Feminist vigilantes, vampires & the forgotten exploitation film career of Bob Kelljan

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US director Bob Kelljan (right), with Timothy Carey in the 1977 Charlie’s Angels episode ‘Angels on Ice’, which Kelljan directed.

On the weekend I unintentionally plunged head first into the lost cultural zeitgeist that was the short but fascinating big screen career of US exploitation filmmaker, Bob Kelljan.

This started Friday evening, when I finally got around to checking out Australian outfit Ex-Films‘ DVD re-release of American International Pictures’ (AIP) controversial 1974 exploitation rape revenge film, Act of Vengeance, courtesy of my friend and film scholar, Dean Brandum. The DVD extras include an excellent essay by Dean on the film’s distribution and the controversy over the original title, Rape Squad, which the company subsequently changed at the last minute to Act of Vengeance.

Lost/unknown/unappreciated exploitation films from the 1960s and 1970s have been hot property for a while now. That said I have little tolerance for watching an exploitation film for the sake of it. But Act of Vengeance, which Kelljan was brought into direct after the previous two directors were fired, delivers on several fronts. 

The plot focuses on a group of women who have been victims of a hockey masked man dubbed the ‘Jingle Bells Rapist’ by the police, because of the song he makes his victims sing as he attacks them. Frustrated by the failure to catch the rapist and angry over their shocking treatment by police, the women band together to form a support group for victims of rape. Gradually, they embark on more aggressive action, taking to the streets to exact violent revenge on a series of sleazy male sexual predators.

Act of VengeanceAct of Vengeance is not without its problems. The political and social themes in Act of Vengeance have to fight for space with lashings of violence and a generous dose of, mostly gratuitous, full frontal female nudity. That said, it’s an genuinely interesting and engaging take on the growing disillusionment with the horrendous sexism, on the part of police and society generally, on the part of many women, influenced by second wave feminism of the late sixties/early seventies. As Melbourne film critic Alexander Heller Nichols (whose book on Dario Argento’s Suspiria I featured on this site last year) puts it in another essay accompanying the Ex-Film’s DVD release, Act of Vengeance ‘…captures the energy and potential power of women at the time.’

It was only after watching Count Yorga: Vampire (1970) with a friend the following night, however, that I twigged to the fact this was another Kelljan effort. He wrote and directed the film and co-wrote and directed the terrific 1971 sequel, The Return of Count Yorga (with Yvone Wilder, an actress who also appears in the film),

Originally filmed as a soft-core porn flick, The Loves of Count Iorga, Vampire, the was toned down and released by AIP as a horror film (although some prints still apparently display this original title). There’s certainly more than a whiff of cheap seventies porno in the themes and aesthete of the first Count Yorga. Regardless, it and the sequel rank among my favourite vampire films.

The strength and uniqueness of the two films, flow from the way it successfully fuses classic gothic horror tropes with a swinging Los Angeles vibe of the early seventies. There’s some terrific settings, a gang of feral vampire wives, some nice nods to the fading counter culture (we first meet Yorga conducting a séance for a group of bored middle class hipsters), Yorga’s scarred manservant Brudah and, of course, actor Robert Quarry in the title role. Quarry, who AIP were then grooming as a successor to the ageing Vincent Price, is wonderful, playing Yorga as a louche Euro trash nobleman who has washed up in the US for reasons unknown. He positively brims with old world charm and menance.

Robert QuarryThe Return of Count Yorga, in which the Count poses as a wealthy philanthropist to ingratiate himself with the head teacher (Mariette Hartley) at a creepy orphanage, is even better, more polished, with bigger budget and even more vampire lethal wives.

Quarry died in 2009 after a career stretching back to 1940s. According to this interview he did in 2008, Quarry was keen to do a third Yorga film. The proposed plot, which sounds nothing short of amazing, would have seen a broken Count Yorga living in LA’s sewers, where he creates an army of the undead from among the city’s homeless and destitute. Unfortunately, he had trouble with the rights and Kelljan, who he wanted to direct, had died, so nothing eventuated.

Little is known about Kelljan. A New Jersey native, he got his start as an actor in episodes of Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. He cut his big screen his directing teeth on the 1969 incest sexploitation quickie, Flesh of my Flesh then moved onto the Yorga franchise. He also helmed the 1973 sequel to Blacula, Scream, Blacula Scream. After Act of Vengeance he mainly moved into television where he worked on a number of popular shows. His best-known television effort is the 1976 Halloween special of Starsky and Hutch, ‘The Vampire’. I have not seen the episode but it sees the hip crime fighting duo come up against John Saxon, either as a real life vampire or a demented killer who thinks he is a vampire, online reviews of the episode I have read differ as to which is thew case.

Kelljan died of cancer 1982 at the age of just 52 and took further details of his short but wonderful career to the grave with him.

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One Response

  1. It’s a shame Kelljan didn’t do more theatrical work. He definitely knew how to handle the material he was given to work with. Here in the US at the time there were often rumors circulating in the fan press that AIP was prepping a Count Yorga/Blacula film, almost certainly with Kelljan in the director’s chair. What a blast that would have been. (At the same time there were also whispers of a Count Yorga/Dr. Phibes pairing, but Robert Fuest would probably had done the honors had that project ever gotten off the ground.)

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