Related Posts with Thumbnails

Saturday, September 14, 2019

The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974) review


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

Directed by Roy Ward Baker

The Short Version: Weary of European blood, Dracula travels to Asia to dine on the sanguinary taps of virginal Chinese ladies and resurrect seven crusty-skinned comrades wearing gold face masks in this LEGENDary co-production. Hammer and Shaw Brothers combine for a version of THE SEVEN SAMURAI (1954) as 'The Seven Kung Fu Brothers' (and their one sister!) with less emphasis on characterization than on bone-shattering martial arts action. GOLDEN VAMPIRES is both Hammer's most exotic production and also their most action-packed; and one of the company's most underrated pictures. Far more appreciated in KF movie circles than the more uppity Euro-Gothic ones, it's undeniable the level of energy and sense of adventure that was untapped terrain for the dying British horror company; and business as usual for the Hong Kong movie moguls.

Kah, an evil Chinese monk, travels to Transylvania seeking Count Dracula--hopeful he will resurrect the 7 Golden Vampires so that Kah will lord over the populace once more. Dracula has other plans, though, deciding to take over Kah's body to escape Europe and initiate a reign of terror in China among isolated villages with his undead hosts. One hundred years later, Laurence Van Helsing is speaking at Chunking University on the subjects of Count Dracula and a local legend about a cursed village. After being ridiculed by the Chinese students, one of them, Hsi Ching, reveals the village of the legend is his ancestral home and that it is terrorized by the same Golden Vampires of the legend. Mounting an expedition over treacherous terrain, Van Helsing, Hsi Ching, and seven other kung fu fighters battle their way through the Seven Golden Vampires, their undead zombie slaves, and Count Dracula himself to free the village of evil.

In an effort to revitalize its dying product after growing audience disinterest, Hammer Films joined forces with the Shaw Brothers of Hong Kong to produce the first ever Kung Fu/Horror hybrid. Despite numerous clashes during the film's making, the two companies managed to pull out all the stops to deliver what is arguably Hammer's most entertaining film of the 1970s and the most action-packed picture in their catalog.

Roy Ward Baker had directed some of Hammer's best genre works like QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (1967), THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970), and DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE (1971). He also helmed a personal favorite in the Dracula series, SCARS OF DRACULA (1970). As for GOLDEN VAMPIRES, Baker had little good to say about it. This was Hammer's last Dracula picture, and Baker, despite his displeasure of having been its director, turned in a rousing entertainment that rarely slows down; made all the more riveting by James Bernard's adrenaline-pumping score. Despite its flaws, GOLDEN VAMPIRES is easily the most exotic and exciting movie from the British House of Horror.

Hammer was at a low ebb in 1973 due to audiences having grown tired of the requisite Gothic trappings and the obligatory (but not unwelcome) diaphanous gowns of curvaceous cast members. The recycled story ideas bore some innovation and splashed extra blood, but it wasn't enough to hold viewers attention when movies like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) and THE EXORCIST (1973) were reinventing the genre in graphically realistic ways. Kung Fu was the in-thing at that time and Hammer hoped aligning with a major 'Fist and Kick' player would be the antidote they needed to improve their ailing formula.

Regardless of all the troubles incurred making GOLDEN VAMPIRES, the end result benefits from the vigorous Kung Fu battles between men and monsters. Liu Chia Liang and Tang Chia, two of Hong Kong's most famous action directors, choreographed the Kung Fu sequences. There are three major set pieces and three smaller ones spread evenly throughout the film's brisk 89 minutes.

The first major action is a beautifully edited display of the seven brothers (and their one sister) wiping out a local gangster and his men. The scene culminates in one of the film's best moments when Hsi Ching (David Chiang) pierces a man's throat with his fingers. Before letting his dead body hit the ground, he wipes his bloody digits on his clothes! This moment of brutality gives Hsi Ching some additional characterization without him having to say anything. Up to this point, he's shown himself to be a reserved, highly learned, intellectual man. During this battle, he shows another side of his personality by his ferocious fighting ability and his grimly sarcastic hand cleansing.

The second major action sequence takes place inside a cave. Exhausted, Van Helsing and the others attempt to get some much needed rest; but this is interrupted by three of the Golden Vampires and their skull-faced minions. This is the first time we see the brothers in serious trouble, obtaining some injuries during the fight, but managing to inflict greater damage to the undead hordes. It's in this scene where Cushing proclaims the classic line, "Strike at their hearts!" And so they do. It's a fine precursor to the final fight, foreshadowing the dread ahead.

