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October 7, 2010

Midnight Movie of the Week #40 - The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires

If you're like me, the first thing that you ask when you hear about 7 Golden Vampires is if finding one gets you free admission to a Vampire Chocolate Factory.  The second thing you ask is probably "Wait, what?"  The latter response is pretty appropriate for the film, a unique collaboration between England's Hammer Films and Hong Kong's Shaw Brothers.  By now, readers of this site hopefully known a bit about Hammer, but the Shaw Bros haven't been a hot topic at FMWL.  If you must know, the easiest way to explain them is to say that Shaw is to Hong Kong kung fu cinema as Hammer is British horror cinema.  Yeah.  THAT good.

So, what could bring these two super-powers, the Balboa and Creed of their generation, together?  Money, of course.  With Hammer's reign fading in 1974, the studios combined efforts on the production, which would mix the gothic horror aspects of Hammer with Shaw's Chinese kung fu magic.  Directors Roy Ward Baker and Chang Cheh, both experienced in their own studios, came together to produce the film on location in Hong Kong.  The idea was that Hammer could get some of the martial arts market - booming in popularity thanks to Shaw's films and the late Bruce Lee - and keep their classic series of Dracula films alive.
Recently, I've caught myself saying that Dracula A.D. 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula were the final Dracula films produced by Hammer.  That's not a slight on this film, it's just that I often forget to include this film in that discussion. That's probably because this Dracula seems to be from an alternate reality than Chris Lee's - even if Peter Cushing pops up as Van Helsing to lead the charge.  Drac is played here by two actors: John Forbes-Robertson bookends the film by portraying The Count as a make-up wearing, widow-peaked fellow with a voice like James Earl Jones; Shen Chan (or Chan Shen, depending on your dyslexia) plays Kah, the Chinese Vampire with the Fu Manchu hairdo who Dracula possesses so he can reign over the golden vampires in their native environment.  Regarding the plot, I'm not quite sure why Dracula needs to switch bodies to leave Transylvania.  In terms of the film, it's so the vampires can be of the Eastern variety that hop around and fight in acrobatic measures, I think.
Definitely not the Dracula I know and love.
So, Van Helsing - accompanied by his son (Robin Stewart), a wealthy Scandinavian widow (the striking Julie Ege), and seven brothers and one sister who vow to destroy the seven golden vampires that have plagued their country for ages.  Foggy flashbacks of their story, as told by Van Helsing to a class full of cynical students, show the golden vampires and their rise from the grave to take power; yet only these few really believe in the curse that the group is in search of.  Van Helsing also explains some differences between the vampires he's used to and these, such as the fact that the cross is useless against them - but a Buddha is very powerful due to their native religion.  It raises that age old question about how to stop an Atheist vampire, but I'm too scared to ask it.
Along their way across the countryside to the Golden Vampires' lair, Carl Douglas' song is validated - because there is plenty of Kung Fu Fighting.  The action is frantic and entertaining, and even the Europeans like Cushing and Ege get in on the battle.  The Golden Vampires are visually gruesome and enjoy sacrificing maidens, which makes them a fine villain for this type of film.  The scenes of the vamps rising from the ground are especially well done, and the film's execution of these moments shows a few hints of Fulci.  The plot stalls out in some of the fight scenes, a common factor in kung fu cinema which I tend to ignore when the fighting is good.  This film definitely falls into that classification, so I'm not disappointed.
Probably the most unique film from Hammer (particularly because it's pretty much their half-child), the film is rich with orange, green, and gold lighting that provides a Hong Kong feeling throughout.  But the Hammer staples are there, and Baker's camera still produces some of the same shots it did in films like Scars of Dracula and The Vampire Lovers.  The film was cut to a 75 minute run-time and retitled as The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula for American audiences, because the production ran a little too far toward Shaw's territory at times.  Thankfully, the full version of the film (along with that truncated version) are restored on DVD (in a sad, non-anamorphic transfer), and Baker and Chen's combined vision of the film provides a lot of action and fun.
When you put it all together, almost everything in this film works for me.  It's a completely serious film despite its silly plot, and the tone adds to the film's charm.  In fact, I'd put it right alongside the likes of Flash Gordon and Starcrash as one of the most awesome bits of cheese from its era.  The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires might not be classic Hammer, but it's a fun alternative that always makes me smile.

(Note from The Mike: Sadly, an RIP must be said for Roy Ward Baker, who died today at the age of 93.  Baker directed several other Hammer films, including the cyclopic Bette Davis comedy The Anniversary and the infamous Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde.  He also was popular with Hammer rival Amicus Pictures, directing Asylum, And Now the Screaming Starts, and The Vault of Horror (among others); directed many episodes of The Saint and The Avengers, and was behind the Criterion-preserved Titanic film A Night to Remember.  A fond farewell to you, Roy Ward Baker.)


stonerphonic said...

so gotta love a movie re-title based on the fear of treading on territorial toes as opposed to something as silly as, say, consumer market research. lol...

def one of the more 'overlooked' Hammer Dracula/ vampire films, but still, how the hell could you NOT get your rocks off on a kung-fu based vampire flick?

no, really...

venoms5 said...

I've yet to find any pictures of him on set of GOLDEN VAMPIRES in any of the Chinese magazines I have from 1974, but Chang Cheh did help out on the set of SHATTER with some fight scenes, the second co-pro between the two companies. I posted an image at my site of Cheh with Monte Hellman on the set of that film before Hellman was fired by Michael Carreras as well as several behind the scenes shots from GOLDEN VAMPIRES.

Baker himself stated that at one point, the Shaws wanted to take over the film and reshoot the whole thing with a new director and camera crew which apparently was Liu Chia Liang (Cheh's soon to be former choreographer and director in his own right) and not Chang Cheh.

Wayne Kinsey mentions this in one of his two recent and excellent Hammer books which contains tons of background info and access to files no one had seen before. If you can find the book (HAMMER, ELSTREE YEARS), it's a great read and covers the entire production of this film (and many others) including interviews with the cast (there's some amazing remarks from the actors), letters about the shooting and even BBFC issued letters regarding what needed to be cut. A Chinese AD is listed, but it's not Chang.

Interestingly, in Cheh's memoirs, which contains everything the man worked on (not just directing), his (apparently limited) involvement on SHATTER isn't even mentioned.

This is an awesome movie and it seemingly did very well everywhere but America. It did average business in HK, but was a big hit in other Asian territories.

The Mike said...

Thanks for the comments, guys!

@stonerphonic - Totally agree that it's overlooked - like I said, I forget it too. The fact that it's not Lee just seems to make it second-banana to the others, but on its own it's fabulous.

@venoms5 - Wow, lots of cool info! I've never seen or even heard of Shatter til now. Will have to do some more reading!

venoms5 said...

AB released it on DVD, too, but it was a cut version. Stuart Whitman, Peter Cushing and Ti Lung were the main stars. Monte Hellman was the original director, but got fired three weeks into the shoot. I got pic of Chang Cheh helping him shoot the action scenes. He has some interesting things to say about the film in that book I mentioned. Michael Carreras took over the film when it apparently fell behind schedule.