Sunday, June 04, 2006

The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires - review


Director: Roy Ward Barker

Release Date: 1974

Contains spoilers

The first thing to say about this is that this is not the US release (7 Brothers versus Dracula), which I believe is an edited mess. This film was a Hammer co-production with the Hong Kong producers the Shaw Brothers and was an attempt to mix Hammer’s trade mark gothic horror with the emerging Kung Fu movie.

It is also completely out of sync with its predecessors, time wise. The film begins in Transylvania in 1804, some 81 years before the Horror of Dracula (1958) was set. Its timelines also prove to be too much for the films own internal logic. The first error is forgivable as the film becomes a stand alone, the second is problematic to say the very least and we shall explore that later.

It is the only Hammer Dracula movie, which actually has the Count as a character, that does not star Christopher Lee. Lee was offered the role but turned it down. The role of Dracula is actually taken by two men. In the first instance John Forbes-Robertson and then by Shen Chan, dubbed by Forbes-Robertson. To me, Forbes-Robertson fails as Dracula. He doesn’t seem to have Lee’s presence, though his physical appearance in the film is very limited. The big problem was not the actor’s fault however, it was the stupid makeup he was forced to wear, which makes Dracula look almost like a drag queen.

The film starts in Transylvania and the pilgrimage of Kah, high priest of the temple of the seven golden vampires, to Castle Dracula. He supplicates himself to Dracula, asking for his help in resurrecting the vampires. Dracula gives boons to no man and refuses, but feels trapped where he is and so steals Kah’s form and heads off to China to take over the temple himself. The stealing of forms was interesting, as well as being a new power in Dracula’s ever increasing arsenal, and put me in mind of the Japanese film “Chi O Suu Bara” (also 1974 and known in the West as “The Evil of Dracula”) in which the vampire, originally European, passes through the ages by stealing the likeness of a victim and assuming their life. The biggest difference being that in the Japanese film the face is ripped away and literally pressed onto the vampires face to be assimilated, whereas in this there was a lot of dry ice plus some turning around and it was a more mystical thing.

We then jump forward 100 years to Chung King circa 1904. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) has defeated Dracula and is in China to learn about the Eastern vampires. This is where the films internal logic falls apart. How could he have defeated Dracula when Dracula absconded to China 100 years earlier? This is simply bad script writing and is unforgivable. But I’ll rant about this again later and we must press on… Van Helsing is giving a lecture at the university, and tells the tale of a village, the name and location he does not know, which is terrorised by the seven golden vampires. A farmer’s daughter (I assume) is kidnapped and he goes to the temple to rescue her. She is strapped around a pool of blood with six other girls, all led on slightly tilted tables which allow blood to drain into the pool. All around the temple are the seven vampires. These are not vampires as we have seen in the more traditional Hammer films; they have brown leathery skin and permanently apparent comedy fangs. Each one wears a cheap looking golden mask covering half their face and each wears a big, gaudy looking medallion in the form of a bat. They, in truth, look fairly rubbish. The farmer unhooks his daughter from the table and the vampires leap into action. The daughter is killed, by a sword through the stomach, but he manages to escape after ripping a medallion off one of the vampires, causing smoke to plume from its torso.

They give chase and Dracula, in his Chinese form, sounds a gong which summons a horde of skeletal zombies from the graveyard outside, the emerging from the graves being quite an effective sfx. We must note, however, that these creatures are referred to in the film as undead and are the victims of the vampires, forced to be their slaves for eternity. They precursor the Hong Kong vampire movie to a degree by kind of adopting a hop crossed with a mince as they run.

The farmer reaches the village but the gate is locked and so runs further reaching a shrine to Buddha. He places the medallion on the shrine and is then cut down by the vampires. The smoking vampire tries to retrieve the medallion and, because it is on the shrine, bursts into flames and dies.

Van Helsing’s story is met with derision. Indeed the audience, who know of Van Helsing’s European achievement, do not even believe that Dracula was a vampire, simply a madman (Arghh… it’s the internal logic flaw again). As Van Helsing pleads for help with the research the audience walk out, all bar one young man, Hsi Ching (David Chiang), who looks thoughtfully at the Professor before leaving. That night Hsi visits Van Helsing, by breaking into his lodgings (why? He could have knocked at the door), and explains that he is from the village of Ping Kwei and the farmer was his grandfather. As proof he shows the medallion and explains that he and his brothers (they number seven in all) want Van Helsing’s help.

In the meantime Van Helsing’s son, Leyland (Robin Stewart) is at a party. He is introduced to Vanessa Buren (Julie Ege), a rich Scandinavian widow; she shows interest in meeting Van Helsing. During this they manage to make a local Tong leader, Leung Hon (Wong Han Chan), loose face and are attacked on the way home. They are rescued by a mysterious axe-man and bowman. Not that mysterious really, to the audience at least, as they are two of the seven brothers.