The third and last battle is a fitting finale. Each of the fights grow and build to a crescendo, which is what movies should do. GOLDEN VAMPIRES is successful in this way. Despite having made preparations for this last attack, the brothers are fatigued; and as usual in these sorts of movies with a team of warriors, not all of them make it to the final credit crawl. James Bernard's music raises the bar during this lengthy sequence, making it even more exciting and intense than it already is.

There's several rousing moments at the end--including one brother who martyrs himself to take out one of the Golden Vampires in a fiery display of self-sacrifice. Another involves David Chiang and Julie Ege in one of Hammer's most gripping scenes in their entire horror registry.

An additional point of interest is Peter Cushing getting energized in the action scenes. He's jumping around and swinging torches in a vigorous display of physicality the likes of which hadn't been seen since BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960). Arguably the then 60 year old Cushing's most action-centric role, he slays more vampires and unholy creatures than his last two turns as Van Helsing combined.

One of the biggest clashes occurred behind the scenes--between the British and Chinese crews on how the martial arts scenes would be filmed. Run Run Shaw was so displeased with Baker's action footage that the feeling was the Chinese were going to take over the picture with their own director and crew. Baker was adamant about being the sole director although Run Run Shaw reportedly insisted the Kung Fu sequences be shot by a Chinese director. Reportedly, Liu Chia Liang, one of the most revered choreographers in HK film history, was insulted when Baker proclaimed he could shoot Kung Fu better than the Chinese.

In HK martial arts films back in the day, the director and action choreographers worked together on details of the fights, weapons used, etc; but the action choreographer(s) handled the direction of the fights. In Shaw's own publications, from October 1973 to June 1974, GOLDEN VAMPIRES was promoted as a production solely under Roy Ward Baker's guidance. Curiously, in the July 1974 edition of Hong Kong Movie News, it was being advertised as jointly directed by Baker and Chang Cheh.

No photos of Chang Cheh on set were in Shaw's film mags, but he can be seen directing, and or supervising the fights on the set of SHATTER (1974), the second of the Hammer-Shaw cooperative efforts. It's possible Chang supervised the fights while the choreographers worked their magic as was common practice. Meanwhile, Baker shot the fights the way he wanted. This is the set-up that was reportedly agreed upon during the filming. However, it is also possible that Chang Cheh directed new action scenes after the Brit crew had already left Hong Kong--with those scenes exclusive to the HK theatrical version. 

Unfortunately, the HK cut of GOLDEN VAMPIRES was not part of the Celestial remasters of the Shaw Brothers movie catalog from the early 2000s; so that version hasn't been seen by an audience since its July 1974 theatrical showing in Hong Kong.

If you're a fan of Shaw Brothers movies you'll recognize the ominous pagoda that serves as the lair of the vampires. Standing one-hundred feet and seven stories high, it was built in 1969 specifically for Chang Cheh's HAVE SWORD WILL TRAVEL (1970) starring David Chiang, Ti Lung, and baby Queen, the adorable Li Ching. Unfortunately, the filmmakers never utilize the grand construct the way it was used in past Shaw Brothers pictures. We only see the bottom floor decked out in suitably ghoulish tresses where the vampires feast on the blood of Chinese women--their blood pooled into a boiling cauldron of bubbling plasma.

Incidentally, Peter Cushing had designed some intricate models of the vampire lair intended for a museum display that never came to be. Cushing's models were more elaborate than what ended up onscreen. It's one of the few areas the picture could've explored a bit more even if it's an insignificant gripe.

However, the biggest misstep the movie takes is a bit of scripting sloppiness that's evident right at the very beginning. At the outset, a title card says "Transylvania 1804". After the Dracula segment, it switches to China with a title card stating, "Chung King 1904". Immediately thereafter we enter the Chinese university and witness Van Helsing discuss his battles with Dracula and the existence of other fiendish creatures. If 100 years has passed since Dracula made the pilgrimage to China, then Van Helsing has some explaining to do since that would put him well over a hundred years old himself! Incidentally, Chinese articles from when the film began shooting stated the time period was the late 1880s; so it's possible some revisions were made although this is one bit of business that could've been rectified fairly easily.

Considering the type of movie being made by Hammer and Shaw, expositional expansion wasn't practical. Kurosawa's THE SEVEN SAMURAI (1954) being an influence, it had over 3 1/2 hours to tell its story; GOLDEN VAMPIRES only has 89, and characterization isn't high on the list.

