The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires



Reviewed by Yves Gendron

LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES is one of the many names of the semi-classic hybrid vampire horror/kung fu production by famed British horror studio Hammer and the Hong Kong Shaw Brother’s studio starring Peter Cushing on one hand and David Chiang on the other.

Somewhere in the nineteenth century the Chinese high priest of the "Seven Golden Vampires sect" comes to Transylvania to beg the vampire’s high lord Dracula (John Forbes-Robertson) to save his sect from decrepitude. The fiend’s answer to the plea is to possess the priest’s body, take on his appearance and head-off to China.  Decade’s later occultist and vampire hunter, Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) arrives in China with the hope of doing research on the eastern variety of vampires. He is stunned to learn from a local named Hsu Ching (David Chiang) of the validity of an ancient legend about the Seven Golden Vampires oppressing a small village deep inside China. Hsu is actually a native of the village and asks Van Helsing for help in exterminating the vampires. A small expedition is organized that is made up of Van Helsing, his son Leland  (Robin Stewart), Mrs Vanessa Burden (Julie Ege), an adventurous young wealthy widow, and Hsu with his six brothers and one sister (Shih Szu). The brothers and their one sister are all deadly masters of Chinese martial arts. It's won’t be an easy outing as the party will have to come face to face with the seven deadly vampires themselves, their un-dead army of ghouls and the arch-fiend himself…Dracula.

For nearly fifteen years starting in the mid-fifties, Hammer films had delivered classic horror pictures based often on the mythic figures of Dracula and Doctor Frankenstein.  By the early seventies however the studio was in a state of creative burnout, so when the kung fu movies hit the western world with such fare as FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH (1972) and the Bruce Lee films, Hammer's head Michael Carreras came-up with the idea of mixing western type genres such as the action thriller and of course horror with martial arts. He thus contacted Hong Kong’s biggest studio, the Shaw Brothers, and they made a deal to produce a pair of films combining each others strengths. Shaw Brothers provided exotic locations, a stuntman /action crew, and some of their stars while Hammer would also provide some stars and handle the film scripting, direction, as well as cinematography. In the case of their joint thriller SHATTER (1974) starring Ti Lung, Lily Li, Peter Cushing and an American B movie actor named Stewart Whitman the end result proved quite dismal. With LEGEND their efforts proved somewhat better.
LEGEND more than adequately recreates Hammer’s creepy gothic and lurid atmosphere and is a solid piece of film all around - with great sets, an excellent musical score and featuring Peter Cushing at his suave delightful best (this would be his last Van Helsing interpretation). The kung fu action isn't that successfully integrated though. As done by Shaw Brother’s own house fight arrangers, Tang Chia and Lau Kar-leung, it's good enough choreography-wise, but lacks the cinematic over the top dynamism that could already be found within Hong Kong martial art’s productions.  Furthermore it takes nearly half an hour for a first small fight to occur and the first real big battle comes nearly halfway through the film. Establishing LEGEND’s premise of a vampire adventure deep inside China consumes nearly as much time and feels especially slow and cumbersome by Hong Kong cinema narrative standards.
LEGEND wasn't directed by some two bit director, but by Roy Ward Baker, one of Britain’s finest and most respected B movie craftsman, who did such s-f/horror classics as QUARTERMASS AND THE PIT (AKA: FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH (1966), DOCTOR JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE (71), who as a TV director did countless episodes of THE AVENGERS, THE SAINT and SPACE 1999 and back in 1958 did what was regarded for forty years as the best Titanic movie A DAY TO REMEMBER. It's likely thanks to him that LEGEND didn't end-up a lame bore-fest like SHATTER did. Yet many years later Baker did say. "One could have done tremendous things with it. But (they) just didn't occur to me until after I shot the bloody thing" (Bey Logan's HONG KONG ACTION CINEMA pp: 103).  True enough, as LEGEND is a far cry from the relentless energy and madcap inventiveness found in such later classics as CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE SPOOKY KIND and MR VAMPIRE and for the most part lacks any real fright sparks or original ideas as the horror consists mostly of decrepit looking ghouls running amok, the main special effect is the disintegration of the ghouls into smoking piles of ashes and bones, and the most stunning scenes are those done in a sacrificial room where the seven Golden Vampires feeds on bare-chested Chinese maidens.
Furthermore, besides being relatively uninspired, the script also betrays the writer’s all but non- existent knowledge and appreciation of its Chinese setting beyond some well-worn superficial clichés. Of all the Chinese characters featured in the movie only David Chiang has any extended lines and he comes across as a pretty bland ever-serviceable ethnic sidekick. And while it takes the movie forever to set-up the premise, the final act feels very rushed.
Curiously enough, Dracula makes only two token appearances at the very beginning and end of the movie, so arbitrary and brief, one might wonder if Dracula wasn't a last minute addition to the picture so as to capitalize on the notoriety of his name, although this is mere speculation. In any case though, the limited exposure of the character, the diva camp manner in which he is played and the easy way in which Van Helsing deals with him makes him rather superfluous and useless. Another funny bit is the actual Chinese title - SEVEN GOLDEN CORPSE. There is no mention of Dracula or even of vampires since no such brand of folkloric creatures exist in the east. So instead they are referred to as the seemingly nearest equivalent, the “jiang shi” or stiff corpse zombies seen hopping around most notably in the MR VAMPIRES movies. In China though they are not known to bite people or drink blood and in LEGEND they hardly do any hopping. On the other hand, they do really look like rotten corpses.
Actually, for today’s audience, LEGEND might be considered more fun and interesting for it's dated as well as dubious sexual and racial politics than for any of its attempts at chills or kung fu action. We have David Chiang playing a sort of helpful bland manservant, but there's also buxom-beauty Julie Ege having the part of an assertive Swedish rich young widow, who in the story conducts a solitary world tour and finances the vampire outing. She's also called for to shed a piece of her outer clothing as well as to flirt with Chiang in a romantic bit that feels as right as one would between Little Tony Leung and Amy Yip if played seriously.  Considering Hammer's pseudo-Victorian morality it's not hard to guess how this peculiar character will end up.  On the other hand Van Helsing’s son Leland is almost immediately smitten by cute fighting tigress Shih Szu and soon enough Leland has his hands and mouth all over her in a cute way of course and under the approving eye of David Chiang’s character and his other siblings.  Right!  As if any red-blooded Chinese brothers would allow a gweilo to flirt with their sister. Finally, in the showdown with the brothers numbers (for all their fighting skills) is quickly dwindling, the tentative romance between David Chiang and Julie Ege comes to a really biting end leaving only Van Helsing and son to rescue Shih Szu and deal with Dracula. So much for the titular seven brothers and their kung fu.
Of the eight siblings only David Chiang gets to really play a character. The rest are only differentiated by the weapons they use: sword, spear, bow, battle-axes, and spike-bats (Chiang is the only one to do true hand to hand fighting). Future kung fu star/director Lau Kar Wing plays the archer, while future kung fu villain Fung Hark-Onn plays one of the two sword-wielding siblings. But one would have to read his name in the film credits or have really sharp eyes to know that he participated in the movie however, as no close-up is ever used on him. As for Shih Szu, she uses a pair of daggers. Her dance background makes her fluid and fast but her visible lack of power makes her fighting prowess rather transparent. She was probably better suited doing straight sword-plays rather than kung fu.

