Sunday, December 1, 2019

The Barefoot Virgin (2019) review




LA VIRGEN DESCALZA 2019 (THE BAREFOOT VIRGIN)

Laura de la Vega (Leonor), Sandra Alberti (La Sombra [The Shadow]), Oscar Cabrera (El Novio [The Baron]), Antonio Mayans (El Curo [The Priest]), Luisa Torregrosa (La Tia [The Aunt]), Paquita Moya (La Criada [The Maid])

Directed by Lone Fleming

The Short Version: Lone Fleming, Spain's reigning Scream Queen since the 1970s, sets her sights on writing and directing with this impressive, dark tale of undying love. Ambiguous in execution, the 17 minute running time utilizes historical Spanish locales; sumptuous costume design; a musical score that is both ornately haunting and romantic; and plot elements from Stoker's Dracula, Shakespeare, and Biblical connotations draped in a Gothic setting. Fleming's first time directing is clearly not the work of a cinema VIRGIN; but one whose years of experience in front of the camera has fostered a masterful ability to be just as impressive behind it.

The beautiful Leonor discovers her aunt has sold her to a local nobleman in exchange for money and land. On the night before her wedding, the disconsolate young lady receives an otherworldly letter that blows into her window. Written by a mysterious man claiming to be her lover from a past life, she is soon visited by a black-clad specter and the ghostly presence of a woman; both intent on saving her from a lovelorn existence... and preparing her for an eternally requited one in the afterlife.


Lone Fleming, Spain's preeminent horror actress, has been blessed with a career resurgence that has been equal to, if not even more auspicious, than her first break in the industry fifty years ago. She's best known on American shores as the lead in Amando De Ossorio's seminal zombie epic, TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD (1971); a horror-infused take on the historical Templar Knights. Lone Fleming is as integral to that film's success as its director; and, despite many other movie roles in a variety of genres, the one she is most closely identified with. Fleming returned for Ossorio's sequel, RETURN OF THE BLIND DEAD in 1973. Years later she would be visited once more by the Blind Templar Knights of the Living Dead in David Garcia's short film from 2015, EL ULTIMO GUION (THE LAST SCRIPT).


After years of battling sightless zombies, psychotic sisters (in 1973s A CANDLE FOR THE DEVIL), and demon-possessed young girls, Lone Fleming's realization of her life-long dream directing a movie (see behind the scenes pic above) has finally come to fruition in the form of LA VIRGEN DESCALZA (THE BAREFOOT VIRGIN); a 17 minute short subject dealing with fantasy, horror, and dark-tinged romance. The crowdfunded project took two years to see completion; and the result is a remarkable achievement. Fleming's love of cinema is in every frame of her mini-movie. Everything from the grandiose costumes, to the authentic locations, to the dedicated performances contains a level of polish missing from the works of other filmmakers with more money afforded them.

Mrs. Fleming (she's married to famous Spanish filmmaker Eugenio Martin of HORROR EXPRESS fame) not only directed THE BAREFOOT VIRGIN, but she wrote the script and did all of the storyboards as well. Clearly possessing a lot of passion for the project, Mrs. Fleming's enthusiasm is there in every frame. Her predilection for artistry is likewise on-screen in a number of painterly shots that stay with the viewer; such as a fantastic image of shadows conveying the action--akin to a silent movie or even the dark contours of Germany's Expressionist cinema.


Laura de la Vega is a new face in Spanish pictures, essaying the role of Leonor, the young virgin sold to a Baron but destined for someone else from another time and for another place. She's a memorable, beautiful presence--deriving pity from the audience as a young woman not in control of her own life; but the promise of greater things lie ahead, though darkly magical as they may be.


Support is given by Sandra Alberti (SATAN'S BLOOD [1978]) and Antonio Mayans (HUNCHBACK OF THE MORGUE [1973]) in roles that tease a much bigger picture than what the artist has painted for us--leaving it up to the observers interpretation as to its meaning. The portrayal of the former is particularly fascinating in that Ms. Alberti plays two roles. The less said the better, but simply put, Ms. Alberti is absolutely amazing.

Ambiguity is key to the VIRGIN's mysterious atmosphere and its many unanswered questions. The story behind Leonor's aunt, a woman with a sinister air about her; how Leonor came to be in her predicament after the death of her mother; the connection between the priest and Lara, Leonor's mother; who exactly is the shadowy, black-clad figure and what is his connection to Leonor? It's a romantic, if dark fairy tale that presents some fascinating ideas left to the viewers imagination.


Elsewhere, there's similitude with Stoker's Dracula in the idea of a reincarnated love; the moment of grotesque horror between Imogen and Cloten in Shakespeare's 'Cymbeline'; and even Biblical context between the title character and the Virgin Mary. There's a great deal of story to be told for such a brief running time, yet the unexplained portions work in the favor of the puzzle-box of themes and ideas in what is ostensibly a dream-like scenario.

The hauntingly romantic music composed by Antonio J. Asiain is one of the key components of this short-film's success. The operatic cues allow each scene to soar, giving the film a level of gravitas that belies its small budget and brief running time.


If you're a fan of Spanish horror, Gothic cinema styles, and of Lone Fleming (see behind the scenes pic above), then this short feature comes highly recommended. THE BAREFOOT VIRGIN treads fleet-footed over familiar Gothic territory, guided by an actress-turned-director with a unique vision. Briskly paced, this classy, esoteric mini-production serves as a sampler for those with a curiosity to see what Mrs. Fleming could do with a full-length feature and greater financing at her disposal.

You can read our interview with Lone Fleming HERE.

