Continuing our Hammer Horror retrospective with a look at their awkward but intriguing collision of the traditional gothic and the martial arts movie.
The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires remains one of Hammer’s most divisive movies. Depending on who you ask, it was either a desperate, last-throw-of-the-dice attempt to cash in on a current fad by a studio that was bankrupt both financially and creatively or a bold attempt to bring new life to a film series that had long since run out of ideas. In truth, both these claims are probably true. This was the last gasp of Hammer’s long horror cycle that began in the mid-Fifties (I always saw To The Devil – A Daughter as an attempt at a comeback rather than part of the original run of films) and it’s certainly a bold move that no one would’ve seen coming. Whether or not it successfully grafts English gothic horror to Chinese martial arts and the Eastern tradition of vampirism is a matter of debate but you can’t say that Hammer wasn’t trying something new.
Set in 1804, the film follows Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing), who is giving a lecture at Chungking University on vampirism and is then recruited by Hsi Ching (David Chiang), who persuades him to travel to a remote village that is being terrorised by the Seven Golden Vampires – or more accurately the Six Golden Vampires, given that one has already been despatched during a flashback. As well as Hsi Ching’s six brothers and their sister, the party includes Van Helsing’s son Leyland (Robin Stewart) and wealthy socialite Vanessa Buren (Julie Ege), who has been forced to flee Chungking after attracting the unwelcome attentions of a local Tong leader. Their journey involves battles with gangsters, zombies and vampires before the final showdown with the Golden Vampires and their leader, who is none other than Count Dracula, hiding inside the body of High Priest Kah – the film’s opening scenes show him taking over the Chinese priest’s body in a curious supernatural fudge.
As we came to expect with Hammer by this stage, continuity with the Dracula series is non-existent. The film takes place eighty years before the events in 1958’s Dracula, yet not only is Van Helsing alive and in his sixties but also he and Dracula are introduced as old enemies. I suppose it is just about possible that this Van Helsing is the grandfather of the one in that film, but even then the film doesn’t quite explain why Dracula is desperate to escape from being trapped in Transylvania – or indeed how he ended up back there after being reduced to ashes (sorry, spoiler) in a rural Chinese village. None of this is hugely important I suppose, and surely no one is out there tying themselves in knots trying to create a timeline that connects all the Hammer Dracula films (I’m sure you’ll tell me otherwise though). The real question here is why Dracula is crowbarred into the film at all. he literally appears at the beginning and the end and has nothing whatsoever to do with the main story. More to the point, the film title and poster don’t reference the character at all and Christopher Lee had finally washed his hands of the part, being replaced by John Forbes-Robertson who is… not a good fit. He seems screamingly camp and the character is extraordinarily ineffectual, being killed off with unseemly haste by Van Helsing at the end. Apparently, Hammer did try to edit the character out of the film but found the running time was too short; however, given that the Chinese version of the movie contained more martial arts scenes and supposedly ran for 110 minutes, you have to wonder why they didn’t simply use some of these additional scenes to pad things out. The inclusion of Dracula is absolutely the worst aspect of this movie.
The other stumbling block, in a way, is Peter Cushing. It’s hard to understand just why he is in this movie, frankly. While he is less of a spare part here than in The Satanic Rites of Dracula, there is still little for him to really do until the final confrontation with Dracula. I can’t imagine that Hammer seriously thought that he would be a box office draw in a kung fu horror film, but perhaps the actor and the company had a shared loyalty and they saw him as a good luck symbol while shooting a co-production with Shaw Brothers in Hong Kong. He is the one visual connection with the Hammer tradition and I guess that meant something. But the film might have made more chronological sense if the character of Van Helsing and his son were combined into a younger man who could fend for himself. As it is, Cushing is reduced to standing around as an observer during the film’s extensive fight scenes.
