Written by: Bob Kelljan, Yvonne Wilder (screenplay)
Directed by: Bob Kelljan
Starring: Robert Quarry, Mariette Hartley, and Roger Perry
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"Dr Baldwin, this is Count Yorga. You are going to die. You are going to die a most horrible death!"
That Count Yorga, Vampire ever spawned a sequel at all is sort of interesting. If I’m being honest, AIP’s crack at introducing its own vampire lore isn’t the most inspired. Essentially just a retread of Dracula set in the 1970s (and without the camp Hammer would deliver with the same concept a few years later), Count Yorga has little bite outside of Robert Quarry’s charismatic turn as the title character. Apparently, he made just enough of an impression for AIP to give it another shot with The Return of Count Yorga, a film that feels less like a sequel and more like a do-over.
And by “do-over,” I mean that the general outlook might as well be “first movie? What first movie?” Despite being left as a pile of ash and guts when we last saw him, Count Yorga has recovered nicely and taken residence in an abandoned manor. By night, his coven of brides rise from their graves to roam the nearby woods, treading dangerously close to a nearby orphanage. Sensing an opportunity to feast, the Count attends a costume party, where he meets Cynthia (Mariette Hartley), a teacher who catches his eye—and perhaps even his heart. Feeling love for perhaps the first time in his life, Yorga decides that Cynthia must be his. Unfortunately for her, his idea of courtship involves him and his wives raiding the orphanage and killing most of her associates before throwing Cynthia over his shoulder and essentially holding her prisoner.
Freed from the burden of simply retracing Dracula’s steps, Count Yorga comes into his own here. Even if Return is hardly the most invigorating take on vampires (how many of these things feature a bloodsucker pining over some girl?), it at least goes all-in with Yorga’s fiendishness. Not only does he kidnap a woman and hypnotize her into believing she’s recovering from a car accident, but he also convinces poor little Tommy into doing his bidding, a fate that transforms an innocent child into a devious little shit whose tasks range from covering the Count’s ass with lies to straight-up homicide. Also, it turns out that Yorga counsels with a witch living in the bowels of his mansion who warns him that his love for Cynthia will be his undoing. Naturally, he will have none of it.
Suffice it to say, Count Yorga is a real bastard in this one. Quarry’s smarmy, barely-concealed disdain for, well, just about everything around him was one of the few things worth retaining from the first film, and he’s just as delightful here—if not more so. From the moment he strolls into the costume party insisting he’s not actually in costume (plus, just check out the sneer he has when a contest winner is dressed up as Dracula), he barely conceals his bastardy. His contempt is often palpable: not only is he better than you—he knows he’s better than you and wants you to know it. Even when his thinly-veiled ruse is finally sniffed out, he goes into full DGAF mode. Just as he did in the original, Quarry unleashes a blood-curdling cackle that echoes throughout his mansion. Maybe this is heretical, but Quarry’s climactic performance here is as chilling as his more famous bloodsucking companions, including Lee and Lugosi. While his Yorga manages to be quite indelible throughout, Quarry truly leaves his mark with this deranged, ferocious turn.
Of course, one could say the same about the first film as well, which only occasionally sparks to life whenever Quarry is let loose to prey upon his victims. The good news with Return is that it exhibits a pulse more often, even if its structure is a tad repetitive and relies on characters stumbling over to investigate Yorga’s house and meeting with a grisly fate. Given that several characters are under his spell, the style is appropriately hazy and hallucinatory; cinematographer Bill Butler (well on his way to becoming one of the best shooters of all-time) employs a bevy of fish-eye lenses and canted angles to heighten the unreal atmosphere of the Yorga estate. Striking images abound, from Yorga’s zombie brides emerging from the forest to Tommy ominously skulking in the distance as a fresh corpse rests in the foreground.
But for all its sinister plots and macabre imagery, The Return of Count Yorga manages to be playful enough. Just about everyone is skeptical about the growing possibility that Yorga is, in fact, a vampire, including the cops (Craig T. Nelson makes his screen debut as an especially incredulous detective), and, again—it’s not like he’s even trying to hide it. Hell, he and his brutish minion watch Vampire Lovers on TV at one point, a sort of wry acknowledgment of the silliness of it all. Where the original Yorga more or less takes itself seriously, this one isn’t afraid to have a little fun. I mean, Yorga manipulates a priest into wandering into quicksand, and the poor bastard can only hold his cross up in defiance as the Count smugly looks on. And this isn’t to mention the ending, which is bleak to the point of absurdity: many movies end with the hint that the monster hasn’t truly been vanquished. Few accomplish it with the fiendish aplomb of The Return of Count Yorga.
Nothing about this ending would lead you to believe AIP was plotting another sequel, one that would have transplanted Yorga to the sewers of L.A., where he would have commanded an army of homeless people. Apparently, however, that was the plan that never materialized, meaning Yorga never became a franchise icon for the 70s. As such, I’m not quite sure Quarry himself ever quite ascended to the same level as other horror figures, a disappointing turn since he looked poise to carry the torch from the likes of Price, Cushing, and Lee (one sees this practically occurring on-screen in Madhouse, probably the best movie Quarry did at AIP). His second turn as Count Yorga offers a glimpse into what may have been on multiple levels—not only is it a frustrating tease of what could have been a great character, but it also hints at Quarry’s potential as a horror icon that never came to pass.
The Return of Count Yorga recently debuted on Blu-ray courtesy of Scream Factory. The disc features an audio commentary with historian Steve Haberman and actor Randy De Luca, a theatrical trailer, TV & radio spots, a photo gallery, and reversible artwork.
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