This review is representative of the Crowdfunding DVD of the film. In Spanish with English subtitles. Extras: Making of featurette; storyboards; trailer; running time: 00:16:59 

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Celluloid Trails: When Hammer Met Shaw; Or Making The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires Part 2



"THE LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES is a new blockbuster horror film. A mysterious, Hitchcock-style, frightening film sure to be popular with audiences. Since "Chinese Fever" has taken the world by storm, the subjects of Chinese culture, Kung Fu, and ghosts have been turned into a first-class motion picture never before seen in cinema history. British director Roy Ward Baker has skillfully synthesized a gloomy atmosphere of Eastern Kung Fu and Western horror. This unique production is not to be missed."--article promoting the film in Southern Screen, April 1974

CONTINUED FROM PART 1

THE CHOOSING OF THE CHINESE CAST

David Chiang and Ti Lung were two of Shaw's biggest box office attractions at that time. Both from Chang Cheh's stable of superstars, the three were known as the 'Iron Triangle' for the string of hits they'd amassed in the early 1970s. With the global success of KING BOXER (1972), Shaw's gave selected actors a chance to shine internationally during their 2 year co-production stage. Granted, as stated in Part 1 of this article, some of the films afforded them were anything but classy, tasteful pictures.

With LEGEND, David Chiang was being heavily promoted for foreign markets. Occidentals had already seen him on the big screen in TRIPLE IRONS (THE NEW ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN [1971]) and 7 BLOWS OF THE DRAGON (THE WATER MARGIN [1972]) in 1973; both directed by the venerable Chang Cheh. With his turn in the overseas limelight, the young actor was also preparing his directorial debut with THE DRUG ADDICT (1974); a modern day action drama starring Ti Lung, David's frequent costar in those days. 

Filming LEGEND was a learning experience in directing for him, as well doing some directing of his own on the set. "I want to try new things and not follow a single path. I want to make films that deal in the real world", he said in a May 1974 interview following completion of LEGEND. Naturally, Chang Cheh was there on the sidelines to give him both guidance and the script for his directorial debut. Ten years later, David's maiden voyage in the directors chair would be remade as the period kung fu movie, OPIUM AND THE KUNG FU MASTER (1984); once more starring Ti Lung.

Ti Lung would likewise get a shot at international stardom co-starring with Stuart Whitman and Peter Cushing in the second Hammer-Shaw collaboration, SHATTER (1974). 1973 was a good year for Ti Lung. He was often overshadowed by David Chiang, but was rewarded with an Outstanding Performance Award at the 11th Annual Golden Horse Awards in October of 1973 for his role in Chang Cheh's classic action-drama BLOOD BROTHERS. On December 1st, Ti received another trophy for being one of Hong Kong's top ten stars as voted on by a local newspaper (see insert left side). Yueh Hua was among the ten--another popular actor who headlined two of the Shaw co-productions released within that two-year time frame (see insert right side).

In LEGEND, Chiang plays two roles--the great grandfather Hsi Pin An seen in a flashback (see top right insert); and the main character of Hsi Chin. Playing more than one character in GOLDEN VAMPIRES may have given the incredibly busy screenwriter I Kuang the idea to write a script built around this plot device. The following year, David Chiang would play a master of disguise in THE IMPOSTER (1975), an action-thriller directed by former DP-turned-director, Pao Hsueh Li.

Shih Szu was one of Hong Kong's most popular Kung Fu Queens; having taken up the sword put down by Cheng Pei Pei (1966s COME DRINK WITH ME) who had retired from acting in 1970 after completion of  THE LADY HERMIT (only to be lured back to the industry a year later by Golden Harvest, Shaw's chief rival), released in January of 1971. Apparently the British side was looking at other actresses to take the role of Mai Kwei, but went with Shih Szu at Shaw's insistence. Publicizing her as a "budding international star", she had two opportunities to shine on the international stage--first with the aforementioned HK-Italy co-production of SUPERMEN AGAINST THE ORIENT (opposite Lo Lieh) and again on LEGEND. Interestingly, SUPERMEN began production first in April of 1973 but hit theaters in September of 1974 after LEGEND's July release in Hong Kong.

Curious like everyone else as to how this Kung Fu-Horror combo would turn out, Shih Szu enjoyed the experience commenting, "I knew the golden zombies were fake, but with the makeup, costuming, and the atmosphere, I couldn't help feeling scared at times." The bubbly, family-oriented young actress was ready to put her sword away and try more dramatic roles to accommodate her singing and dancing skills, but few of these types of roles came her way. Asked about working with foreigners, Shih Szu remarked, "Foreigners are very funny. It's been like a gathering of friends. We can learn a lot from them. Their makeup for example, is much better than ours on camera. My English is better than the Italians, but the British have me beat!"

LOVE AMONG THE UNDEAD 


In the film, the characters were pairing off for brief on-screen romances in between the vampire battles. Not much was done with the love angle involving David Chiang and Julie Ege; unfortunately not as much as should have been considering their fate during the powerful finale (see above for an alternate shot). More substance was afforded Robin Stewart's and Shih Szu's onscreen attraction. A lakeside love scene was shot between the two but it was cut from the movie; at least in the version released outside of Hong Kong. A Chinese review of the picture remarks about the romanticism of this scene: "The delicate and lively Shih Szu and her lover Robin Stewart chase and play with each other around a lake in the forest. This exotic couple in these surroundings brings a beautiful atmosphere to the film." Much like how Shaw Brothers heavily hyped the groundbreaking lesbian angle of INTIMATE CONFESSIONS OF A CHINESE COURTESAN in 1972, they did the same for this love of an Anglo male and a Chinese woman. According to the British side of the production, the scene didn't work so it was edited out. A kiss between them does survive the English version.

Another scene that was cut down was in Vanessa Buren's introduction (played by Julie Ege). There are magazine photos that suggest some additional dialog between she and Liu Hui Ling (see insert), an actress known primarily for erotic and exploitation movies. In Chinese articles for GOLDEN VAMPIRES, it is stated she plays the wife of the British Consul played by Robert Hanna. Onscreen this is never stated; nor do Liu and Robert Hanna share a scene together to give the impression they are a married couple. Liu Hui Ling doesn't even have any lines so these bits were either removed or only exist in the HK version.

