Bloody Good Show: Robert Quarry as COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (AIP 1970)

Robert Quarry’s screen career wasn’t really going anywhere by 1970. He had a good part in 1956’s soapy noir A KISS BEFORE DYING , but mostly he was relegated to uncredited bits in movies and guest shots on episodic TV. Quarry kept busy on the stage, until being approached by producer/actor Michael Macready to star in THE LOVES OF COUNT IORGA, originally envisioned as a soft core porn flick with horror elements. The actor said he would accept the job but only if it were turned into a straight modern-day vampire tale, and thus was born COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE, launching Quarry into a new phase as a 70’s horror movie icon.

The plot is an updated version of Stoker’s DRACULA, with a few changes. Here, the Bulgarian-born Count Yorga is a recent transplant to California, and we first meet him conducting a séance on behalf of Donna, whose late mother was involved with the alleged psychic. Boyfriend Mike and pals Paul and Erica  are along for support, disbelievers all, until strange occurrences cause Donna to get hysterical. While Yorga tries to calm her, unbeknownst to the rest, he uses his hypnotic mind powers for future control.

“Mmmm… Tender Vittles!”

Paul and Erica drive the Count back to his eerie estate, where they’re greeted by Brudah, Yorga’s brutish manservant. Their VW microbus gets stuck in mud on the return, so they camp for the night, when Yorga, fangs bared, strikes! Having no memory of what happened, Erica is taken to Dr. Jim Hayes (and his ubiquitous cigarette!), who’s at a loss to explain her severe blood loss. After a transfusion, Paul and Michael check up on Erica, who’s supposed to be resting at home but is found eating her cat!! Blood tests convince Jim that Erica has been bitten by a vampire, and the men travel to Yorga’s abode, trying to keep him awake until the sun rises. But the ancient bloodsucker is far too intelligent for them. When Donna mysteriously disappears, Paul and the doc go vampire hunting, resulting in a carnage-filled slaughterhouse of an ending with a twist!

American-International’s entry into the gore sweepstakes isn’t as bloody as a Herschell Gordon Lewis epic, but it manages to shock the viewer with its brutality. Quarry is both fearsome and sophisticated as Count Yorga, his presence resembling an American Christopher Lee, and after years of toiling at his craft he became a ‘B’ horror star. AIP wanted him to be the next Vincent Price, whose contract was soon to expire, and cast him in THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA, another blood-splattered hit. He was teamed with Price for DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN , playing the immortal Darius Biederbeck, rival of Phibes in his quest for the River of Life. The two didn’t get along; at one point during filming, Quarry burst into song. “Bet you didn’t know I could sing”, said the actor, to which the sarcastic Price retorted, “Well, I knew you couldn’t act”!

Be that as it may, Quarry was again paired with Price (along with Hammer legend Peter Cushing) for MADHOUSE. He starred in DEATHMASTER as the Mansonesque leader of a hippie vampire cult, and played a gangster in the Blaxploitation/voodoo thriller SUGAR HILL . Quarry was riding high when horror film tastes changed, and his career was curtailed once again. A hit-and-run accident in 1980, followed shortly by a street mugging, kept him offscreen for almost ten years, until being rediscovered by cult filmmaker/superfan Fred Olen Ray, who cast Quarry in many of his low-budget, direct-to-video films, with titles like CYCLONE, BEVERLY HILLS VAMP, and TEENAGE EXORCIST. Robert Quarry moved into the Motion Picture and Television Country Home, where he spent much time giving interviews and answering fan mail, until his death in 2009 at age 83.

“Man, I sure could use a cigarette!”

Among the rest of the cast, Michael Murphy (Paul) would go on to do NASHVILLE, AN UNMARRIED WOMAN, MANHATTAN, and the HBO series TANNER. Roger Perry (smoking Dr. Jim) was a good actor who never quite made it out of the ‘B’ category himself; he did a ton of TV, including regular roles on HARRIGAN AND SON (with Pat O’Brien), THE FACTS OF LIFE, and FALCON CREST. Donna Anders (Donna) appeared in WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS . Michael Macready’s father, the great character actor George Macready , provides the chilling opening and closing narration.  Director Bob Kelljan was an AIP mainstay, acting and/or directing in many of their films, followed by a long run as a TV director.

“Ready for some HLA, girls?”

There’s evidence of what COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE could have turned out to be through the film: a scene where Yorga, sitting in his basement throne room, watches his lusty vampire babes engage in some HLA (that’s Hot Lesbian Action!); Donna is attacked by Brudah, and we fade to black just before the rape occurs; Dr. Jim’s busty receptionist’s part was trimmed, but when she pops up in his bed we know they’ve been doing more than working overtime! Thanks to the star, things were cleaned up a bit, and the result was a surprise hit for both AIP and Robert Quarry, last of the great movie vampires, for which genre fans can be forever grateful.

This post is part of The Great Villain Blogathon, hosted by Shadows and Satin , Speakeasy , and Silver Screenings . Check out the other posts and join in on the devilish fun!  

