A look at the wild 1971 American vampire sequel
As the 1960s wound down and young audiences began hungering for more explicit horror entertainment, indie genre imprint American International Pictures (AIP) found some substantial success with director Bob Kelljan’s low-budget, Robert Quarry-starring 1970 shocker COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (filmed as a softcore flick called THE LOVES OF COUNT IORGA, VAMPIRE but softened and tweaked in the marketing stage when it was proved that no one could bloody-well read the title!). Sam Arkoff from AIP was so thrilled with Quarry’s presence on screen that he signed the elegant character actor to a contract. The idea was to groom him as the successor to their aging creepy flick cash-cow Vincent Price and build a series of horror films around his persona. But before they could put their newfangled leading man to work, Quarry stepped out with director Ray Danton to make another film independently and with some of his own cash called DEATHMASTER, a sort of amalgam of Yorga and the then topical Manson death cult tabloid bait that was still shocking the nation. That film, in which Quarry stars as a charismatic new age vampire named Khorda (not Yorga, Khorda!) was a little bit too close to AIP’s intended Yorga franchise plans (Quarry even wore the same custom fangs made for him for COUNT YORGA) and, reportedly none too pleased, Arkoff picked up the rights to DEATHMASTER, buried it, and immediately pushed Quarry into production on Kelljan’s sequel, THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA.
I mention this bit of back-story because AIP then opted to put the tagline “The DEATHMASTER is back from beyond the grave!”on the theatrical poster for THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA which was, well, kind of a dick move and not the best way to start a newly-minted business relationship.
Regardless of whatever tensions boiled behind the scenes, however, 1971’s THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA is in almost every way, a superior picture. More of a companion film-cum-remake of the first movie rather than a true sequel (though actor Roger Perry does return as a raving vamp-killer), THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA sees Quarry back in his cape, gliding around the peripherals of a looming California orphanage, slowly amassing a harem of feral vampire women. When his bloodlust is sated, Yorga slips easily back into the role of gentleman aristocrat and, under the guise of a wealthy philanthropist, insinuates himself into the orphanage, where he both charms and falls under the spell of a beautiful teacher (played by the equally beautiful Mariette Hartley, who some readers might remember from the classic THE TWILIGHT ZONE episode “The Long Morrow”). As Yorga gently courts the increasingly-disoriented schoolmarm, his swell of shambling vamps continues to grow and his intent to spread his parasitic virus proceeds as planned.
Kelljan would also go on to direct the flawed but fascinating BLACULA sequel SCREAM BLACULA, SCREAM and much of the imagery he brought to that skin-crawler are evident here, including an almost European-informed insistence of creating a dark, dreamy and unbearably-brooding atmosphere. Some contemporary viewers may be turned off by the film’s languid pacing, but I adore it. It’s slow, strange, goes off on weird tangents and is conversational without being choked with masturbatory exposition. Keljan’s script, co-written by Yvonne Wilder, is something of a marvel; literate, witty and, on occasion, blackly humorous (and in the climax, that features a young Craig T. Nelson as a bumbling cop, often broadly humorous).
It’s also scary as all-get-out. No word of a lie, THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA is one the creepiest vampire films I’ve ever seen. Outside of the steely blue-eyed Quarry’s imposing, soft spoken and terrifying presence, the female vampires in RETURN are some of the most alarming ever put on screen. We first see them extending their newly re-birthed arms from the earth and climbing out of their graves, shambling towards their prey like a pack of George A. Romero’s ghouls (this was no doubt intentional as NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was at this point seen as a revolutionary horror film) and later, when in the thralls of blood-ecstasy, they scream and sprint down hallways in shivery slow-motion (as does Quarry), while the sound design team works overtime to amplify their hisses and guttural, animal noises (in fact, the vampire women and the entire love story angle of the film reminds me of devices and aesthetics later employed in the fine Spanish Paul Naschy film COUNT DRACULA’S GREAT LOVE, though I have no idea if Naschy was influenced by this picture). These ghastly and plentiful vampire attacks are the stuff of nightmares to be sure and they are housed in a film that is alive with Gothic dread and cynical, post-’60s doom. Even 46 years later, THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA is not a film to watched alone.