With all the flying fists and feet and vampires, there was little time for love in the movie; but off-camera, Robin Stewart was finding time aplenty to romance Shaw's erotic film starlet Tanny (Tien Ni). At the time, the Taiwanese freelance actress was being coached by Shaw's private European secretary in learning English for her major part in the soon to be produced Warner-Shaw co-pro CLEOPATRA JONES AND THE CASINO OF GOLD (1975) starring Tamara Dobson and Stella Stevens; a bigger budgeted sequel to CLEOPATRA JONES (1973) that began production with Don Medford (THE HUNTING PARTY [1971) at the helm before he was replaced with Chuck Bail (BLACK SAMSON [1974]).

The two had a whirlwind relationship lasting the duration of the production. Meeting basically by accident, Stewart was walking past a dressing room and spied Tanny inside and, according to sources at the time, it was love at first sight for both of them. Essentially inseparable for roughly two months, the relationship was not to last, and they both knew it. Stewart had a reputation for being a ladies man while Tanny was alleged to have been something of a wild child herself.

Tanny would soon meet the love of her life, though, in swordplay actor Yueh Hua; himself having been briefly married in a secret ceremony to an Italian woman named Sophia he met while working in Italy on AMAZONS AGAINST SUPERMEN. This tabloid-worthy bond caused controversy among Hua's family and film-circle friends (foreigners aren't looked at favorably as relationship material). Together from July of 1974 to October of 1975, Yueh Hua flew to Rome for the divorce. Yueh Hua and Tanny Tien Ni would date for a few months before marrying on December 22nd, 1975 and remain together till Hua's death on October 20th, 2018 at 76 years of age.

In 2012, Robin Stewart would reunite with Roberta Daler, an old flame from 40 years prior in 1972. The two would marry and remain together till his death three years later on November 22nd, 2015.

While David Chiang's on-screen romance with Julie Ege may have been tragically brief, the actor's off-screen romance was much smoother. Two months before LEGEND's HK debut, the busy actor married Maggie Li Lin Lin on May 20th, 1974. In attendance were Chang Cheh and his wife; Liu Chia Liang and his wife; Tang Chia, Ti Lung and his girlfriend at the time, Amy Tao; Fu Sheng and others. Honeymooning in Japan, Chiang and his bride spent a much deserved 12 days away from the moviemaking world. They are still together today.

HAMMER TO FALL

In hindsight, the first Kung Fu-Horror combo neither helped Hammer's decline nor hurt Shaw's ascension on the world market. By the end of 1973, Shaw Brothers had produced 36 films (since 1967 they normally averaged 40-45 completed productions) and had a massive success with a near HK$6 million haul with the influential comedy-drama, THE HOUSE OF 72 TENANTS (1973). The company garnered even more gigantic profits from the worldwide success of KING BOXER that same year. As for Hammer, the sun wasn't shining nearly as bright for them.

At that time, Hammer was in dire straits while Shaw's was basking in the glow of success. Regardless of the opinions of some of the Hammer crew, the Shaw Studio was truly unlike anything on Earth. Modeled on the Old Hollywood Studio System, the Shaw's had their stable of actors under contract; many of which did work for other companies with the boss's permission. Some of the actresses were freelancers, however. The entire staff of techs and actors stayed at Movie Town in dormitories although the big stars ultimately bought homes elsewhere. It was a self-contained world unto itself. The Shaw Brothers not only distributed their own movies but owned an enormous fleet of movie theaters to show them in. Some of these theaters exclusively played foreign films of all genres they'd licensed; these included Hammer Films, one of which Shaw's acquired being CREATURES THE WORLD FORGOT (1971)--the dinosaur-less Julie Ege Stone Age romp that was playing during LEGEND's production. Moreover, the Shaw's had their own means of promoting their output via their own periodicals. Hammer did not have any of these luxuries; without a distributor--particularly a major American one--they were virtually naked in a blizzard.

As to be expected, LEGEND was heavily promoted in both of Shaw's Chinese movie publications, Southern Screen and Hong Kong Movie News magazines. Chinese sources hyped the picture as "a new breakthrough in zombie horror films." Unlike NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), the zombies of LEGEND didn't eat the living; although they did kill with swords like Ossorio's Blind Dead Templar Knights (even riding horses in slow motion for one sequence), LEGEND's corpses differed in that they were Kung Fu experts! As for its promotion, Shaw's publicity department utilized the stunning British preconception artwork of Tom Chantrell. For a time, articles hyping the picture in Shaw's publications used the film's original LEGEND title; but by April of 1974, it was being touted as DRACULA AND THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES. When the film premiered in Hong Kong in July of '74, the same Chantrell artwork (see below) was now bearing the 'Dracula' moniker as was other theatrical posters.


There was a lot of enthusiasm for this curious pairing of Eastern and Western cinema styles despite the tumultuous making of the movie. Around the time of the film's completion, Shaw's publication Southern Screen reported a Reuters blurb in the British press: "The Shaw Brothers company, which has always been good at shooting Kung Fu movies, and the London-based Hammer Films Company, which has always been good at making horror movies, will inevitably produce a superb international production." In the end, the picture was profitable for both companies even though it didn't lead to more in a similar vein; nor did it help to stop Hammer's bleeding.

It was reported that the picture would have its London premiere on Christmas but it ended up being pushed back to October. In the end, LEGEND did surprisingly well in Britain and in Asian territories. In fact, it played everywhere in the world except America at the time. 

