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28 February, 2009

Bob Quarry: The Grooviest Vampire of All

In the eighty-seven years since Max Shreck won fame as the first great movie vampire in F. W. Murnau’s NOSFERATU, hundreds of actors and actresses have slipped a set of fangs into their mouths, adopted a bad Romanian accent, and followed in his footsteps. Most, such as Tom Cruise or David Bowie, have been forgettable. Some were simply odd, such as Eddie Murphy or David Niven. A few were superb, becoming for their time the ideal representation of the undead bloodsucker… Christopher Lee and Gary Oldman are two who fit that description. And one—Bela Lugosi—earned immortality as the ultimate vampire, Count Dracula.

But one actor managed to capture the culture and feel of the time in which he worked better than anyone else. That actor is Robert Quarry, and the movie was 1970’s COUNT YORGA—VAMPIRE. Written and directed by Bob Kelljan, YORGA… was a vampire movie for the Mod generation, and the eponymous Count was the perfect representation of that breed of monster for the Swinging ‘70’s.

There would be other efforts to modernize the vampire mythos, to bring the ultimate gothic genre into the era of the Beatles and Bell-Bottoms; most would fail miserably. Hammer Films, two years after YORGA…, would drag Christopher Lee’s Dracula into the 20th Century in DRACULA A.D. 1972. To say that it was a lackluster outing for Lee’s iconic Count would be extremely kind; the movie was a dog. Everything that had made Hammer’s productions unique and noteworthy was gone, and left little more than an average AIP B-Picture’s worth of entertainment. Not even the return of Peter Cushing to his greatest role, that of Van Helsing, could rescue this floater.

And in 1974, David Niven, in one of his most unusual roles, played an elderly Count Dracula looking for virgin’s blood to rejuvenate his dead wife. So where does he go to find it? Where else… London’s swinging hippie counter-culture, that’s where! Though OLD DRACULA is moronic, Niven is an acceptable Count, and no one takes themselves too seriously. The result is pleasant enough, an entertaining diversion if not a particularly memorable film.

But when it comes to vampires for the Sgt. Pepper crowd, Quarry’s Count Yorga stands head and shoulders above the rest. Quarry imbued his Count with youthful vitality and charisma, and created a thoroughly modern vampire, without the dust and cobwebs of centuries past clogging the scene. Hippies and Flower-Children could relate to Yorga in a way they couldn’t with other movie bloodsuckers of the period. He could dress like them, and talk like them. He was in many ways one of them, though much closer to their parents in age.

Born November 3rd, 1925, Bob had worked regularly in Hollywood since 1951, though he made his film debut in Hitchcock’s 1943 classic SHADOW OF A DOUBT. (Unfortunately, all of Bob’s scenes wound up being cut…) He was a steady character actor in television throughout the 1950’s, and earned his first motion-picture screen credit in the 1956 film-noir classic A KISS BEFORE DYING, as Dwight Powell. For most of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s Bob divided his time between Film, TV, and Theater, appearing in many notable productions. But it was 1970’s COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE that catapulted Bob to Horror stardom.

He would follow that performance a year later with a sequel, THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA, opposite Mariette Hartley. It did well, though not quite as entertaining as the first, and Bob Quarry had officially begun his ‘Genre’ period.

He would star in four more horror films by the end of 1974: DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN; DEATHMASTER; SUGAR HILL; and MADHOUSE. Each was an excellent example of ‘70’s Horror; entertaining, exploitive, campy… all the things that Horror fans treasure about that era in film. The sequel to THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES is even crazier and campier than the first, and his role as Vincent Price’s nemesis, Darius Biederbock, is one of his best. Likewise, his performance as Morgan, the gangster who incurs the wrath of the Voo-Doo priestess Sugar Hill in the movie of the same name, is very good. The role of Oliver Quayle, in MADHOUSE, was a minor one though Quarry did well with it. However, it was as Khorda, the leader of a hippie vampire cult, that he cemented his status as the “Grooviest Vampire Ever.”

Bob slowed down considerably in the early ‘80’s due to injuries suffered in a serious auto accident, but he was back before the cameras again by the end of the decade. His output might not have been as prolific, but he worked steadily through the end of the ‘90’s. It was recently announced that he would be appearing in Mark Redfield’s A TELL-TALE HEART, along with Ingrid Pitt, Debbie Rochon and Kevin Shinnick. Unfortunately, that film was not to be. Bob Quarry passed away after a long illness on Friday, February 20th, 2009. Robert Quarry was blessed with many people who cared for him, from close friends to fans he’s never met. Tim Sullivan, the director of 2001 MANIACS, along with actor Kevin Shinnick, Forry Ackerman’s personal assistant Joe Moe, and others, reached out to help an old Vampire in his time of need.

Far too many of the great Horror icons of our youth have left us already; we need to take care of the ones who are left, and keep them with us as long as possible. Christopher Lee, Kevin McCarthy, Bob Burns… these are the people who inspired my love of Horror, and continue to feed it today. And Robert Quarry certainly belonged in that group. He may no longer be with us, but he’s still responsible for some of the Unimonster’s favorite Monster moments. And he’s still the Grooviest Vampire in Horror Films.

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