Another scripting catastrophe is that it doesn't explore the brothers at all. We get their names and they get no lines. David Chiang is given the most depth with Shih Szu close behind. The rest are just actors brandishing swords, axes, and spiked hammers. Just a handful of lines would have given them a lot of pathos to benefit the compelling death scenes during the finale.

The Golden Vampires aren't explored either, but they don't need to be. Differentiated by their multi-colored robes, they're otherwise interchangeable. The leader is the one wearing the bear-skin clothing and we only know this because he's the last one standing who gallops off with Shih Szu before our remaining heroes give chase. They are suitably menacing, and stand out as the only vampires in Hammer's vampire chronology to appear to have already been out in the sun too long with their ashy, hornet's nest-like skin. They make an even greater impression riding their horses in slow-motion akin to the Knights Templar of Amando de Ossorio's TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD (1971) series. Curiously, the slo-mo Golden Vamps riding their steeds is only used in a single sequence.

The plot point about the Golden Vamps seeking the medallion of their 7th member who was seen destroyed in a flashback, isn't expounded upon much, either. There's simply too much going on for an 89 minute movie although the distractions are plentiful.

Meanwhile, John Forbes Robertson stepped into the Dracula role vacated by Christopher Lee. Apparently it was offered to Lee in spite of his lamentations in returning to the role time and again only to do less and less with each sequel. As fantastic as it would've been for Lee to star in Hammer's last Dracula picture, it was likely for the best since he wouldn't be in the movie all that much but would've had several minutes of lines; the lack of which was the main reason for Lee's growing disenchantment with the role. Robertson didn't enjoy playing Dracula either after learning his voice was dubbed by another actor.

On the other side of the coin, Chan Shen, who plays Kah, the malicious monk whose body Dracula takes possession of, does a fantastic job in his scenes as the devilish Count. Essaying villain roles the bulk of his career, the wild-eyed Shen strikes a menacing chord whenever he's on-screen. He turned up in another supporting role the following year in the flashy Shaw-Warner co-pro, CLEOPATRA JONES AND THE CASINO OF GOLD (1975).

Asian cinema--particularly its Golden Age--is so prolific, it's not the easiest genre to always nail down accurate information. However, in most instances, a little scrutiny goes a long way. With that said, the blu-ray commentary by Bruce G. Hallenbeck works best when focused on the British side of things but slops it up with cursory analysis when channeling the Hong Kong side of the production. Some of these same errors can be found in 'Little Shoppe of Horrors' #32 on the making of LEGEND. Everyone makes mistakes but some of these are surprisingly careless when even the most basic of research could provide accuracy. Whereas there are seven brothers, here are seven mistakes:

1. Chang Cheh was not a martial arts choreographer. He was a filmmaker credited with making the first action movie to make a million dollars at the HK box office; that being THE ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967). He was also responsible for initiating masculine cinema in HK when women were previously the dominant force in movies there. He created a slew of Chinese superstars, and started careers for many HK filmmakers, most famously with John Woo; whose filmmaking style shares commonality with Cheh's.

2. Shaw's did not produce Bruce Lee's movies. Shaw's fledgling competition at that time, Golden Harvest, financed Bruce's pictures; the popularity of which saved them from bankruptcy--eventually co-producing ENTER THE DRAGON (1973) with Warner Brothers (whom Shaw's also had a relationship with). Of course, Bruce did go to Shaw's first but rejected their standard contract. After his star rose, he did visit the studio and there were talks of negotiations with Lee to finally work for the company, but he died before anything could be finalized.

3. It was Ti Lung, and not David Chiang, who won an Outstanding Performance Award for Chang Cheh's BLOOD BROTHERS (1973) at the 11th Annual Golden Horse Awards on October 30th, 1973. David Chiang did however win a Best Actor Award in 1970 for his lead performance in Chang's VENGEANCE! (1970) at the 16th Annual Asian Film Festival (Chang Cheh won Best Director).

4. Shih Szu is nowhere to be found in Chang Cheh's FIVE SHAOLIN MASTERS (1974); she is, however, in Chang Cheh's super-production SHAOLIN TEMPLE (1976).

5. Neither FURIOUS SLAUGHTER nor ROYAL FIST (both 1972) are Shaw Brothers productions. They're both independently made Kung Fu flicks starring Jimmy Wang Yu and directed by Ting Shan Si. Director Ting did make three disparate films for Shaw's in 1973; those being IMPERIAL TOMB RAIDERS, FLIGHT MAN, and THE WELL OF DOOM (released in 1974).