Initially, Warner Brothers (who had a healthy relationship with both companies) was going to distribute LEGEND in America; they reportedly were very excited and pleased with the end result. But then the Warner distributed DRACULA AD 1972 disintegrated at the American box office. Since AIP had enjoyed a surprise success with their modern day vampire scare-a-thon COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (1970), both Hammer and Warner Bros. hoped for the same thing. Warner's financed both of Hammer's modern era Dracula's; but after his poor showing in 70s Swinging London, it prompted the company to shelve its sequel, THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973) and, unfortunately, THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES (although they did distribute it in the UK). For its belated US release, it ended up being inexplicably cut to pieces and re-edited in the most incomprehensible way possible before being released by Dynamite Entertainment as THE 7 BROTHERS MEET DRACULA in 1979.

By 1973, Hammer Films likely looked antiquated to theatergoers hungry for something different and more adult. Movies like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972), THE EXORCIST (1973), and soon, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974), had uprooted horror from the Gothic Fairy Tales of the Universal and Hammer period and planted it in a raw, visceral, grotesque place it had only hinted at before. Other quasi-horror films like STRAW DOGS, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and THE DEVILS (all 1971) brought a new level of controversy to motion pictures that outraged critics and patrons on a much grander scale than Hammer had done in the late 50s. Even westerns like THE WILD BUNCH (1969) and the gritty crime thriller DIRTY HARRY (1971) depicted a level of intensity and violence that surpassed the spurting blood and spare body parts of Hammer's chief exports.


Hammer held on for a few more years producing only two more features and several others that were never realized; these included a failed attempt to bring a live-action version of adult comic favorite Vampirella to the screen (you can read about the un-making of that picture HERE); a co-production with Toho about the Loch Ness Monster was another fatality (although years later the monster built for it ended up being used in a movie; as well as a model kit designed and sold several years ago)

Unable to assimilate into a changing marketplace, the once lucrative Gothics were outmoded by even gorier product that had been influenced by them. Ironically, Hammer's biggest success wasn't even a horror picture, but a comedy in ON THE BUSES (1971). Once film production ceased after the failure of their Hitchcock remake, THE LADY VANISHES in 1979, the company switched over to television with HAMMER HOUSE OF HORROR in 1980 and HAMMER HOUSE OF MYSTERY AND SUSPENSE in 1984. The company had a revival in 2007 and has been producing new films ever since; although the response to New Hammer has been less than enthusiastic.

As for Hammer's competition in those dying days, they had either already packed it in or were about to go the way of the dinosaurs. Tigon, the company that attempted to buy Hammer in 1971, stopped film production in 1972 and settled into film distribution instead. Amicus, Hammer's strongest rival, and famous for its anthology horrors, was out of business by 1977. American International Pictures went from an independent maker of Drive-in movies (including numerous Gothic horror classics) to a major competitor to the big studios and, sadly, failed to transition--being sold to Filmways in 1979.

THE DIMINISHING OF SHAW HOUSE

As for the Shaw Brothers, their eventual decline mirrored that of Hammer's to an uncanny degree. As with the British company, intense competition aided heavily in making Shaw's style of movie-making outdated. Golden Harvest, a company formed in 1970 by former Shaw employees, was initially struggling to survive due to the dominance of the House of Shaw. If it hadn't been for Bruce Lee, Golden Harvest would likely have succumbed to their former boss. Bruce Lee had first went to the Shaw's, having been an admirer of their filmmaking style. Lee had already worked in Hollywood, though, so when Shaw offered him their standard contract he turned it down. Raymond Chow of GH saw an opportunity and offered Lee what he wanted.


The same applied to Michael Hui just a few years later. Hui was a well known television personality working at TVB, a TV broadcasting company based in Hong Kong and co-founded by Run Run Shaw. Hui moved into the film world at Shaw Studio in 1972 but eventually was lured away to Golden Harvest in 1974 where he starred in record-breaking comedies that dwarfed everything else at the HK box office. This was the beginning of a slow decline for the Shaw Studio. 

By the early 1980s, Shaw's output had lessened from some 40 pictures a year to around 20. Despite the competition and success of the Hong Kong New Wave, they continued to make their usual period swordplay and kung fu films largely unchanged from the way they'd made them in the 60s and 70s. They had a few new hungry directors delivering product with a raw, modernized approach, but it was too little, too late. By 1985, some of Shaw's theatrical features didn't play in HK theaters at all. The studio would eventually halt film production, and focus on television instead. Shaw's leased their massive studio out to foreign companies for years till Shaw Brothers had a revival of their own in the late 90s beginning with HERO (1996), an updated version of one of Chang Cheh's biggest, most influential hits, THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972).

The co-productions of Shaw and foreign companies was largely two years of an experimental curio. Mostly a batch of exploitation movies with a few polished features coming out of the enterprise (of which GOLDEN VAMPIRES is among the latter), it did lead Run Run Shaw to try and mount a massive co-pro of James Clavell's novel 'Tai-Pan'. Purchasing the rights from MGM in 1975, Shaw's announced in April of that year that Carl Foreman (see insert) would write the script for this ambitious project. Foreman was a famous screenwriter who wrote scripts for THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957) and THE GUNS OF NAVARONE (1961) to name two. Boasting of a proposed US$12 million budget, the Shaw Brothers planned to build a six-story complex to house some 300 foreign technicians intended to work on the picture. In January of 1976, Clavell was invited to Shaw Studio for a dinner in his honor to discuss the making of what was being called the most important movie in Hong Kong film history. By this point, the budget was being touted at US$45 million. Unfortunately, it eventually stalled, ending with Shaw selling the rights to a Swiss businessman. It did finally get made in 1986 by Dino De Laurentiis and his DEG production company.

In Tokyo on October 26th, 1975, Run Run Shaw (accompanied by Betty Ting Pei and Li Ching) went into negotiations with Shigeru Okada (see insert), president of Toei of Japan to co-produce a series of movies that likewise never materialized; the first of these was tentatively titled 'Tang Prostitution'. An agreement was signed for mutual film distribution, co-productions and acquisition of the respective companies product. The two men met at the 21st Annual Asian Film Festival in Jakarta, Indonesia a few months earlier in July of 1975. Apparently, Shaw was more interested in opening an animation studio in Hong Kong with the help of Okada; this too, never being realized. The failure of this collaboration was a shame considering Toei produced dozens upon dozens of exploitation pictures and operated in much the same conveyor belt style of moviemaking as Shaw's did. 

