Monday, October 18, 2010

Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974) review


Peter Cushing (Professor Van Helsing), David Chiang (Hsi Ching), Julie Ege (Vanessa Buren), Shih Szu (Mei Kwei), Robin Stewart (Leyland Van Helsing), Chan Shen (Kah/Dracula), John Forbes Robertson (Count Dracula)

Directed by Roy Ward Baker

The Short Version: Cataclysmic clash of East meets West was just as harrowing behind the scenes as what ended up on screen. Shaw Brothers and Hammer make it all work in the end with a fun comic book flavored horror rendition of THE SEVEN SAMURAI paired with vampire lore.

To see more behind the scenes photos from LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES and also SHATTER, click here.

Professor Laurence Van Helsing travels to China to speak about his ordeals with the supernatural and discovers through an interested student that Count Dracula is alive and well and lording over a peasant village miles away from civilization. Taking his son and a wealthy lady traveler who finances the expedition, Van Helsing joins up with an honorable, yet vengeful Chinese warrior and his seven brothers, one of which is a feisty female fighter. They make their way to the village to protect it from Dracula and the dreaded golden vampires and their army of undead followers.

Shooting a night time scene; Southern Screen February 1974

1974 was the year of co-productions at Shaw Brothers studio. They had made numerous pictures with Korean film companies, but now they would work with American and European moviemakers. The worldwide success of KING BOXER (aka 5 FINGERS OF DEATH; 1972) had opened the floodgates for Bruce Lee and a cavalcade of kung fu killers. This success attracted various other movie producers from Italy, Germany and America. Great Britain was among them and the collaboration proved anything but fruitful.

Liu Chia Yung (left), Peter Cushing (middle) and Huang Pei Chi (right) make their way to Dracula's hideout

Roy Ward Baker has directed some of the finest examples of Hammer Films style of Gothic horror. Some of these are considered classics (QUATERMASS & THE PIT, THE VAMPIRE LOVERS), some were original takes on familiar material (DR. JEKYLL & SISTER HYDE) and some were far more gory than usual (SCARS OF DRACULA). LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES, the very first horror kung fu combo, falls somewhere in the middle. It's definitely an original take on a time worn tale and one that proved to be one of the most tumultuous, headache inducing experiences for both East and West.

Roy Ward Baker and David Chiang study the script between takes; Southern Screen Feb. 1974

Neither side were prepared for the culture clash about to take place. Both found the others methods of filmmaking to be perplexing to one another. Hammer wanted to shoot with live sound while the Shaw's shot silent and dubbed in everything in post. Hong Kong, at one time, used to shoot live sound, but later, they found it to be more economical to shoot silently since everything was going to be dubbed into different languages anyway.

Also, as opposed to being quiet on the set, the Shaw's crew had other things going on while shooting was taking place. This was disruptive to the British crew who obviously weren't used to it. Neither crew realized just how differently films were made and it resulted in some seriously bad feelings at the time. Reports of racism from the foreign crew towards the Chinese workers didn't help matters at all. Reportedly, Baker (and some of the other crew) was prejudiced against the Asian technicians constantly shouting aloud about them, which embarrassed many of the more understanding British crew. It got worse when the Shaw's were dissatisfied with the fight scenes Baker had turned out. At one point, the fight sequences were going to be re-shot with Liu Chia Liang and Tang Chia in control, but the production soon carried on under Baker's guidance.

Even though Baker, in a past interview, made statements that he directed the kung fu sequences better than the Chinese could, his action scenes (arranged by both Liu Chia Liang and Tang Chia; at the time, Liu was working as fight co-ordinator for the venerable Chang Cheh and desired to direct on his own which he did the following year with THE SPIRITUAL BOXER) do resonate with a certain degree of tension. This is especially evident during the first time we see the brothers in bloody battle against a Triad gangster. The finale is also well orchestrated and spectacular accompanied by a stirring score from James Bernard. The picture was very successful in Singapore and later in Britain. It did only moderate business in Hong Kong. Possibly due to their lackluster returns on their previous Hammer releases, Warner, despite the millions earned from their Shaw acquisition KING BOXER, sold the film off to a small time outfit where the picture was literally gutted with scenes rearranged from beginning to end without rhyme or reason.

