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.
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.
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.
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.