Run Run did co-produce CANNONBALL (1976) with Roger Corman's New World Pictures; and would later reunite with Warner Brothers in the early 1980s to co-finance the now critically revered cult classic BLADE RUNNER (1982) directed by Ridley Scott.

Nowadays, co-productions between Asian and Anglo film companies is a regular occurrence; Communist China being the major player, spending millions on mostly lifeless fluff with many special effects-heavy movies using American technicians behind the scenes. Mimicking Hollywood's CGI-obsessed product, China's film industry is vastly different to the wild and woolly Golden Age of Hong Kong.


The legacy of the LEGEND is being the first Kung Fu-Horror hybrid. Something of a trendsetter, it nonetheless wasn't very influential on the flood of horror pictures that came in its wake. Other domestically produced films that mixed Kung Fu and horror were BRUCE LEE VS. KUNG FU FRANKENSTEIN (1974), THE MAGIC CURSE (1975) and WITCHCRAFT OF MAO PEOPLE (1977); but many of these took inspiration from either THE EXORCIST (1973) or the Shaw Brothers production BLACK MAGIC (1975).  Ghosts and horrific spells became synonymous with HK horror and not vampires and zombies, at least not for a while.

It took six years before Kung Fu-Horror was successfully attempted again with Sammo Hung's smash horror-comedy combo SPOOKY ENCOUNTERS (1980). It wasn't till MR. VAMPIRE in 1985 that this crossover genre really took off in a huge way. The Shaw's didn't attempt another such endeavor till 1982s spook-filled funny business, THE FAKE GHOST CATCHERS. However, some of their martial arts pictures like the earlier, ultra-violent THE BLACK TAVERN (1972) and the later disappointment of THE SPIRITUAL BOXER 2 (1979) had horror elements in them.

Essentially, THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES (1974) was a spirited last gasp for Hammer--a company that saw a strange cinematic brew as a means of rejuvenating their outdated formula. For the Shaw's, this was a burst of creativity that briefly ignited but never truly caught fire. In the end, both companies learned nothing from their troubled alliance; and an inability to adapt to changing markets led them both down a road to a strikingly similar fate. Just like the Chinese proverb, 'There is no never-ending banquet', both Hammer and Shaw Brothers learned all good things must come to an end.

*This article utilized anecdotes, images, and assorted minutiae from Shaw's Southern Screen and Hong Kong Movie News Magazines; and also the Hong Kong publication Cinemart Magazine.*

Monday, November 11, 2019

Celluloid Trails: When Hammer Met Shaw; Or Making The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires Part 1




"... East did not meet West. I have a tremendous admiration for Shaw and his operation and the relationship between him and us should have been very successful but unfortunately it wasn't, and nobody's blaming anybody. We just had two different points of view."--Michael Carreras interview, The House of Hammer #17, February 1978

This two-part entry of Celluloid Trails is as much about the making of the Hammer-Shaw co-production THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES (1974) as it is the undoing of the two companies that produced it. Much has already been written about the film in various books on Hammer, including most recently the film's production as detailed in the Hammer magazine 'Little Shoppe of Horrors' #32. Still, while virtually every aspect of the British side of the production has been covered, little has been specified on the Hong Kong side to put the film into better context; nor has anything been written about the two companies status at that time and how both Hammer and Shaw were strikingly similar in their eventual decline.

Accompanying this article are nearly five dozen images from Shaw's Southern Screen and Hong Kong Movie News magazines, many of which that have never been seen before. Additionally, many of the errors in the LSOH issue and on the new Scream Factory bluray commentary track regarding the HK portions of the production are corrected HERE.

PRELUDE TO KUNG FU BROTHERS & BLOODSUCKERS

Hammer Films of Great Britain was famous for bringing the classic B/W Universal Monsters back to life in bloodcurdling color in the late 1950s. The popularity of THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957), THE HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) and THE MUMMY (1959) exploded around the world--leading to several sequels for all three. More horror was to come as Hammer enjoyed good box office for the next decade with atypically scathing critical notices. Mixing blood, nudity, and boundary pushing scenes for their time, Hammer paved the way for more gruesome horrors that emerged in the 1970s.

Over in Hong Kong, Shaw Brothers Studio--at one time the largest privately owned film production facility in the world--had been making a lot of noise after reinventing the swordplay movie in the late 1960s. Chang Cheh (see insert), the preeminent action filmmaker in HK at that time, had brought masculinity to the forefront of Asian cinema in the most violent, gory ways imaginable. In the early 1970s, Shaw's bloody style of Kung Fu movies became all the rage around the world--opening the door for Bruce Lee and countless others vying for martial dominance at the international box office.

When Kung Fu movies were exploding in popularity globally, and Hammer's style of Gothic horror was dimming, it seemed like a perfect match that these two companies would join forces to produce the first entertainment of Hammer Horror and Kung Fu Thrills. Combining the two genre styles had never been done before; nor had their ever been a teaming of a British and a Chinese film company. Unfortunately, there was no forethought as to the cultural and creative differences that was to arise between two diametrically opposite filmmaking forces.


A few factors led to this unusual partnership. On the British side, Hammer wasn't in a financially stable place in the early 1970s. With financing from US companies evaporating amid a changing marketplace, the company was finding it increasingly difficult to make a profit backing their own projects in addition to the poor distributorship of their films elsewhere; only Warner Brothers was sticking around and that was about to change.