Halloween Havoc!: SUGAR HILL (AIP 1974)

The worlds of Horror and Blaxploitation intersected frequently during the 70’s, beginning with American-International’s BLACULA . The vampire tale spawned a subgenre of black oriented riffs on familiar themes: BLACKENSTEIN (man-made monsters), DR. BLACK, MR. HYDE (Stevenson’s classic novel updated), ABBY (demonic possession), and SUGAR HILL, a crazy voodoo-zombie revenge tale that’s creepy, outrageous, and entertaining as… well, as hell!

Foxy lady Marki Bey plays foxy lady Diana “Sugar” Hill, whose boyfriend Langston runs the voodoo-themed Club Haiti. Southern-fried gangster Morgan (Robert Quarry) wants to take over the club, and sends his goons to ‘persuade’ Langston. When he refuses, they stomp him to death in the parking lot, leaving Sugar no recourse but to return to her ancestral home and ask ancient voodoo queen Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully of THE JEFFERSONS) for help. Mama conjures up voodoo god of the dead Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley), who gives Sugar control over an army of zombies to enact her revenge on Morgan and his cohorts.

A series of weird set pieces follows, as Sugar and her zombies kill off the gangsters one by one. The machete-wielding zombies mutilate and decapitate one, feed another to hungry pigs (!), lock a goon in a snake-filled coffin, and give a zombie massage to lead goon Fabulous (Charles Robinson, NIGHT COURT). Sugar’s ex-boyfriend, police detective Valentine (Richard Lawson) suspects Sugar’s doing that voodoo that she do so well, but can’t prove it, and winds up hospitalized when he gets too close to the truth. Sugar saves the best for last as Morgan and his racist ho Celeste (Betty Ann Rees) get their just desserts.

Colley’s over-the-top Baron Samedi makes a great supernatural villain (Geoffrey Holder played the Baron in the James Bond film LIVE AND LET DIE). Miss Bey, if not the greatest of thespians, sure does looks sweet as Sugar. In the middle of the film, there’s a wild cat fight between Sugar and Celeste that serves no purpose but is a lot of fun! The zombies are appropriately eerie-looking,  and the murders are done well, though not as gory as later zombie flicks.

SUGAR HILL was filmed in Houston, standing in for New Orleans. The backlot swamp is peppered with stock footage of gators, crawling snakes, and assorted swamp critters, and some familiar film sound effects, including that classic kookaburra that pops up in every jungle pic:

Too bad the kookaburra is only indigineous to the wilds of Australia! This was Quarry’s final AIP film; the studio had tried to build him into the next Vincent Price in COUNT YORGA VAMPIRE, RETURN OF COUNT YORGA, DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN , and DEATHMASTER without much success. Director Paul Maslansky shows a steady if unspectacular hand; he went on to produce the POLICE ACADEMY movies, which were a horror of another kind! And we can’t have a Blaxploitation flick without a funky theme song, “Supernatural Voodoo Woman” by Motown’s The Originals:

SUGAR HILL is a sweet (sorry) entry in the Horror/Blaxploitation  field, and it’s overblown insanity, sense of fun, and downright spooky atmosphere makes it a worthy Halloween treat for lovers of both genres.

 

 

Soapy Noir: A KISS BEFORE DYING (United Artists 1956)

A KISS BEFORE DYING is part soap opera, part film noir, and 100% 50’s kitsch! Based on the best selling debut novel by Ira Levin (who went on to give us ROSEMARY’S BABY and THE STEPFORD WIVES), it’s also the debut of director Gerd Oswald (who went on to give us AGENT FOR HARM and BUNNY O’HARE !).  Lawrence Roman’s screenplay has some suspense, but his characters are all pretty dull and dumb, except for Robert Wagner’s turn as a charmingly sick sociopath.

Wagner is college student Bud Corliss, from the wrong side of the tracks, dating rich but naïve Dorie Kingship (Joanne Woodward) to get his hands on dad’s copper mine loot. And when I say naïve I’m not just whistling Dixie; this girl’s downright dense! Bud, after learning she’s pregnant, decides the best thing to do is not marry her, but bump her off. He whips up some poison in the chem lab, then gets her to write a suicide note under the pretense of translating some Spanish for him. And she does! When Dorie fails to take her “prescription vitamins”, Bud lures her to the top of the Municipal Building, sweet talks her… then shoves her to her death! Woodward, in only her second picture, hated the role of clinging, gullible Dorie, and who can blame her? Fortunately, Miss Woodward did a lot better with her next film, 1957’s THE THREE FACES OF EVE, for which she won the Oscar.

With Dumb Dorie out of the way, psycho Bud sets his sights on her sister Ellen, since no one in the family has ever seen him. Ellen’s played by Virginia Leith, best known for her role as a head in THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE . This time, Virginia gets to emote with her full body (and what a body it is, as Groucho Marx would say!). Her cold-ass daddy is cold-ass George Macready , who had made a career out of these type roles by now. Ellen, however, doesn’t believe Dorie committed suicide, and with the help of amateur sleuth Gordon Grant (Jeffrey Hunter, looking avuncular in Clark Kent-ish hornrims and smoking a pipe), tracks down a suspect, an old flame of Dorie’s (seems the girl got around!).

