Beware of the tall dark stranger if he comes ridin’ into your town
A tall dark stranger is danger so don’t let no stranger hang around
For he can capture the heart of a woman
Buck Owens “Tall Dark Stranger”
A cinematic vampire is only as powerful, omnipresent (even in the absence of his physical form), seductive, and dangerous as the actor wearing the fangs. It’s the difference between Bela Lugosi and Zandor Vorkov. There was a man whose performance as one of film’s most underrated vampires reverbs loud to this day as so exquisitely dominant and captivating. In fact, in a just world, his name would be invoked loudly next to last names like Lugosi, Lee, Price, Rathbone, Lorre, and Karloff.
The man’s name is Robert Quarry and don’t you even dare to forget it.
Robert Quarry was a working actor with a healthy resume, including lots of work in television and even appearing in the 1956 noir film, A Kiss Before Dying, when he took on the role of Count Yorga in Count Yorga, Vampire (1970.) While the film was originally going to be more in the sexy softcore realm of early 1970’s horror, Quarry would only do the film if it went more in a firm horror direction. So instead, The Loves of Count Iorga became Count Yorga, Vampire and with that, the strongest vampire in American cinema since Bela himself was officially born.
Count Yorga, Vampire takes the barest bones of the tropes first set in vampire-storytelling motion by the 1924 Hamilton Deane and three years later, the John Balderson adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, Dracula, for the stage, IE. a charismatic and seductive vampire looming about in a castle and zoning in on a woman that the main protagonist is trying to protect, and gives it some fresh twists. The impressive and remote abode is retained, as is the cunning and equally beguiling main vampire antagonist himself.
But the twists? Are all so good. There is Yorga’s disheveled and ox-strong brutish henchman Brudah (Edward Walsh) and the fact that Yorga’s initial connection to our main female protagonist, Donna (Donna Anders), is through her mother. In fact, our introduction to Yorga is at a seance he’s conducting for Donna and her friends, so she can reach out to her recently deceased mother, who was dating the Count right before her death. Quarry’s presence looms so intricately here, being humorous one moment and then ghoulish and simmering-with-menace the next. You cannot take your eyes off of him, nor should any sane OR mad person want to. The man brings atmosphere with his sole physical self.
Quarry’s Yorga brings a sense of wry humor along with expected sinister-sexy. Fast-forwarding to next year’s The Return of Count Yorga, when this adolescent boy plays some pseudo-boogie on the piano and asks the Count, “Do you like this kind of music?” Our man retorts, “Only when played well.” It’s so bitchy and perfect. Seeing that kind of wit and humor mixed-in efficiently with an effectively intense antagonist/anti hero is refreshing.
All of this brings us to the greatest twist of all: Quarry himself. In lesser hands, Yorga could have been just another Leisure Suit Lugosi. But it took a talent like Quarry to truly bridge old world charm with new world adaptability to make his Yorga stand out and proud. With a subtle sharp look, you can sense him size up and look down upon all of the mere mortals around him. At one point in Count Yorga, Vampire, he all but boasts of the superiority of vampires to humans, with such glorious smug-pride that Van Helsing himself would start juggling knives around the man, all in the hopes of being converted to the multi-fanged brigade of Yorga. (Of course, the film’s proxy-Helsing does no such thing and the world is a little dimmer because of it.)
The measure of a vampire lead is often counted by his/her ability to seduce and lure their victims, often sending them on an emotional roller coaster that begins in terror but ends in complete willingness. Aka badly juggling knives in front of obvious members of the undead. No fear of this aspect lacking with Yorga because Quarry had this down. From his small but beautiful army of vampire ladies in the first film to his heartfelt vulnerability with the main female lead in Return of Count Yorga, Cynthia (Mariette Hartley), he is a Count that appeals both emotionally and sensually. The latter especially looms lush in the first film, with his final seduction of Erica (Judy Lang). This scene is a rare bird that exquisitely blends in visuals of the eerie and fantastic along with genuine heat and all with nary any nudity. Vampires are often portrayed as sexy but few have come across as so genuinely slinky AND menacing as Quarry’s Yorga.
Quarry successfully gave us a great villain in the first film and an unguarded-in-the-heart but still magnetic vampire whose unrequited love for Cynthia leads him to further pain and indignation. In an interview conducted by noted cult filmmaker and writer Tim Sullivan for upcominghorrormovies.com back in 2004, Quarry had talked about his idea for a third Yorga film where after enduring everything in the past two movies, Yorga returns a “mess.” He went into further detail with, “…He’s completely broke and broken…So he turns to the streets. Lives in the sewers where he becomes king of the homeless, the addicts. Turns them all into vampires, and has one bloody laugh on LA.” To quote Sandy Good, talk about “LA will burn to the ground!” The only disgrace bigger than the fact this film was never made, especially given that its theme would be fresh and new NOW is that Quarry’s career never did get as big as it should have.
But this piece is not going to delve into the injustices and slings and arrows that both real-life and working within the icy-veins of the beast known as the entertainment industry volleyed this man’s way. No, but instead, please take a moment here with me and honor not only one of horror cinema’s greatest vampires, but also one of film’s truly most magical and unforgettable actors. All of the filth and filigree pap that Hollywood dishes out, will never ever outshine or erase the peering gaze, powerful voice, and phantasmagorical presence of one Mr. Robert Quarry.
We love you, Sir.