Hammer head Sir James Carreras wanted to sell the company and began negotiations with Laurie Marsh of Hemdale--an entrepreneur and philanthropist who had recently merged with Tigon, one of Hammer's rivals responsible for pictures like THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR (1968), WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968) and BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW (1971). The possibility of a competitor being a potential buyer didn't sit well with James's son Michael Carreras; so he made a deal to buy out his father's stake in the company making him sole owner. In early 1973, Michael Carreras became President of Hammer and the new owner of a host of problems that came with it. Blindsided by a handful of crippling blows damaging Hammer's foundation, Carreras was faced with the reality that his company was no longer the powerhouse of the previous 15 years.

Meanwhile, back in Hong Kong...

"We've discovered happily that the Americans and Europeans shared our taste for action films. The reason I think we've been so successful in the western world is because we offer more action than any other producer."--Sir Run Run Shaw, Women's Wear Daily, August 1st, 1973

1973 was not good for Hammer, but was arguably the most crucial year for Hong Kong cinema. Run Run Shaw was in the spotlight at the center of a wave of international interest in Chinese martial arts. Warner Brothers, seeking something new and different, found it in Hong Kong. Gambling on the Oriental mystique of Kung Fu movies, Warner reps selected a little film titled KING BOXER (1972) to test in western markets. Interestingly, the chosen film was not a huge success in Hong Kong, but went on to smash the competition everywhere else in the world, including America where it grossed nearly $8 million in four months of release in 500 cities. With the global success of KING BOXER (famously re-titled FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH in the US), everybody--like the hit 1974 Carl Douglas song--was Kung Fu Fighting; and if they weren't, they wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

Both before and after Kung Fu became all the rage, Shaw Brothers Studio was featured in major publications like Time and Life magazines, Newsweek and others like Oui Magazine. In another instance, an ABC film crew spent two days (July 3rd-5th) with Run Run Shaw filming a documentary on his empire in 1973 titled 'The World of Run Run Shaw'. In November of that year, a BBC crew went to Shaw Studio to film FISTS OF FIRE, a documentary on Movie Town and the Kung Fu craze that aired in 1975. The crew visited the sets of both THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES (see insert) and the Italy-HK co-pro, THIS TIME I'LL MAKE YOU RICH. 

Chinese martial arts movies were unlike anything that had been seen before. It wasn't long till foreign studios wanted to partner with the Shaw Brothers to get a piece of the Kung Fu action. Shaw's had previously aligned with Japanese, Korean, and other Asian companies, but now they would be working with European and American producers. Between 1973 and 1975, some ten co-productions were slated for filming at the renowned HK studio. Unfortunately, the quality varied wildly on many of them--emphasizing heavy doses of exploitation that held appeal with the rabid Drive-in and trash crowds. Before sinking our teeth into the tale of the LEGEND, it's necessary to cover some of those collaborative efforts for context.

SHAW & ITALY

The first of these co-pro's was with Italy's INDIEF (International Nembo Distribution Import Export Film) company; that picture being SUPERMEN AGAINST THE ORIENT--the last film in the goofy THREE SUPERMEN series. After Lo Lieh's KING BOXER reigned mightily in foreign theaters, SUPERMEN was his first of two chances to shine on the international scene. Directed by Bitto Albertini and an uncredited Kuei Chi Hung, the picture barely made a dent at the HK box office despite an enormous amount of promotion from Shaw's publicity department. Aside from being quirky fun, it is mostly notable for being an early credit for Jackie Chan as an action choreographer.

A second Italian team-up bearing the title THIS TIME I'LL MAKE YOU RICH began filming in Hong Kong in November of 1974 and was released there in 1975 to even less interest from audiences. A Bud Spencer & Terence Hill type action comedy directed by SABATA's Gianfranco Parolini (Frank Kramer), the Hong Kong actors--like Danny Lee (Li Hsiu Hsien)--were basically supporting players next to the silly antics of Italian Antonio Sabato and American bodybuilder Brad Harris.

Yueh Hua got more screen time, but fared worse in Alfonso Brescia's (under his pseudonym as Al Bradley) oppressively atrocious AMAZONS AGAINST SUPERMEN--shot entirely in Italy and released under various titles in 1975. In America AIP released it as SUPER STOOGES VS. THE WONDER WOMEN. If only the movie was as interesting as that overly ridiculous title.

Another joint effort between Shaw and Italy, a comedy tentatively titled 'The Assassin', never got made.


The last partnering of HK and Italy was the most prestigious of their co-productions. Big time producer Carlo Ponti teamed with the Shaw Brothers (along with a US company, Harbor Productions) to produce 1975s uneven, but relentlessly fun THE STRANGER AND THE GUNFIGHTER (known in Hong Kong as BLOOD MONEY), starring Lee Van Cleef, Lo Lieh and directed by Antonio Margheriti. Filming began in June of 1974 with some shooting in Hong Kong but the bulk of it in Spain.

SHAW & GERMANY

German producer Wolf C.Hartwig (the SCHOOLGIRL REPORT series) joined forces with Run Run Shaw to co-produce VIRGINS OF THE 7 SEAS (1974), the trashiest and most outrageous of all the Shaw Brothers collaborative pictures. Ernst Hofbauer co-directed with Kuei Chi Hung; and really, you couldn't of gotten two more flamboyant exploitation filmmakers working on the same film. Production began February 11th, 1974. Utilizing an international cast, and despite an abrupt change in casting, VIRGINS did decent business in HK and is a highly entertaining, if virtually plotless affair.

SHAW & USA

The most extravagantly budgeted of the Shaw Brothers co-productions was their first team-up with Warner Brothers in CLEOPATRA JONES AND THE CASINO OF GOLD (1975); a Bondian style sequel to Warner's black action favorite CLEOPATRA JONES (1973) directed by Jack Starrett. Tamara Dobson (see insert) played Cleo in both pictures. Shot entirely in Hong Kong, CASINO featured a slew of familiar Shaw faces and a stellar cast that included Stella Stevens and Norman Fell. It was a suitably high-end finale to the Black Action genre that exploded with the release of SHAFT in 1971.