6. "Wang Yu was actually already on the set...." Jimmy Wang Yu was not asked to do martial arts choreography on LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES. For one thing, the infamously temperamental film star was a water polo champion and not much of a martial artist. For another, he'd abruptly left Shaw's in March of 1970, and was sued by them for breaking his contract. He wasn't allowed to make movies in Hong Kong till his contract was up in January of 1973. Despite two failed injunctions by Shaw's in the interim, Wang Yu made movies for Golden Harvest and independent companies outside of HK till then, and never worked at Shaw's again.

7. This one is baffling if you're familiar with famous bad guy actor, Feng Ko An. He does not play one of the fighting brothers despite being listed in the credits as one of them. Possibly he was originally cast to play the part only to be removed from the picture. Wang Chung, another Chang Cheh alum who had already been in some major roles, is shown in magazine photos of the Hammer-Shaw press conference standing beside David Chiang and the rest of the cast, but he is not in the film, either. This was a common occurrence in Hong Kong cinema; at least with Shaw Brothers movies. For one example, Lo Lieh was originally part of the cast of another Shaw co-production, VIRGINS OF THE 7 SEAS (1974) but was replaced with Yueh Hua. As for Feng Ko An, he was actually an up-and-coming actor with the company playing extras and background thugs till 1974 when his roles in Chang Cheh's movies became more substantial onward. The actor who plays the role of Hsi Sung that Feng is credited to is Lau Chun Fai. Lau worked extensively in the industry, but onscreen, he was predominantly a background player or in minor roles of no substance.

When Warner's backed out of distributing the movie in America after DRACULA AD 1972 bombed, Hammer was left without the vital American deal. The film passed through a few other hands, obtaining a shelf life of four years till a minor outfit run by former Amicus co-founder Max J. Rosenberg picked it up (along with the WB abandoned THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA). Rosenberg's US cut released through his Dynamite Entertainment is anything but a blast. A total re-edit by Rosenberg of the original version, the entire film was inexplicably chopped up and rearranged into an incomprehensible mess. The editing thoroughly destroys the plot and displays as much an aversion to narrative cohesion as a vampire to a crucifix.

For years, GOLDEN VAMPIRES had a lowly reputation among Hammer fans; many of whom would sing the praises of the inferior CAPTAIN KRONOS: VAMPIRE HUNTER (1974). That picture had a spirited script and potential for sequels, but had some of the sloppiest, inert action sequences put to film. The main protagonist, a swordsman sworn to combat vampires and other evils, was rendered ineffectual without convincing fights that were vital to the plot. GOLDEN VAMPIRES utilizes the same template; relying on both horror and martial arts, and never fails to deliver on either of them. For whatever reason, some Hammer fans have difficulty tolerating the martial arts sequences--all of which are exceptional, and still impress over 40 years later.

It's not their most Gothic movie of the 1970s, but THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES is certainly one of Hammer's best, most polished productions; even more so due to it being made during a time when they were struggling to get movies made at all. Something of a failed experiment behind the camera, but a successful one in front of it, LEGEND did set a precedent for Anglo pictures with HK-style choreography that would become fashionable in America in the late 1990s. Additionally, LEGEND likewise opened the coffin to a genre style that took off in Hong Kong in a big way six years later.

You can read our extensive, two-part Celluloid Trails article on the making of GOLDEN VAMPIRES told primarily from the HK point of view by clicking HERE for Part 1 and HERE for Part 2.

This review is representative of the Scream Factory bluray. Specs and Extras: New 2K scan from original elements; 1080p HD 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; audio commentary with Bruce Hallenbeck; alternate US theatrical version THE 7 BROTHERS MEET DRACULA (75 minutes); interviews with Ricky Baker and David Chiang; theatrical trailer; TV spot; still gallery; running time: 01:29:02

1 comment:

JMR777 said...

I had seen this once or twice on old UHF stations and it was great fun for monster kids and Kung Fu fans in the US. While the film wasn't considered Hammer's best by purists, its a lot of fun for B movie fans.

The concept of 'Drac Fu' wouldn't be used again by western movie makers until the movie Blade came out, though I think Asian movie makers dabbled with the concept a few times.

Related Posts with Thumbnails


copyright 2013. All text is the property of 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.