After the disastrous reception received by the two modern day Dracula's, Christopher Lee was adamant that he wouldn't be appearing in any more Hammer vampire movies. According to Michael Carreras in 'House of Hammer' #17, "When we saw the finished picture, we thought the Kung Fu parts of the film were much more exciting than the Dracula sequences, so we cut a version without Dracula...what we had was a very good Chinese action-adventure/Kung Fu frolic but unfortunately in that form it was too short so we had to put Dracula back in." Most critics make fun of John Forbes Robertson's make up, but I never really paid all that much attention to it. He looked dead and that was fine by me. More successful is prolific actor, Chan Shen's portrayal as Kah, whose body is possessed by the bloodthirsty Count.

Chan Shen was a contract player at Shaw Brothers whose career began back in the early 70's. From that time, he amassed an incredible amount of character roles with most of them as nasty villains. Some of the juicier ones are as a Japanese in THE DEADLY KNIVES (1972), a sex crazed rapist in INTIMATE CONFESSIONS OF A CHINESE COURTESAN (1972), another rapist in THE KISS OF DEATH (1973), the Centipede chief in WEB OF DEATH (1976) and yet another despicable rapist/slave trader in the deplorable LOST SOULS (1980). He did play a good guy in Chang Cheh's INVINCIBLE SHAOLIN (1978) as a teacher. Chan had intense, piercing eyes and the film would have worked just fine with him playing the main antagonist.

David Chiang is impressive as the leader of the seven brothers. He speaks very good English and impressed his occidental counterparts, especially Peter Cushing and Roy Ward Baker. Chiang came to prominence after he got critical notices from his supporting role in Chang Cheh's avant garde tragedy, DEAD END (1969) starring Ti Lung. From there, he featured mostly in swordplay and action films, but did partake in a drama, or two. He was better suited to Wuxia adventures, but occasionally the choreographers made him look good performing kung fu. His skills are convincing here in this visually impressive production.

Shi Szu during a break in filming; Southern Screen February 1974

One thing is for certain--the Shaw's were able to instill an epic feel that Hammer couldn't have done at the time. Compared to the other strange vampire picture from the company, CAPTAIN KRONOS (1972), the Shaw-Hammer co-production is the better film in my opinion. KRONOS has a TV movie feel and outside of some fun ideas and quirky moments, the action pales when compared to Baker's movie. GOLDEN VAMPIRES looks like a hellish version of SEVEN SAMURAI (1954) while KRONOS is simply bland.

This movie also has something that KRONOS doesn't have and that's Peter Cushing. The gentle old man of horror always brings something to even the lower level pictures he appeared in. If he was miserable on set, it doesn't show. Cushing was 60 when this film went into production in 1973 and gets down with some kung fu of his own during the battle royal at the conclusion. He battles the golden vampires, their zombie slaves and then finally Dracula. Van Helsing had more to do here than probably all his other ventures combined.

Peter Cushing battles the undead minions of Dracula and the Golden Vampires

Other people to look out for are the lovely Shih Szu, swordswoman extraordinaire who filled the boots of Cheng Pei Pei after she left Shaw's to get married. Liu Chia Liang's brother, fellow director and choreographer Liu Chia Yung (TREASURE HUNTERS 1981) has a role as one of the brothers as does choreographer Huang Pei Chi and actor Tino Wong (INVINCIBLE ARMOR). Also, the sensual Julie Ege doesn't mind getting her hands dirty as the adventurous Vanessa Buren.

Despite all the turmoil in getting it made, the director seems to have grown fond of the movie over the years and did have nice things to say about working in Hong Kong (Set Designer, Johnson Tsao and David Chiang for instance). For many years this picture was given the cold shoulder by most Hammer fans. The plot and the preponderance of Chinese and kung fu in the film seem to turn people off who are more accustomed to the more familiar European settings. Still, a lot of those same people (including some of those that worked on the film) seem to have warmed to the late Roy Ward Baker's movie over the years. It's quite a fun picture with lots of action and some stylish set pieces.

This review is representative of the Anchor Bay DVD

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