‘What was the point of making Erica vomit?’
‘How would you like to wake up knowing you had parts of a cat in your stomach?’
Even Robert Quarry admitted his signature horror character Count Yorga was Dracula by another name: a cloaked aristocrat from Eastern Europe, who comes to the modern world (here, Los Angeles) to prey on a small circle of friends. This Count is among the last of the many Dracula knockoff Counts (Mora, Lavud, Sinestre and von Krolock in Mark of the Vampire, El Vampiro, Devils of Darkness and Dance of the Vampires) who were more commonplace when Universal and then Hammer had active Dracula franchises in production and inclined to take legal action to secure their rights. However, along with Jonathan Frid’s Barnabas Collins on Dark Shadows – the first major screen vampire not to be just a knockoff of Dracula (or, for women, Carmilla) – and William Marshall as Mamuwalde in Blacula, Count Yorga is also greatly responsible for shaking the vampire genre up in the early 1970s.
Initially conceived as a softcore sex film – current release versions tend to have the original title card The Loves of Count Iorga Vampire – it was reworked mid-production as a horror film on the advice of star Quarry. A few trace elements of the smut version exist – there are a few surplus female characters with nothing much to do who would probably have had nude sex scenes, while Count Yorga’s underground lair features a voyeur’s throne from which he could have watched the orgiastic activities of his brides and their victims which now aren’t a feature of the film. A sole roughie element is an implied rape scene, which takes place in a fade-out between scenes. An AIP pickup, Count Yorga Vampire was a big hit, and probably inspired Hammer Films to bring their Dracula into the present day in Dracula AD 1972. It also forged a template for Blacula (thanks to AIP reusing footage, you can glimpse Yorga’s minion collecting Blacula’s coffin from the LA docks in the first Blacula film), The Velvet Vampire (a Californian Carmilla wannabe), The Night Stalker, Grave of the Vampire, Vampire, Fright Night and even ‘Salem’s Lot (possibly also Love at First Bite). Indeed, the trend mushroomed (certainly spurred by the high profile of Charles Manson as a hippie murder guru) and other classic creatures got paisley shirt ‘hey man’ make-overs in the likes of Werewolves on Wheels, Dr Frankenstein on Campus, Horror High, The Boy Who Cried Werewolf and Simon – King of the Witches. Count Yorga and his imitators are old-fashioned yet self-aware vampires who come to modern America but insist on wearing cloaks or other vampire-associated items (Yorga has one of those medallions Bela Lugosi made part of the Dracula costume) and almost dare ordinary folks to call them out as what they are. There’s new agey business with Yorga posing as a spiritualist medium helping the heroine (Donna Anders) get in contact with her late mother, whom he has turned into a vampire. Porn starlet Marsha Jordan seems the same age as her screen daughter – though maybe she got younger when she rose from the dead. Copping the ending of Dance of the Vampires, Count Yorga climaxes with a flurry of vampire-fighting action and an apparent escape only for the heroine to reveal her newly-sprouted fangs and pounce in a much-imitated shock punchline.
Iorga/Yorga was named after Romanian historian and politician Nicolae Iorga, though he’s supposed to be Bulgarian. Quarry plays the Count without accent but with steely-eyed, underplayed superiority and malice, mostly appearing as a smooth, fussily-dressed, slightly camp presence but sometimes snarling with a mouthful of London After Midnight fangs. He’s an underplayed nasty piece of work, which is a distinctive take on the king vampire stereotype – in the sequel, The Return of Count Yorga, he gets jokes and love interest, but still comes across as faintly repulsive even when he’s not in fanged and feral attack mode (this is an early instance of the convention of vampires becoming more bestial and sporting monster make-up when in the grips of bloodlust). Writer-director Bob Kelljan stages moments that were astonishingly horrible for 1970 – one of Yorga’s victims (Judith Lang) is found gnawing the innards of her housecat – and stresses physical action over atmosphere. It’s a rough-round-the-edges low-budget production, though slicker than the sex film it might have been (cf: Sex and the Single Vampire, Dracula the Dirty Old Man) – the odd muffed line (‘You’re really not a very good dinner guest – you haven’t touched a parcel of food’) is left in the final cut. There’s crude makeup for Yorga’s goonish servant Brudah (Edward Walsh) and a strange vampire disintegration effect whereby a staked Yorga turns into a pile of sand with a crumbling face. Producer/co-star Michael Macready was the son of veteran character actor George Macready, who provides a voice-over introduction.