The Shaw Brothers Hammer one home…

By Shawn Robare

Today was a much needed day of rest and movie watching; in fact it was the first day of a vacation that should last through the 31st (knock on wood.)  So what was on the agenda at casa de Robare?  Well, the 1974 flick titled Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (or possibly the 7 Brothers Meet Dracula if you’re more familiar with the shorter version with some alternate editing.)  I’d been meaning to see this flick for awhile (after hearing Ben and Dan talk about it on the Mondo Movie podcast), and today seemed like a great day to sit back and watch the very odd pairing of two cult movie studios, Hammer and the Shaw Brothers.  Yeah, I know what you’re thinking, how exactly do you mesh kung fu and horror?  I was skeptical too, but after watching it I have to say that these two go together like chocolate and peanut butter.

I don’t have a ton of experience with either studio’s work though I have seen a few films by each and I’ve really liked everything I’ve seen so far.  Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires was Hammer’s shot at trying to breathe some new life into the studio, aiming to cash in on the burgeoning popularity of kung fu cinema in the 70s.  The film was written by Don Houghton (who had penned some episodes of Doctor Who as well as a few other Hammer films) and directed by Roy Ward Baker (who was also part of the Hammer stable of creators), though it’s also been noted that Shaw’s most prolific and well known filmmaker Chang Cheh also worked on the film.

The film opens on a lone monk walking through the wilderness in Transylvania, 1804.  Right out of the gate you can tell this is a Shaw Brother’s film as there are a couple of patented SB camera zooms…

After scaring the bejezus out of a local goat herder, the monk makes his way to a castle in the distance, a location he seems overjoyed to have found.  Though you pretty much have to figure it would be castle Dracula, what with the Transylvania subtitle and fact that it’s a co-Hammer production, it was still pretty cool none the less when the monk makes his way into the castle to find a giant tomb with a large letter D on it.  In very quick succession, the tomb opens itself and the ghastly Dracula (played by John Forbes-Robinson) rises to greet the monk, who we find out is named Kah.

We get the basic gist of what’s to follow as Kah begs Dracula to help him awaken the legendary seven golden vampires so that he can take control of a province in China.  Dracula refuses, and instead decides to take over Kah’s body and so that he himself can return to rule over China and eventually the world.

Honestly this film should be a horrible disaster as right off the bat there are a ton of conflicting story holes, not to mention that the film relies heavily on the films that have come before it, but I still couldn’t help smiling with glee throughout the whole thing.  The insanely colorful lighting, the corny dialogue, the interesting though pretty sub-par effects work, it all mashes up into a wonderful hour and a half of crazy monsters and fun kung fu action…

Peter Cushing reprises his role as Professor Van Helsing, though this time he’s traveling through China in 1904 in hopes of enlightening the local Universities with his knowledge of the undead.

He recites the legend of the seven golden vampires, a story about a local farmer in an all but forgotten village who chose to stand up against a vampire uprising.  The farmer decided to go out to the vampire’s lair one night only to find his daughter, kidnapped (along with six other girls) and tied to a rather ominous looking alter and surrounded by Kah (Dracula) and the seven golden vampires.  The farmer, distraught after seeing his daughter, busts into the temple and proceeds to attempt to free his daughter (unsuccessfully) and to steal one of the vampire’s golden bat talismans before fleeing.

In a particularly awesome sequence that follows, Kah summons an army of ghouls who, along with the golden vampires, are set out to track down the farmer.  I was pretty amazed at how creepy and effective the sequence with the ghoul army was considering the film probably didn’t have that large of a budget.

Unfortunately Van Helsing’s pleas fall on deaf ears, well all but one set that is.

Hsi Ching (played by David Chiang) breaks into Halsing’s hotel room to beg him to come back to his ancestral village, the very village being over run by the golden vampires.

To shake things up a bit Houghton introduces the audience to Van Helsing’s son Leyland, (played by Robin Stewart) who is at a party when he becomes enchanted by a Swedish widow, Vanessa (played by Julie Ege.)  The two manage to piss off a local Triad Leung Hun, after Vanessa rebuffs his advance.

