to imagine having a pretty young woman helpless underneath them because of their physical strength rather than vampire mind-control powers.

Night has fallen by the time the two men get to the mansion and both of them realize the odds of survival are low and the ones for success are lower still. Dr. Hayes has no idea if their crucifixes are going to do anything or not, and unfortunately the Count isn't likely to grant them a do-over if he's not affected. Brudah confesses to the Count that he raped Donna and probably only escapes summary execution because Yorga needs him as backup while Mike and Hayes are wandering around his mansion. Yorga finds the doctor sneaking around outside and invites him in for a more convenient murdering location while Mike finds the vampire's coffin and confirms that it's empty. Like a cat toying with a mouse, Yorga has a conversation with the doctor--possibly the first in decades where he gets to admit what he truly is to an outsider not under his control.

Yorga guides the doctor down to his basement and displays the sleeping brides on their marble slabs, then confesses that Donna's going to be transformed into his fourth concubine and that Paul was killed when he showed up the night before. Thankfully the crucifix keeps Yorga at bay, more or less, but the vampire wakes his brides up with a telepathic summons--even if he can't directly take Dr. Hayes out of the picture his harem can. Mike, running to the rescue, trips over Paul's body in a tunnel and decides to get his own doomed last stand out of the way. Brudah might be big and strong but he's still mortal and gets fatally shanked while trying to strangle the last living protagonist.

While Mike discovers Dr. Hayes dying on the cellar floor, Count Yorga is upstairs introducing Donna to her mother (I'm glad that we don't get to hear that conversation, honestly). Mike can't quite bring himself to kill the fully vampiric Erica and runs up to the second floor where he confronts Yorga (who sacrifices Donna's mother in an attempt to get away). It's at least partially luck that puts the count on the business end of the broom-handle stake that Michael thrust at him, but as I said while playing Warhammer Fantasy Battle, I'll take lucky if I can't be good.

Michael tells Donna it's time for them to leave and guides her away from the bodies staked on the floor. And, true to Dr. Hayes' theory, the late Count Yorga has withered away into ash (in the shape of a body, complete with facial features, which looks boss as hell). But unfortunately two of Yorga's brides are still active (I can't say "alive"), and Donna herself is a threat that the movie's last hero didn't consider until the freeze-framed attack that ends the film (save the narrator returning for a laugh at the audience's expense for thinking vampires were just superstition).

Well, dang. This is one of those films that occupies an important and pivotal spot in the history of the genre--it's got the blood and cleavage of the Hammer Studios films of the previous decade and a half but pinched the "nobody gets out alive" ending from the 1968 landmark Night of the Living Dead. It treats vampirism as dark and romantic (for a creepy, early-Seventies value of "romance") six years before Anne Rice published her claim to fame. It looks back to the past, taking everything it needs from decades of vampires in film going back to the Thirties while simultaneously showing where things were going to go for half a century more. Not too shabby for an AIP flick that was originally going to be a showcase for T&A.

"I thought you were reviewing C.H.U.D. this year. I got dressed up to do a C.H.U.D. joke, and you need to do a better job of letting me know what your schedule is going to be."


  1. I remain unconvinced, which is why the vampire would be able to kill me if one set up shop in Ann Arbor and had a taste for diabetics with Type O-Negative.

    I read a short story some years ago about a vampire whose penchant for diabetics ended up landing him in the dentist's chair with a bad fang.

    Fortunately, my AB-positive is of little interest to haemivorous revenants.

  2. Oh, sure, but if you find one with a taste for rarer indulgences you might be in trouble.