I have long been a fan of Robert Quarry’s two vampire films, COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (1970) & THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA (1971), since first encountering them as a child. But I had never been able to watch Quarry’s other vampiric foray, 1972’s DEATHMASTER, until recently. Actually, that’s not completely true – while it never played on my local Shock Theater or Saturday Afternoon packages, I *could* have made the effort over the years to track it down, but felt instead that I might save it for when I needed a jolt of nostalgic 70s horror. And that moment came recently…
Amiable young hippie couple Pico (Bill Ewing) and Rona (Brenda Dickson) befriend biker Monk Reynolds (William Jordan) and his mamma Esslin (Betty Anne Rees) at the Topanga Canyon fair and invite them back to their crash pad/commune, where Pico expresses his dissatisfaction with their directionless, carefree lifestyle. As if on cue, missing commune member Barbado (LaSesne Hilton) returns to the home accompanied by mysterious stranger Khorda (Robert Quarry), whose all-knowing & wise demeanor quickly positions him as the group’s new guru. As the magnetic Khorda motivates the hippies to clean-up their act (and their digs), a bongo trance-dance party and the dispensation of nihilistic wisdom regarding eternity presages his takeover of the commune, while Pico and Monk grow to distrust him. When even intercession by “the man” proves to no avail, can our disgruntled hippie hero defeat the growing vampiric threat?
“…this would make a nice, resonant double feature with LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1971)”
Beginning with a marvelous opening that almost seems like something from a Jean Rollin film – mute Barbado setting up a shrine on a sunny California beach and calling forth a coffin from the sea – this is an interesting, early 70s take on the vampire film directed by Ray Danton (1975’s PSYCHIC KILLER). John Fiedler (“Gordie the Ghoul” from the KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER television show, as well as the voice of Piglet for Disney’s WINNIE THE POOH cartoons) appears as “Pop”, a friendly older hippie who tries to bring the police into the scenario, and there’s even (as in the Yorga films) an occasional touch of effective humor (Monk literally tumbles downhill into, and then back out of, a confrontation with Barbado, who seems to be the vampire’s “Renfield”).
Quarry eschews his previous, self-aware & Dracula-esque, portrayal of Count Yorga for the mystic, charismatic figure of Khorda whose message of “vampirism as spiritual eternity” resonates strongly with the counter-culture “lost souls” he collects around himself. In fact, this mirroring between Hippie Cults/Gurus of the time and Vampiric/Satanic control is quite savvy. Equally sharp is the fact that the optimistic, peace-loving Hippies are easily preyed upon, while Monk – the cynical and aggressive biker (“I’m goin’ to town to get some steak and whiskey!”) – quickly sees the vampire for what he is, a predatory opportunist (in a nice touch, Monk’s standard biker regalia of an Iron Cross repels the vamp).
On the other hand, the film does carry over from the YORGA movies their quite eerie and effective way of portraying frightening vampires on the screen. The film’s final image of its downer ending even seems like a deliberate nod to the last shot of Roger Corman’s psychedelic classic THE TRIP (1967). While perhaps not leaning as heavily into the “Love Generation as analogue for the Living Dead” as the unabashed tour de force LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1971), this would make a nice, resonant double feature with that film, as they tread the same grave soil on separate shores of the USA.