The old flame, one Dwight Powell (played by COUNT YORGA himself, Robert Quarry ), tells Ellen he wrote down the address of Dorie’s newest beau, and goes to his flat to dig it up. Bud is waiting for him, gun in hand, and forces Dwight to type up a suicide note before shooting him. Now here’s what I don’t get – the guy’s got a gun on you, sure, but instead of taking a chance and yelling for help from the neighbors, you just write the damn thing and take it? Come on, you’re gonna get shot either way, at least TRY and do something, instead of sniveling (insert squeaky voice here) “No, please, don’t”!

Anyway, Bud gets away, and the case of Dorie’s death is now closed. Or is it? At Bud and Ellen’s engagement party, Gordon crashes in and informs her Dwight was playing tennis in Mexico on the night of Dorie’s murder, so he couldn’t possibly have killed her. Back to square one. But wait… Gordon spies Bud coming down the stairs, and recognizes him from around the ol’ campus. Calling his uncle the police chief, he finds out Bud was indeed involved with Dorie, and he and father tell Ellen. She doesn’t believe them until she tricks him at the Kingship Copper Mines, where Bud learns just what a bitch karma is and gets his just desserts before the fade-out.

Did I mention Mary Astor returned to the screen after a seven year absence to portray Bud’s mom? No? That’s probably because the part’s so small, and the great Miss Astor is thoroughly wasted in it. Lucien Ballard’s cinematography is awash in vibrant Deluxe color, and it’s certainly a good-looking film, anyway. Lionel Newman’s lush score includes the jazzy theme “A Kiss Before Dying”. The film was remade in 1991 with Matt Dillon and Sean Young, and was universally panned by critics and audiences alike. A KISS BEFORE DYING is just begging for a proper remake, preferably one of those Lifetime Movies my friend Lisa Marie Bowman  is always writing about. Whadda ya say, Lifetime…

Vincent Price Goes to Camp in DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN (AIP 1972)

Since 1971’s THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES  was such a big hit, American-International Pictures immediately readied a sequel for their #1 horror star, Vincent Price. But like most sequels, DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN isn’t nearly as good as the unique original, despite the highly stylized Art Deco sets and the presence of Robert Quarry, who the studio had begun grooming as Price’s successor beginning with COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE. The murders (for the most part) just aren’t as monstrous, and too much comedy in director Robert Feust’s script (co-written with Robert Blees) turn things high camp rather than scary.

Price is good, as always, bringing the demented Dr. Anton Phibes back from the grave. LAUGH-IN announcer Gary Owens recaps the first film via clips, letting us know Phibes escaped both death and the police by putting himself in suspended animation. Returning with loyal servant Vulnavia (who’s now played by Valli Kemp, replacing a then-pregnant Virginia North), Phibes plots to travel to Egypt with his deceased wife Victoria to the ancient Pharaoh’s Tomb where flows the River of Life. Seems the moon is in the seventh house, and Jupiter’s aligned with Mars… no wait, that’s from the rock musical HAIR! Anyway, there’s some sort of astrological phenomenon involving the moon that will allow Phibes to revive his dormant bride.

Phibes’ home in Maldeen Square is in ruins, and he discovers his safe emptied of the Scared Scroll he needs to locate the tomb. It can only be the work of Darrus Biederbeck (Quarry), who has his own reasons to find the River of Life. This gives the good doctor an excuse to commit a series of gruesome murders in order to achieve his fiendish goal. The best is when Biederbeck’s manservant (actor/wrestler Milton Reid) is attacked by snakes (and you know how much I hate snakes! ) and gets the old hidden-spike-in-the-telephone-receiver-through-the-ears! Phibes’ other ghastly deeds involve having a man eaten alive by an eagle, stung by scorpions, squished between two blocks of granite, sandblasted to death, and thrown overboard inside a giant bottle of gin (Oscar winner Hugh Griffith gets that dubious honor). Ingenious yes, but not as cool as the previous movie’s ten curses of Egypt murders. You just can’t beat that Old Testament-style torture!

I thought Valli Kemp was misused as Vulnavia; instead of a silent-but-deadly assassin, she’s more like a spokesmodel from THE PRICE IS RIGHT (no pun intended). Scotland Yard’s finest, Inspector Trout and Superintendent Waverly (Peter Jeffries, John Cater) return, as do Phibes’ Clockwork Wizards. But the intrepid cops are basically comic relief, and the robotic Wizards are wasted. Peter Cushing  , Terry-Thomas, and Beryl Reid are also wasted in too-small cameos, though Fiona Lewis  has a good turn as Biederbeck’s fiancé Diana. Victoria Regina Phibes is still played by Caroline Munro, who can’t do much but look beautiful as a corpse. DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN is gorgeous to look at, but suffers the same fate as most sequels. The formula has worn thin, and though a third Phibes film was announced (THE BRIDES OF DR. PHIBES), it was never made. This entry did well enough at the box office, but Dr. Anton Phibes would rise no more.