The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974)
By the time of The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires in 1974 Hammer Studios was dying. Thanks to the vérité horrors of films like Night of the Living Dead (1968), their unique brand of Gothic chills seemed archaic - as dusty as one of Dracula's cobwebbed tombs. Indeed, Golden Vampires would mark the last appearance of their erstwhile Count and Hammer would soon after stagger into the graveyard of television and, finally, oblivion. Golden Vampires is filled with the kind of desperation akin to someone in their death throes and the assimilation of Kung Fu (then all the rage) reeks of a company all out of ideas. But despite this Golden Vampires actually has a lot to offer. In fact, it is one of Hammer's best films of the 1970s and remains a fitting send off for one of the giants of British Cinema.
Whilst travelling around Asia to spread the word on vampirism, Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) is approached by Hsi Ching (David Chiang), a man in desperate need of help. His remote village has fallen victim to the curse of the seven Golden Vampires, an ancient evil who desecrate all and kidnap buxom young virgins for sacrificial rites. Van Helsing, famous for his destruction of the arch vampire Dracula, accepts and along with his son Leyland (Robin Stewart) and the heiress Vanessa Buren (Julie Ege) journeys across China to wipe out the vampires once and for all. But the forces of darkness are also moving and the seven are growing in strength, thanks in part to their new Master... Count Dracula himself.
In their attempts to stay alive, Hammer realised they would first need new blood and enlisted the legendary Shaw Brothers. The Hong Kong based producers, who had started the martial arts boom with films like One Armed Swordsman (1967), insisted that the film be a down-the-line co-production split evenly between the two studios. Directing fell to Hammer veteran Roy Ward Baker (director of Scars of Dracula in 1970) but Swordsman's Chia-Liang Liu was assigned to shoot the fights scenes. This pays off. While Baker bathes the film in howling winds and long shadows, Liu drenches the fights in movement and flying daggers. There are fast cuts and pull focuses that hit like a punch to the face. And as Ching's martial art expert siblings leap through the air and use weapons to spray out jets of blood, Van Helsing and son can only watch. "I've never seen anything like it," gasps Van Helsing - Hammer fans must have agreed.
While sequences of Kung Fu carnage may seem to oppose Hammer's graveyard style, they are instead in perfect harmony. Despite the portentous script and straight faced playing, Hammer had lost the seriousness of its earlier productions. The increased sex and violence introduced in The Vampire Lovers (1970) had taken away the studio's bite and left it with a cartoonish excess. This is evident here, but coupled with the super heroics of our Eastern avengers it adds a nice comic book feel. Ching's brothers all have their own special powers with weaponry; one is a master with an axe, another with a bow, a blade and so on. Baker reinforces this motif and adds a garish EC color palette that pre-empts Romero's Creepshow by eight years. Dracula is often low lit in a kind of swampy green and there is a rich orange fire that eventually purifies the village.
The film then, seems an easy marriage of East and West, a fact further emphasised by the narrative. Despite an opening scene in a muddy town market where an old woman brutally hacks off the head of a frog, the movie is far from the stereotypical display of 'yellow peril.' Indeed, our Chinese cousins repeatedly come to the rescue and it's interesting to note that the two vanilla leads (Ege and Stewart) don't fall for each other, but for blade wielding members of the Ching family. Given their own dull veneer, it's easy to see why. In fact the white cast members are generally overshadowed, with of course the exception of Mr Cushing. This was his last performance as Van Helsing and the part fits him like an old pair of shoes. His tough features, wavy grey hair and hollow cheeks brim with life, dignity and grace. "I have experienced horror," he tells us. "And its aftermath." I believe him.
The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires is not perfect. It is at times over serious, the effects creak and it misses Christopher Lee as the Count (here replaced by John Forbes Robertson). But it is amazing how influential the film became. It can be seen as a precursor to John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China and the fusion of East and West seen in The Matrix. In China it spurred a whole subgenre of supernatural Kung Fu epics, such as Mr Vampire (1985) that still continues today. The film may have been mocked by critics, but its legend lives on - even though it failed to keep Hammer from its early grave.