Actually, Shih Szu was meant to be Cheng Pei Pei’s successor as the Shaw Brothers swordplay queen, but the emergence of male dominated kung fu movies added with the fact that Chang Cheh,  Shaw’s lead martial director, had little use for women warriors or for that matter women period, short-circuited her career. She still appeared in plenty of pictures, some good (JADE TIGER (76) some not: (the H-K/Italian hybrid co-production SUPERMEN AGAINST THE ORIENT where she dresses in a yellow superman suit) but never became as huge a star as her predecessor and is one of the least known of all the major seventies female martial warriors. Quite ironically in LEGEND where she has only one short speaking line (perhaps because she knew no or little English) and played the part of a lovely exotic fighting cutie is nowadays the only film of her to have really ever stuck in the western world (though she has a very nice section devoted to her in the documentary Deadly Fighting Dolls).

LEGEND, did not do very well in Hong Kong back in 1974.  It also got a more commercially savvy title DRACULA AND THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES even though Dracula’s screen time amounted to no more than 5minutes. The attempts by Hammer to revitalize its products having failed both commercially and artistically, folded around the mid seventies. LEGEND did not reach the US shores until 1979 in which it was horribly cut, re-edited and given the ludicrous title SEVEN BROTHERS MEETS DRACULA (which never actually occurs in the film itself). By then the kung fu wave had been long gone and the film was released perhaps only to take advantage of the classy DRACULA production starring Frank Langella. In the nineties however the film was released in video format in a restored, letterbox, uncut format making it the finest looking Shaw Brother product available to this day. It is mostly recommended for those who want some jolly good fun, or those remembering the good old days of Hammer, old school Shaw and…..goofy political incorrectness.