Two of the best modern vampire films of the early 1970s are COUNT YORGA VAMPIRE and its sequel THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA. Perhaps under-appreciated in their time, these movies have acquired a justified cult following over the decades.
Small wonder then that they've now made the leap to blu-ray. Their HD upgrade comes courtesy of Arrow Films Video.
COUNT YORGA VAMPIRE was released in 1970 and became an unexpected hit for producers AIP. Toned down from its original intentions as a sexy vampire film, it was granted a PG rating (!) and scored big at the box office.
It relocates the bloodsucker ethos to present times, placing the titular Bulgarian vamp (Robert Quarry) in Los Angeles. He's summoned to host a séance for three Hollywood couples, in a bid to contact the departed mother of party member Donna (Donna Anders). During the night Yorga takes a shine to another one of the ladies there - Erica (Judy Lang). It's no coincidence that she seems pale and listless the following day, though it's not until she's found chomping on the family cat that her doctor suspects vampirism is to blame.
For all its campiness (opening narration; Quarry's sardonic performance; the cheesy special effects), COUNT YORGA VAMPIRE is rich in atmosphere and oddly erotic despite its rather tame content. Quarry makes for an enigmatic albeit unconventional vampiric lead, while a host of sincere protagonists - including, significantly, Michael Murphy - lend proceedings an eminently engaging quality.
Though Bob Kelljan's direction is unfussy, he musters plenty of stylish shots and effortlessly captures the essence of LA in the early 70s. Atmospheric lighting, keen editing and shrewd sound design elevate many otherwise style-free scenes. The tone is surprisingly serious for such a gore-lite production, building steadily towards a memorable slow-motion climax.
Kelljan and Quarry regrouped a year later for inevitable sequel THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA. In this one, the Count moves to San Francisco with the intention of finding a new wife.
Though RETURN is every bit as well-photographed, fast-paced and stylish as its predecessor, it somehow didn't capture the public's imagination to the same degree. The further two sequels that AIP had projected were cancelled as a result.
It's a shame. But what remains are two strong, consistent films anchored by a charismatic lead performance, surprisingly dark tones and convincing placement of Gothic horrors within contemporary scenarios.
Arrow Films Video are releasing these YORGA films on blu-ray and we were lucky enough to get sent a copy to review.
Both films are presented as MPEG4-AVC files in 1080p HD. These new restorations respect the original 1.85:1 aspect ratios while employing insanely clean prints to produce vibrant, colourful and detailed filmic transfers which truly breathe new life into each feature. Honestly, get your MGM double-bill DVD if you must, and compare it back-to-back with these new presentations: these films have never looked so good, so clear, so true. Blacks are strong, noise is absent, grain is natural: I have no quibbles with wholeheartedly recommending these transfers to long-term fans. Both films open with the MGM logo and are presented fully uncut.
Lossless English mono soundtracks are consistent, clean and reliable throughout. The same can be said of the typo-free, easily readable optional English subtitles available on each film. These subtitles are enabled for the Hard-of-Hearing, so expect cues in brackets throughout.
The disc opens to an animated main menu page. Pop-up menus include separate scene selections for each feature, allowing access to them by 12 chapters apiece.
Bonus features begin with superb audio commentary tracks recorded for each film in July 2016. These are provided by film historian David Del Valle and filmmaker C Courtney Jayne, and are immensely enjoyable affairs. Not only do they reference an insane amount of films (including several Dracula movies I'd never heard of - and I thought I was a buff!) but they do so with such energy, such affable humour, that you get the sense you're sharing your passion with good pals. Inevitably, Del Valle brings Vincent Price into the conversation a few times - they were good pals - but that's endearing more than anything. These commentaries come as highly recommended, minutely detailed recommendations.
The 33-minute "Appreciation" featurette with Kim Newman has a tough act to follow. However, he manages to engage in his usual quirky manner while speaking enthusiastically about how the first film was originally conceived as a soft porn flick called "The Loves of Count Iorga" (the onscreen title for this HD presentation too) and the fact that it shares footage with another AIP horror film of the era, BLACULA. Links to "Starsky and Hutch" and Robert Altman's early films are also fun to hear about. A lot of what's here is admittedly covered in the commentary tracks, but manages to entertain regardless.
A stills gallery is generous in its presentation of 84 photographs, which are in colour but seem a tad washed out. Which is understandable, perhaps, given their lineage.
Original theatrical trailers are always a boon: we get one for each film. They're presented in HD but aren't quite as clean-looking as the main features.
Although not made available for review purposes, this release also comes with reversible cover artwork (including a new design by acclaimed artist Graham Humphreys) and - relevant to the first pressing only, I believe - a collectors' booklet containing new essays on the films by Frank Collins.
THE COUNT YORGA COLLECTION is as good an introduction as any newcomers could hope for. For fans of these minor gems of early-70s horror, this release is a must-have.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Arrow Video|
|see main review|