An appreciation of Robert Quarry’s wonderful 1972 vampire film
From its opening scenes of southern California tranquility and the flute-accompanied visual of a coffin washing to shore, Ray Danton’s 1972 vampire cult shocker The Deathmaster makes its mission clear and that is to bring a kind of European poetry and intelligent grace to the contemporary American drive in trash flick. And it does all of this and more besides. And yet so few ardent strange cinema fans talk about it. Why is that?
The Deathmaster (or, as the title appears on screen, simply Deathmaster) is a mesmerizing and totally unique horror movie, one that capitalizes on both the shock in the wake of the well-publicized Manson murders and the sudden fame of character actor Robert Quarry, who had found a jolt of popularity due to American International Pictures’ 1970 chiller Count Yorga, Vampire. That film featured Quarry as a suave, articulate aristocratic vampire who brings a wave of death to a So-Cal suburb and was filmed by director Bob Kelljan as The Loves of Count Iorga and was intended to be a sex film. Quarry balked and banging and the sex wasn’t shot and, since Yorga looked better on a poster, the title was changed too, as it appeared everyone was saying “Yorga” anyway (the original MGM DVD had the original title on the print).
After the success of Count Yorga, Quarry was being groomed to be the mature successor to their mainstay star, Vincent Price. But Quarry went rogue and set up The Deathmaster in 1970 with actor-turned-director Danton (The Psychic Killer) directing, Quarry executive producing and starring in a role that was like a death-cult hippie generation re-vamp (ha!) of his Yorga character. But AIP was not pleased. When Roger Corman did the same thing in 1962 and broke away from AIP, teaming with Pathe to make the Poe film The Premature Burial, AIP honchos Sam Arkoff and James Nicholson were so cheesed that they ended up buying Pathe and forcing Corman back to work for them anyway. So it goes with The Deathmaster. AIP bought the film from the original distributor and essentially shelved it. They had Quarry on contract and they jumped into making an authentic sequel, 1971’s The Return of Count Yorga and they even had the cheek to steal The Deathmaster‘s title for that film’s theatrical poster tagline!
Anyway, The Deathmaster eventually did receive a brief theatrical bow in 1972 with little to no marketing push behind it. It was quickly licensed for TV which is where many people — myself included — saw the movie, late at night. Quarry’s stint at the flailing AIP was short-lived and The Deathmaster faded away. And it should not have done so.
Because The Deathmaster is beautiful, arch, lyrical and weird and Quarry is simply amazing in it. Here, he plays a long-haired bearded guru named Khorda who is called forth from the sea by his mute manservant (LaSesne Hilton) and makes his way to a commune of pot-baked hippies looking for “the answer.” Khorda immediately goes to work turning the kids into his flock, charming them, dazzling them with long, metaphysical pontifications on life, death, God and the nature of the universe and time. He teaches them to purify their bodies and to stop using drugs and to eat only good food. They fall at his feet, all save for the cynical and scrappy Pico (Bill Ewing) who suspects something is up. And he’s right, it is. Soon Khorda reveals his true nature, that of a manipulative and thoroughly evil vampire looking to build a coven and bring death and plague to the land.
The Deathmaster is unlike anything else. Quarry is incredible, with his ice blue eyes and piercing gaze and mouthful of razor sharp fangs (the same ones he would wear in both Yorga pictures) and elegant way of making even the pithiest dialogue feel like vintage Shakespearean sonnets. The rest of the cast is weird and cool with John Fiedler – the voice of Disney’s Piglet from Winnie the Pooh – miscast but effectively odd as Pico’s elder pal and fellow vampire hunter. The “Monster Mash” rocker Bobby “Boris” Pickett is in the movie too and even warbles a tune at one point. And both the mansion where the hippies hang out and the eerie catacombs beneath it add imposing and surreal production value. Danton also knows how to exploit the beauty and sensuality of the California coast and weave it into the fabric of a horror film. And like the Yorga movies, the end is also supremely nihilistic and reminds me somewhat of the final act of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.
The Deathmaster languished in obscurity for decades until, over a decade ago, cult filmmaker Fred Olen Ray found a 35mm negative and, seeing as he was both a fan of the film and a dear friend of Quarry’s, he released it via his Retromedia DVD imprint in a feature packed special edition complete with an unforgettable Quarry/Olen Ray commentary.
If you think you’ve seen it all and still haven’t seen The Deathmaster it’s high time you rectified that unfortunate issue immediately…