SHAW & GREAT BRITAIN

THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES was the first time a British and Chinese company worked side by side; and also the second co-production (following SUPERMEN AGAINST THE ORIENT) between Shaw Brothers and a foreign company. This production was among the most heavily promoted of these alliances with foreign companies. Hammer Films were a well known commodity around the world, and popular in Hong Kong as well. Naturally, the prospect of the first Kung Fu-Horror production gathered a lot of attention. Needless to say, it was a famously chaotic collaboration. The tension began virtually from the first day of filming on October 22nd, 1973, lasting up to the end of filming on December 11th of that year. 

Problems were exacerbated when the action-adventure SHATTER, the second Hammer-Shaw co-production, began shooting December 7th, 1973... but that is another story.

THE FAR WEST IN THE WILD EAST

The two-picture deal between Hammer Films and Shaw Brothers was sealed on September 29th, 1973. On Run Run's behalf, Shaw's son, Harold Shaw, signed the contract with Hammer's head of production Michael Carreras in London (see insert). His father was unable to attend as he was involved in wedding preparations for one of his famous actresses, Lily Ho, on October 4th, 1973 to businessman George Chao.

Shaw publications stated the budget for LEGEND was US$2 million. As much as this co-production was ballyhooed, there was a certain amount of public curiosity surrounding what the end result of such a groundbreaking team-up would look like. There was an enormous potential in this partnership in all aspects of its production. One of the key proponents was in the casting.


You had Hammer's resident vampire slayer and frequent Mad Scientist, Peter Cushing doing battle not just against Count Dracula, but against the Chinese undead in a far more energetic capacity than his previous Van Helsing portrayals. 

In her second Hammer movie, Norwegian beauty Julie Ege stars as the headstrong, wealthy financier of the expedition to find the lair of the Golden Vampires; a role unlike some of her others, this one requiring her to keep her top on. 

On the Shaw side you had two of the biggest HK stars in David Chiang and Shih Szu (more on them later). Up and coming Shaw actor Wang Chung (see above at left next to David Chiang) was initially cast but removed possibly because of at least four other projects he was working on including two lead roles in THE DELINQUENT (1973) and POLICE FORCE (1973). The stars were literally aligned for a powerhouse production.

Peter Cushing's participation is notable for more reasons than just acting in the movie. Always an amicable man, his presence was felt in ways not exclusive to appearing in front of the camera. He'd designed models of the vampires lair that were remarkably detailed (see insert). The actor also contributed his narration, accompanied by music and sound effects, to the LP release of the movie coinciding with its theatrical unveiling. With his wife Helen having been dead for two years, Cushing kept himself occupied and busy; performing in his usual stellar capacity and remaining a source of contentment for those around him despite the grief he carried with him till his passing in 1994.

As for the exciting prospects of East marrying with Western cinema styles, in approximately two weeks, the British cast and crew would make the journey to Hong Kong where this newfound couple would discover just how incompatible they were.

THE SOUND OF SILENCE

Despite the fact that screenwriter Don Houghton had scouted Shaw's Studio operations prior to the arrival of the Hammer cast and crew, there seemed to be some surprise as to how the Chinese did things versus what the British were accustomed to. For example, Director Roy Ward Baker was very vocal about what he felt was less than adequate conditions; and particularly the Chinese filming without sync sound. He understood the reasoning behind it, but to him, it was an annoyance in trying to shoot while an assortment of distractions occurred around him--with or without live recording.


Actually, when Shaw's was building Movie Town, the plan was to install soundproof stages although some were resistant to the idea. According to Chang Cheh, he had convinced the Shaw's it would be more economical for them to film without sync sound since, among other reasons, they would be dubbing their movies into a variety of dialects and languages anyway. The Italians shot without live sound as well, but this practice was alien to the incoming Brits from the Hammer camp.

Another problem that Baker and some others had was they felt the Shaw Studio was not up to their standards. At that time with 1.4 million square feet of land; 1,500 employees on staff and 38 various departments including prop houses, horse stables, costuming, and makeup facilities. Dormitories housed actors and technicians; and at that time (see above photo;Shaw Studio, December 1973), there were 10 indoor sets and several massive outdoor sets. 

One minor issue that seemed to somewhat hinder the British crew was the horses used in the movie. Claiming they were taken straight from the horse races, the Shaw's most certainly had stables with 15 steeds occupying them. It's possible they were being allocated elsewhere, but they most certainly had them on-site.

Don Houghton (see insert; pictured with his wife) was asked by one of Shaw's journalists if Chinese filmmaking technology was behind the British methods and he remarked, "It can't be considered backward, it can only be said that the method is different. For example, Shaw's record their sound after filming is complete. We record ours on-set. This is the most significant difference." Houghton was married to a Chinese woman so he already had some knowledge of Chinese mythology while writing the script; although she didn't contribute to its content. He apparently was a fan of Kung Fu/Swordplay pictures as he enjoyed Chang Cheh's NEW ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1971), having saw the film back home in the UK. He liked David Chiang so this gave an opportunity for Houghton to work with one of Hong Kong's biggest movie stars of the time.

Houghton's script apparently went through some changes as Chinese materials mention the film takes place in 1880 while the finished picture spans a 100 year time frame between 1804 and 1904. Elsewhere, the location of the lair of the vampires isn't given in the movie, but Chinese articles state it takes place in Taoyuan County in Hunan Province. Shaw's periodicals feature several scenes and images that are either alternate shots, or exclusive to their version, or removed altogether. Images for some of these are seen and specified throughout this two-part article.