That is, of course, the major problem with The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. It’s a film with one foot in the West and the other in the East and there’s a very obvious cultural divide going on. I remember one magazine commenting that this was the first kung fu film to feature top-tier talent, which is an ‘interesting’ interpretation, one that is very much informed by Western thinking. In truth, director Roy Ward Baker seems pretty out of his depth here. Baker was an interesting character. As ‘Roy Baker’ he’d had a long and respected film career directing movies like Don’t Bother to Knock (with Richard Widmark and Marilyn Monroe) and the Titanic movie A Night to Remember, but in the late 1960s he started working for Hammer and was immediately recast as a horror director, working for both Hammer and Amicus. Like a lot of Hammer’s directors, he seemed to be as good as the screenplay allowed – his best work – like Quatermass and the Pit – is excellent, his worst insufferable. Working in Hong Kong – where the filmmaking culture was very different to the UK – seems to have been a bit of a shock to the system and he’s clearly not comfortable with a lot of the action scenes. While the choreography by Chang Cheh is fine, the fight scenes are shot and edited in a rather lacklustre fashion – the film really needs faster cuts to speed the action up. That said, the scenes of the undead rising from the grave are very impressive and the blending of Western vampire mythology with Eastern horror – hopping vampires included – is well handled. I think it’s fair to say that most European viewers would have never seen anything quite like this before. The scenes of topless village girls being sacrificed in the Golden Vampires temple, the look of the vampires and the power of their bat talismans all feels fresh and new, especially after countless Hammer vampire movies.
Of course, the film imposes Westerners as lead characters on a very Asian story, though given that it was a British co-production, that’s not really unexpected – and really no different than the tradition of shoving an American (fading) name as the lead of a movie to ensure sales to US distributors. The film is actually quite progressive in some ways – while it initially sets up the idea that Stewart and Ege, as the only young white couple, will be the romantic pairing, they are both ultimately given relationships with Chinese characters. Robin Stewart was, of course, best known as Sid James’ son in the TV series Bless This House; Norwegian actor Ege was the butt of jokes in the early 1970s for her fame-hungry headline-grabbing, though by modern standards she was practically a recluse. Her film career was short but extraordinary, including horror movies, sex comedies, a Bond film and one other film for Hammer, the prehistoric epic The Creatures the World Forgot. They are both fine here, but essentially spare parts. The film’s real leads are David Chiang and Shih Szu as his martial-arts expert sister, but neither were exactly box office draws in Britain.
Perhaps showing just how the gods were against Hammer by this time, Warner Brothers refused to release the film in America, even though it emerged while the kung fu craze was still in full swing. It’s a strange decision because – despite what you might have been told – the movie was a hit in the UK and seemed to tick all the right boxes for drive-ins. It would not see an American release until 1979 when Dynamite Releasing picked it up and severely re-edited it. This version of the film – released under the dumbass title The 7 Brothers Meet Dracula, which makes it sound like a particularly odd sequel to Seven Brides for Seven Brothers – has to be seen to be believed. Not content with changing the title, Dynamite also hacked the film up, reducing the running time and changing the sequence of events. The result is utterly incoherent, with several scenes popping up repeatedly while others are completely missing. The first half of this version is devoid of dialogue, consisting of nothing more than shots of the Golden Vampires raiding villages and kidnapping women. The fact that the same scene of a woman being stripped and assaulted appears twice must have baffled viewers. No wonder US critics had such a negative view of the movie.
In truth, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires is a very mixed bag, neither one thing nor the other yet somehow just about holding together anyway. It feels like a film that is ripe for remaking – the Hong Kong action film is not the novelty that it was in 1974 and you can’t help thinking that there is the core of a great martial arts horror story here waiting to be reworked. As it is, the film is never dull and deserves all the credit for at least trying something original. Hammer’s planned follow-up, Kali – Devil Bride of Dracula would’ve taken Dracula to India, but floundered when Warner Brothers – who had agreed to finance the film because Indian tax laws were stopping them from taking the profits from their movies out of the country – dropped out after the laws changed. Depressing as it seems, Hammer movies were now being produced solely as tax write-offs.
I can’t end without talking about the soundtrack album. This was the only Hammer film to have a soundtrack album released at the time, and purists were aghast to find that rather than simply featuring James Bernard’s typically overblown and cod-Oriental score, it had Peter Cushing narrating the film’s story, complete with sound effects. The album was dismissed as being childish rubbish, but the reactions seemed excessive. Even at the time, LPs of old radio dramas were popular and the idea that only kiddies could enjoy what is essentially an enhanced audiobook always struck me as a bit anal. Perhaps rather like the film itself, the soundtrack album might’ve simply been ahead of its time – it fits perfectly into an Audible world and should you have the chance to check it out, you definitely should.
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