Van Helsing is reluctant to help, as an expedition would cost money he doesn’t have, but Vanessa says she will fund it (as a vampire hunt would be exciting) on the condition she can go. Van Helsing again isn’t happy, it would be too dangerous for her, but he is outnumbered.

The next day the seven brothers, their sister Mai Kwei (Szu Shi), Van Helsing, Vanessa and Leyland set off and almost immediately are attacked by the Tong, cue a big martial arts fight. As they travel romance blossoms between Leyland and Mai Kwei and also between Vanessa and Hsi Ching. Van Helsing admits his ignorance to all the aspects of Eastern vampires but lays out some of the rules for us. Holy symbols are still to be used, but rather than a crucifix the image of Buddha is employed. A wooden stake or silver shaft to the heart will be effective. He is asked about fire and says it doesn’t work in Europe (since when! Okay Dracula survived a few hot coals in Dracula has Risen from the Grave (1966) but, following a lightening strike, he burnt to death in Scars of Dracula (1970)) but fire might work in the East. He explains that the medallion is a symbol of their unlife and the vampires will want it back as they will be able to use it to resurrect the seventh vampire. The medallion steams and Van Helsing warns that they know they are coming. During this discourse we see scenes of a raid on the village, which in honesty felt like an excuse to have a bit of a fight scene, some ripped blouses and naked breasts and finally a couple of bites when they returned to the temple.

The next night they stay in a cave, though Van Helsing senses that they are close to the village and the land feels malevolent. That night three bats fly from the roof of the cave and transform into three of the vampires and they are soon joined by the zombie undead slaves. There is a big fight, with Van Helsing shouting for them to go for the heart. Certainly, in respect to the slaves, even a spear punch in that region will make them crumble into dust. Eventually the three are defeated, the final by Van Helsing with a burning brand (so fire definitely does work) and kudos to Peter Cushing for getting involved in the fight scenes. Once the vampires are defeated the remaining slaves mince away.

Hsi Ching fears that his brothers cannot survive another assault, which is a bit defeatist given that the most damage they received was one cut leg, Van Helsing tries to rouse them and points out that there are only three vampires left. They get to the village and shore it up for an attack by digging a fire trench and putting up stake barricades and, as night falls, the battle begins. This is a massive fight sequence but there were really two interesting aspects plot wise. Vanessa is caught by one of the vampires and bitten. Hsi Ching runs to her and she vamps and bites him. Van Helsing shouts that he must kill her so he pushes her onto a stake, seeing that the bite marks on her neck vanish he pushes further and stakes himself also. When there is only one vampire left, the vampire manages to get Mai Kwei and ride off towards the temple with her, followed by Leyland. Van Helsing and the two surviving brothers are soon in pursuit.

Leyland is on the verge of being bitten by the vampire when it is staked by Van Helsing. The death is rather impressive, with him falling into the pool of blood, which boils away until only the bones of the vampire and point of the silver spear used as a stake are left. Mai Kwei, Leyland and the two brothers leave and then Dracula, still in Chinese form, makes his presence known to Van Helsing. The Professor recognises him straight away and that logic flaw re-emerges as Dracula rants about not being able to loose Van Helsing even when he travels half way around the world. How? He’s been there one hundred years, they couldn’t actually have met before… This part of the story is so sloppy it hurts. Anyhoo, after some taunts from Van Helsing, Dracula changes form back to his Western self and there then emerges the most lack lustre fight between Van Helsing and Dracula. It is lack lustre not only in comparison to the earlier martial arts, but also to the previous films. Dracula slaps Van Helsing all of twice and then Van Helsing stakes him, cue crumbling to dust. It also doesn’t make sense, given that Dracula has the wisdom of the ages and no-one is aware that he is there, why didn’t he remain hidden and then simply resurrect the vampires again at a later time, or make new ones?

This film was, on the positive side, a brave attempt to merge two genres. Peter Cushing, as always, is great and the martial arts spectacular in places. As an action flick this does pass muster. On the negative side it sorely lacks Christopher Lee, the characters (bar Van Helsing) are one dimensional and the story doesn’t have a great deal of depth. The death of Dracula is not the worst Hammer did, that honour still remains with Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969) as it really made no sense what-so-ever, but it is pathetic. Worst of all is the logic hole in the plot which is just too annoying for words. 3 out of 10 reflects the fact that it isn’t a bad Kung Fu movie, the action does keep you interested through the length of the film, but it is not a great Hammer film nor a great vampire movie generally.

It is sad that we leave the Dracula cycle on such a low, but this was to prove to be Hammer’s last Dracula movie.