HORROR AND KUNG FU CLASH

There were many differences between the two cultures that foreshadowed the two studios would be destined to failure. Shaw Studios was so big, they could film a multitude of movies at once without interruption. It wasn't uncommon for stars to shoot a few different pictures at the same time; working a few hours on one set, then move on to another for an entirely different production. Hammer, on the other hand, had done back-to-back movies before but nothing at the breakneck pace of Hong Kong cinema. What was seen as chaotic and disorganized by the Brits was a typical day at the office for the Chinese crew.

Another point of contention was that the Shaw's were making changes and, as was felt by some on the British side, attempting to take over the production.

Run Run Shaw had a hand's on approach to his empire. He would tour the sets of the films he was producing; watch the footage or rough cuts in his private theater and give pointers on whether the picture was going well. If it wasn't, he'd shelve it for possible future use, or simply trash the footage altogether. In the case of GOLDEN VAMPIRES, the shooting of the action sequences wasn't to his liking. 

Baker, on the other hand, thought he knew how to shoot Kung Fu fights better than the Chinese despite the fact he'd never shot a martial arts sequence in his career. The distinguished Liu Chia Liang (Lau Kar Leung), who was the film's fight choreographer along with the equally qualified Tang Chia, was obviously insulted. Liu had been Chang Cheh's action designer since 1966. He, like Chang Cheh, was very busy at this time trekking between HK and Taiwan working on an innovative series of Kung Fu films based on the Shaolin Temple and the styles of martial arts that originated there. Prior to GOLDEN VAMPIRES scheduled start date, Chang Cheh had returned to Shaw Studios in September '73 to resume filming on THE SAVAGE 5 (1974), a Chinese take on THE SEVEN SAMURAI (1954)--a film that likewise served as inspiration for Don Houghton's GOLDEN VAMPIRES script.

It's unclear at what point Chang Cheh was instructed to oversee the action direction as a co-director of LEGEND, but the first major fight sequence is clearly all Roy Ward Baker's guidance. Reportedly, Liu Chia Liang (see insert; Liu at far left) was initially going to fill this position since he was the assigned action director anyway. This ruffled Baker's feathers as he felt like there wasn't much point in him being there if somebody else would be giving direction alongside of him. Master Liu was actually anxious to direct his own movies. In 1975, he would break from Chang Cheh's camp in Taiwan and return to Hong Kong where he'd embark on a very successful directorial career beginning with that year's comedic Kung Fu hit, THE SPIRITUAL BOXER (1975).

There are no photos of Chang Cheh on the LEGEND sets, but apparently he ensured the action would flow in the Chinese style while Baker would shoot everything how he saw fit. It's also possible some additional scenes were filmed exclusively for the HK theatrical version after the British crew went home; although no one has seen it since its July 1974 release. There are photos, however, of Chang Cheh on the set of SHATTER directing the fights (see insert) while director Monte Hellman was eventually replaced by Michael Carreras. Unlike Hellman, Baker, having a lengthy resume prior to this feature, had a much bigger ego to bruise.

Makeup Effects Artist Les Bowie had nothing but good things to say about Run Run Shaw, but was apparently frustrated by the lack of resources in Hong Kong to devise the film's many special effects that reportedly was constantly changing as to the look of the creatures. Makeup effects in HK were rudimentary in comparison to the Anglo filmmaking world, although breakthroughs for Asian pictures were evident in such works as the Shaw's colorful JOURNEY TO THE WEST series that began in 1966 with THE MONKEY GOES WEST directed by Ho Meng Hua. The market for FX-heavy pictures in Hong Kong wasn't there, but moguls like Shaw, who literally lived and breathed cinema, sought to change that.

Bowie, who began his career as a matte artist before entering into special effects, worked on many of Hammer's horror output and some Ray Harryhausen pictures. SUPERMAN (1978) was Bowie's last credit before his death in 1979. With so many bloodsuckers on screen (8 including Dracula), GOLDEN VAMPIRES required a number of vampire makeups and dissolves. Surely it must hold a record for most vampires turned to dust on camera. A crew of 45 assisted Bowie in creating the vampires and the dozens of skull-faced, long-haired, living dead minions adapted from Chinese folklore. Nothing like this had ever been seen in a Hammer picture, so being in an entirely new environment under conditions you're unaccustomed to, it couldn't be anything other than a challenge.

For years rumors persisted that LEGEND originally never had Dracula in the script at all; that the Shaw's insisted at the last minute to include the character. Other stories have claimed that Warner's insisted on Dracula being included and revisions were made to compensate. But according to Michael Carreras himself, Dracula was always a part of the story. Don Houghton had written it so that Dracula would appear at the opening and ending, and make an appearance somewhere in the middle.

As Carreras put it in an interview with 'The House of Hammer' magazine, "What happened when we saw the finished picture was that we thought the Kung Fu parts of the film were much more exciting than the Dracula sequences so we cut a version without Dracula at all, and 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."

Easily one of the most ambitious of Hammer's catalog, the higher production values outshine other, more quaint pictures they were making during this time period. A few stumbles aside, there's a sense of adventure that's missing from Hammer's other horror output. The only thing that could've made LEGEND even better would've been the return of Christopher Lee to the role. Lee had previously turned down other Dracula roles but was always lured back into donning the fangs and cape. By this point, he meant it. John Forbes Robertson (1970s THE VAMPIRE LOVERS) played Dracula in an admirable approximation even if his voice was dubbed (see insert image of an alternate shot not in the movie)

Incidentally, Lee had starred in a movie filmed at the Shaw Studios several years earlier playing the "yellow peril incarnate" in THE VENGEANCE OF FU MANCHU (1967).

As for the Chinese cast of 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES, the Shaw's, like Hammer, were meticulous in their selection in the hopes that both their actors and exotic nature of the film would attract the maximum amount of audience interest.

THE CONCLUSION IN PART 2 HERE.

Related Posts with Thumbnails

ShareThis

copyright 2013. All text is the property of coolasscinema.com and should not be reproduced in whole, or in part, without permission from the author. All images, unless otherwise noted, are the property of their respective copyright owners.