This leads to the first of five main fight sequences as a group of Triad enforcers attack Leyland and Vanessa.  The duo is saved by two mysterious warriors who we quickly find out are Hsi Ching’s brothers, who have been lying in wait to protect the Van Helsings during their trip through China.  Because of their newly acquired troubles with the local mafia, and being pressured by both Hsi Ching and Vanessa, Van Helsing decides to embark on a journey to Hsi Ching’s ancestral village to rid them of the vampire plight.

Right as the group sets out on their journey they are besieged by an army of Triad warriors led by Leung Hun.  The battle is a great chance for the seven brothers and their sister dot, er, I mean Mai Kwei, to show off their awesome fighting abilities.  It’s a little hard to see, but the seventh brother is in the first screen shot on the top right off in the background (he didn’t get a close-up as he’s an archer and needed to be further away to be effective.)

This is another great moment for Shaw studios to shine with some really fun choreographed kung fu action, as well as some well placed crazy in-death reaction shots…

What surprised me a little was how much Cushing wasn’t doing, action-wise.  If there was one thing that I noticed about Cushing’s performances in the other Hammer films I’ve watched (Curse of Frankenstein, the Horror of Dracula, Hound of the Baskervilles and Night Creatures), it is how amazingly action packed his roles have been.  When chasing down Dracula, the man is jumping on tables, running and tumbling everywhere, so different from his turn as Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars.  In Lo7GV Cushing pretty much kept to the background as soon as any fights broke out (of course, he was 61 or so at the time, but still.)

Strangely, in the middle of the film, love blooms everywhere as Leyland makes eyes with Mai Kwei, and Vanessa nuzzles up to Hsi Ching.  This felt kind of odd considering the two genre backgrounds meshing together, but then again it’s also very modern, and maybe a little ahead of its time.

There’s another great battle set in a cave that the group of heroes camps in along the way.  This is their first battle with the supernatural, one in which the group figures out how to destroy the demons.

I was reassured of Cushing’s mobility in this sequence as he grabbed up a torch and started some vampire slaying…

After the battle, and even though the group is tired and disheartened, Van Helsing rallies the troops who quickly make their way to village.  The group builds some defenses while waiting for the final battle they expect that evening.  At this point the film is basically becoming the blueprint for films to follow like the Lost Boys.

This is also the point in the film when the tone takes a dark turn as the battle plays out and vampires, brothers, and Swedish widows start dropping like flies…

Vanessa is turned into a vamp, who in turn bites Hsi Ching, leaving him to make a hard choice deciding ultimately to kill her, and then himself…

That was a surprisingly dramatic sequence that actually had me on the edge of my seat.

There’s a final race to the temple as the last golden vampire kidnaps Mai Kwei.  Leyland rushes after to her rescue almost dying in the process…

Now that we’re in closer quarters with less villains, it’s papa Helsing’s time to shine as he saves his son and confronts Kah/Dracula, convincing him to transform back into his more normal visage…

During the transformation sequence there is a subtle bit where Dracula takes on the form of a giant bug-like creature that makes me wonder if this was a way of revealing his true demonic form.

In the end, Van Helsing stakes his man, and like in all the previous films Dracula bites the dust…

What’s kind of weird is that this whole movie sort of negates Helsing’s battles with Dracula as the characters supposedly disappeared from Transylvania in order to travel to China to awaken the seven golden vampires.  Even though there are giant plot holes, this is still one of the most enjoyable vampire flicks I’ve ever seen.

  • Marcus

    thank you, Shawn!

  • Shawn Robare

    Marcus – Sure, that would be cool.

  • Marcus

    Hi there, Great feature…would you give us your permission to reproduce this feature with your credit on our Peter Cushing Appreciation Society UK FB account…I have manged Peter’s fan club since the late 70’s. I also have a radio show and website called…would love to feature this great piece! Best Wishes Marcus Brooks