On Sunday, December 5, the American Cinematheque will present a double bill of campy cult classics, COUNT YORGA: VAMPIRE (1970) and its sequel THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA (1971). Actor Robert Quarry, who starred as Yorga, will answer questions from the audience in between the films. The event takes place at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, starting at 5:00pm.
If you have never seen the films, you really should not miss this opportunity to experience them on the big screen. Even if you have seen them, it is worth your while to take the opportunity to see Quarry in person. The actor is a lively speaker, full of acerbic wit and sarcastic put-downs (not unlike Yorga, in a way), and he has many great stories to tell about his brief moment as a “horror star” during the early 1970s.
For those of you who do not already know, the first YORGA was conceived as a softcore porn movie but morphed into a camp horror film during development — the idea being that audiences would laugh at a traditional vampire cliches (a la the cape and tuxedo) when viewed in a modern day setting, so why not beat the audience to the punch line by inviting them to laugh?
In this regard the filmmakers were greatly aided by Quarry, who brought a marvelously condescending attitude to his role. The low-budget film turned a profit when it was picked up for distribution by American International Pictures, the company that produced and released most of Vincent Price’s horror movies during the 1960s and 1970s. Quarry was put under contract by AIP, which produced the YORGA sequel, then cast Quarry opposite Price in two films: DR PHIBES RISES AGAIN (1972) and MADHOUSE (1974).
The idea at American International Pictures was that Quarry would eventually replace Price, a veteran star whose salary demands were exceeding what the relatively low-budget company could afford. Unfortunately for Quarry, the idea never panned out. The film industry was changing, withe low-budget horror films being pushed out of the market place by big-budget efforts like THE EXORCIST, which did not depend on star actors associated with the genre.
Also, AIP was going through internal upheavels that prevented them from adjusting to the new realities of the film business. Most of the creative team were leaving for other pastures, and comany executive Samuel Z. Arkoff decided to move into blaxploitation films. Quarry’s last film for the company was seldom-seen SUGAR HILL, in which he plays a white gangster trying to wrest control of a nightclub from its black female owner. She turns the tables by using voodoo and zombies to kill off his henchmen.
It’s too bad Quarry never made it big as a horror star. As an actor in his prime, he had an interesting persona that foreshadowed a common figure seen in horror films today: the wisecracking monster. We think of this phenomenon as something that started in the 1980s with Freddy Krueger and then continued with his many imitators (including the infamous smart-alec killer doll most recently seen in SEED OF CHUCKY), but Count Yorga was there first, his ill-concealed disdain for the mere mortal around him expressed in a series of dry one-liners.
Just to sight an example from the second film: At a costume party (where Yorga loses the “most realistic costume” award to someone in a cheasy vampire outfit), the Count stairs in distaste as a long-haired musician banging away on a piano. Noting the sour expression on the Count’s face, the piantist asks, “Don’t you like this kind of music?” To which Yorga replies, “Only when it’s played well.”
To be fair, the Yorga films are inexpensive efforts, made at a time when a low budget was even more obvious than it is today (when improved film stock makes it easier to make a film look halfway decent without a lot of expensive lighting equipement). They are exploitation flicks, first and foremost, but thanks to Quarry they rise above the exploitation label, earning a small place in the pantheon of cult movies.