Released within just over a year of each other, Count Yorga, Vampire in June 1970 and The Return of Count Yorga in August 1971, seen fifty years later the two films act as a time capsule of the era in which they were created as low-budget films often do, tied to the past and looking to an uncertain future, anxiety and uncertainty manifested in the form of the titular Bulgarian mystic out of place in the modern world.
Both films directed by Bob Kelljan who two years later would make Scream Blacula Scream but whose later career until his early death in 1982 at only fifty-two would mainly be in episodic television, the first, also known as The Loves of Count Iorga, Vampire, a spelling which slips into how the name is pronounced by some characters, is set in the wealthier sections of contemporary Los Angeles.
An opening narration providing a history of vampires and superstition which considers whether such things are more difficult to believe in the enlightened days of the seventies, Count Yorga (Dr. Phibes Rises Again’s Robert Quarry) is introduced as a medium performing a séance to contact the recently deceased and much missed mother of Donna (Donna Anders), itself an act of belief and credulity in the supernatural.
Susceptible, vulnerable and needy, the Count mesmerises Donna who become hysterical, necessitating that he hypnotise her to calm her; her friends Erica and Paul (Judith Lang and Michael Murphy) driving the Count home, afterwards their van becomes stuck in the mud and during the night they are attacked, Erica’s behaviour changing afterwards as she is diagnosed with a blood disorder.
Much of Count Yorga, Vampire mirroring the plot of Dracula but placed in a radically different context, what works in the nineteenth century flounders in the twentieth, not least because despite his need for clandestine activity Count Yorga draws conspicuous attention to himself through his behaviour and archaic manner of dress as the film trawls through clichés at the pace of an arthritic donkey.
The first film written by Kelljan and originally proposed as soft porn flick, The Return of Count Yorga was co-written with Yvonne Wilder with Quarry returning in the title role and also Roger Perry (Captain John Christopher of Star Trek’s Tomorrow is Yesterday) who played medical doctor Jim Hayes in the first now appearing as psychiatrist David Baldwin, engaged to Cynthia Nelson (Mariette Hartley, Zarabeth in Star Trek’s All Our Yesterdays) who is a teacher at the orphanage targeted by the inexplicably risen Count Yorga.
The school hosting a fancy dress competition where only the adults participate, seemingly only to make Yorga seem less out of place, with his harem of vampiric brides in their satin nightgowns prowling the rambling mansion and Cynthia’s repressed memories the sequel is another exercise in people walking into danger and getting bitten with very little to speak of in the way of plot; while the police attend, including an early supporting role for Poltergeist’s Craig T Nelson, they are of little use other than as snack food.
Like Hammer’s Dracula A.D. 1972, the Count Yorga films suffer from a lack of nerve or imagination, placing a character out of time in a modern context then proceeding as if it is nothing out of the ordinary, an incongruity so consciously ignored it becomes ridiculous; the characters express disbelief that a vampire could exist yet blunder on regardless, and despite presumably having lived through all these decades of change Yorga has not learned to minimise his public profile or employ useful servants, the deformed mute handyman Brudda (Edward Walsh) hardly unobtrusive.
Yet the films are not without their fans; presented on Blu-ray from 4K scans of the original 35mm camera negatives, Arrow’s Count Yorga Collection offers a plethora of supporting features, with Frank Darabont recalling how at eleven years old the first was “the scariest movie I had ever seen,” putting horror in the context of his own neighbourhood, something The Night Stalker would emulate to great success in 1972, while other critics offer similar glowing appreciations.
Each film carrying two commentary tracks, the first film is covered by Tim Lucas, the second by Stephen R Bissette, focused on production details, and both are visited by David Del Valle and C Courtney Joiner who enthusiastically provide wider context, but most interesting are David Huckvale’s deconstruction of Bill Marx’s Bartok and Stravinsky influenced score and Maitland McDonagh’s consideration of gender roles in vampire films and Count Yorga as a product of America’s disillusionment at the end of the sixties as the optimism of the counter-culture gave way to cold cynicism.