The imdb page is here.

14 comments:

Mark said...

This is by far my least favorite film of the cycle (of course, I haven't seen Taste the Blood of Dracula, yet, so maybe I'm speaking prematurely.)

I absolutely hate this movie. I've sat through it twice, and I can't imagine ever sitting through it again. When Van Helsing explains that in the East, it's the "image of Buddha" that repels vampires, not the crucifix, I just have to roll my eyes. It's just embarrassing to watch (this on top of all the other illogical goofs you have documented).

I have to admit to not being a fan of Kung Fu theater, though, so this movie really has nothing going for it (except Cushing) for me.

I have a friend who loves this movie, which is something I'll never understand. If it wouldn't break up my collection, I would gladly give it to him. But like you've said, I'm a completist.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi Mark.

It isn't a great film - hence the fact it has the lowest score I've given for a Hammer film yet! However, as I don't mind the odd bit of kung fu action in a movie it is, at least, watchable.

As you are not a fan of the (kung fu) genre I can easily see why you'd struggle. Rumor is that another Dracula was planned, where Van Helsing would go to India but it never happened. I don't know if that is a good thing or a bad thing, but I suspect the former.

Mark said...

Yeah, you are probably right. It was time for this cycle to end. India would have been an interesting backdrop, though.

Eismann said...

As "the friend" I feel obligated to post that this film does indeed hold a most special place in my heart. Your description of Dracula's makeup is priceless. (I almost soiled my trousers) "Seven Golden Vampires" definately strays far from the series. But as a fan of the kung-fu genre also, I must add that this little gem is one of my all time favorite cross-over films. Hammer, to me is the pinnacle of horror. This was a real reach for a company that had peaked and was looking to grasp at something to keep its head above water. As an expert on the vampire subject, I have to ask you. Has there ever been a Vampire/Spaghetti Wester movie?

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Eismann, thanks for posting.

I have a problem with this as part of the Dracula cycle but, as you point out, it isn't a bad kung fu movie.

As for Westerns: there are some, surprisingly. The film Near Dark is, withoutout being in your face about it, near as damn it a western... but more blatantly, the film "Billy the Kid versus Dracula" (1965) springs to mind - now to be honest it isn't one I've watched but I am awarer it has David Carradine in the role of Dracula in it and their are some stills online here

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Well, you can tell I posted that last comment first thing in the morning! Not only typos all over the show but... more importantly... I obciously meant John Carradine not David (d'oh)

Mark said...

Hey Eismann, great to see you here enjoying Taliesin's blog! I never thought you'd read that little comment I made about your love of this movie.

You know, vampires and Westerns might not be a bad idea, if done well. Billy the Kid vs Dracula sounds rather terrible, but I bet there are some pulp novels (or at least comic books) out there that have explored this idea with some degree of success.

Werewolves and Westerns might mix better, though. You expect a wolf to show up every now and then in the Old West, while the West would offer little for vampires.

I can't finish without mentioning one of the worst monster films ever produced using a Western motif: Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter. Terrible.

On the other hand, Valley of Gwangi combines a Western motif with dinosaurs, and I rather enjoy that!

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Mark Billy the kid versus Dracula is by the same director as jesse james vs Frankensteins daughter...

eismann, researched a few more for you:

Dusk til dawn 3 (2000)is in a western setting, and has ambrose bierce as a character

Curse of the undead (1959) was a full blown vampire western

Sundown: vampire in retreat (1989) is another, and this one has David Carradine in it!

Vampire Junction (2001) by Jess Franco has, allegedly, western themes and is meant to be at the low end of franco's movies quality wise.

Of those listed I only have Dusk til Dawn 3, however.

Eismann said...

Thanks for the research! I might have to check a few of those out.

Mark said...

Curse of the Undead sounds like a "must have," to me!

Taliesin_ttlg said...

eismann - no problem

Mark - as far as I know (though I could be wrong) Curse of the undead is not on dvd, however Amazon US currently have the VHS of it on Marketplace

Mark said...

And it features Kathleen Crowley from 1954's Target Earth!

The T said...

"Dracula looks like a drag queen" lol. Very accurate description. Lee never needed more than the red contacts to look imposing. Forbes-Robertson certainly fails as the Count.

The movie has 3498723498127 holes in logic and effects and acting and everything but I still like it. It has some kind of magic. The Asian countryside makes for some good atmospheric locations! And Cushing makes his best to make it watchable.

I think this is the worst Dracula movie in the Hammer cannon though at times it has more magic than both "AD 1972" and "Satanic Rites".

Taliesin_ttlg said...

lol - the T, I should ask you to list all those holes in logic and effects and acting and everything! ;)