Jules picks up where he left off in October by running through some of the choice horror offerings from the fantastic Hammer back catalogue.
You can check out the rest of our “31 Days of Hammer” by CLICKING HERE.
Starring: Peter Cushing, David Chiang, Robin Stewart, Julie Ege
As the ’70s marched on and Hammer fell further off the pace in the eyes of horror-loving moviegoers, they tried various experiments to keep up, but none was as left-field as Legend Of The 7 Golden Vampires.
A co-production with the legendary Shaw Brothers Studio in Hong Kong (who themselves were struggling to compete with the new Golden Harvest studio and their star turn Bruce Lee), the film would see Hammer attempt to tap into the craze for Kung-Fu, while putting their own unique spin on it, resulting in a bizarre fusion of chop-socky action, gothic horror and westerns. Yes, really.
In 1804, Kah (Chan Shen) a Taoist monk and High Priest of the Seven Golden Vampires from rural China, makes a pilgrimage to Transylvania to plead for the Count’s favour in returning the Seven to their former glory. Dracula (John Forbes-Robertson) complies, but in his own fashion, killing Tao and taking over his body before setting out for China.
One hundred years later, Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) is delivering a lecture at Chung King University, but his tale of a cursed Chinese village with an annual plague of vampires is met with derision, all apart from student Hsi Ching (David Chiang). It was his grandfather who first fought the Golden Vampires and the village is his ancestral home, Ping Kuei.
The pair found an expedition to the village, assisted by Van Helsing’s son Leyland (Robin Stewart), widowed thrill-seeker Vanessa Buren (Julie Ege), with protection provided by Hsi Ching’s five brothers and sister Mai Kwei (Shih Szu), each one a formidable martial artist.
The aim is to deal with the Seven Golden Vampires once and for all, but unknown to Van Helsing, his old nemesis is waiting in the wings for one final confrontation…
What an oddity this film is. It’s still very much a Hammer production, with recognisable elements like Roy Ward Baker’s stylish direction and James Bernard’s rousing and very traditional score, to the presence of Peter Cushing, arguably the one man more than any other who embodies the studio and all that made it great.
But it’s not really a Hammer film, not in the way we normally see them anyway. What it is, is a pretty relentless martial arts film, one where there’s a fight every few minutes, but one layered in wonderfully horrific imagery pulled from Chinese folk tales that feel a million miles away from the forests and castles of gothic Europe.
The vampires themselves on the whole look marvellous, all scabrous and bug-eyed under their golden masks and convey no small amount of menace as they terrorise the beleaguered villagers, but they are outclassed in the horror stakes by their undead minions, an skull-faced army of the dead who’s rise from their graves is up there with any revelation scene the studio ever produced. It’s magnificent stuff and a real highlight of the entire film. So good, in fact, that they do it again later on.
The action scenes are as enthralling as you’d expect from a Shaw Brothers co-pro, with director Chang Che taking over the big chair from Baker for those scenes, while the ensemble cast are a likeable lot, particularly Ching and his sister Mai Kwei.
Sadly, there’s just not enough for Peter Cushing to do here. He’s wonderful as always, but with the screen erupting onto choreographed kung-fu mayhem on a regular basis, all too often the normally very physical actor is a bystander.
It’s only in the (brilliant) final battle scene that Van Helsing gets his hands dirty, setting about a vampire with a flaming torch and barking orders to the doomed Ching as his vampirised lover Vanessa is drinking his blood.
In the end, it comes down to that last battle between good and evil, when the arch-enemies meet for one last time – Van Helsing and Dracula. The only problem being, while initially still in the sinister Kah’s body, the Count transforms back to his original state and it’s really, really not good.
With his slight frame, heavily effected voice and thick grey/green makeup, John Forbes-Robertson would struggle to convince at the best of times, but coming on to replace the imposing and definitive figure of Christoper Lee? It was never going to happen and the poor man looks leagues out of his depth. It’s a truly awful turn and his battle with Van Helsing does him no favours either as it’s as weak as it is brief. Why they didn’t stick with Chan Shen’s brooding, malevolent Kah once they knew Lee wasn’t coming back is a mystery and a lost opportunity to end one of their most unique films with a suitably unique ending.
It’s not enough to ruin what is a rollicking thrill-ride of a film though. The ninth and final Dracula film was also Cushing’s last film for Hammer and while it’s not perhaps the classic the series and the great man deserved to go out on, it’s more than good enough.
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy