Starring Peter Cushing, David Chiang, Robin Stewart, Julie Ege, John Forbes-Robertson, Shih Szu, Chan Shen, Lau Kar Wing, Robert Hanna, Lau Wai Ling
Directed by Roy Ward Baker & Chang Cheh (uncredited)
Expectations: Low. It’s a team-up, I’m not expecting much.
For my first foray into Shaw Bros. horror, I picked the film poised to unite the two renowned cult studios of Hammer and Shaw in one great grab at the money from both studio’s fans. Honestly, I don’t know how the film’s production came about, who asked who and all that, but I do know this. The Hammer studio was a giant at the time, primarily making lavish Gothic Horror productions on small budgets with great actors. The Shaw studio was also a giant at the time, primarily making lavish Kung Fu epics on small budgets with great actors. Wait a minute… Yes, I’ve always viewed the two studios as brothers from another mother, banging out their brand of films for the huddled masses. The idea of both studios producing one movie may be too much for celluloid to contain. Realistically, the film could never live up to these kinds of expectations though, so I tried to go in with the mentality that team-ups are always less than the sum of their parts.
The first half of the film follows something of a Seven Samurai / Three Amigos storyline where David Chiang travels to the big city to recruit Dracula slayer Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) to help him rid his village of the vampiric scourge. If you want to break it down and split hairs, this could be considered the more Hammer-dominated section of the film. When they take to the journey, the fights begin and the second half has a much more Shaw-influenced atmosphere. Both halves of the film feel less than what they should be though from a fan’s perspective. The fights, while fun, aren’t anywhere near what the Shaw Studios are capable of and the Gothic horror elements are all fairly minor. It’s too easy to be critical with a film like this though, with so many odds stacked against it, so let’s try to focus on the good for now. David Chiang and Peter Cushing both represent their respective studios admirably in their roles. The supporting cast is good as well and the film is very well shot. The color cinematography pops off the screen in a sea of colored lights and brilliant set design. The set for the vampire’s lair and day spa virgin bleeding chamber is especially good, and reminiscent of the high quality set design the Shaw Bros. are known for.
My main problem with the story is the same problem I have with most culture clash East & West movies. The Chinese brothers who come to Van Helsing for help are totally capable of slaying their own vampires without his help, and in fact, they pretty much do just that. Westerners just can’t hang with the fast-paced action of the East, and they wisely don’t have Van Helsing doing any kung fu fighting. Instead he’s along for the ride in more of an advice role, telling tales of how he defeated Dracula, but even these aren’t that much use as Van Helsing himself states that Eastern vampires are different and won’t necessarily react in a similar way to the vulnerabilities of the European vampires. This proves true and further illustrates why the Westerners in the film are unnecessary additions to what would otherwise have made a pretty kick ass Shaw Bros. vampire tale. As I’m coming at this from the Shaw camp though, I wonder if hardcore Hammer fans feel the opposite way. In any case, it is a perfect example of how two big studios teaming up isn’t always rainbows and sunshine.
I don’t want to sound too negative as I did enjoy the movie pretty well for what it was. It’s definitely not great, and it leaves a lot to be desired, but you can’t fault them for not bringing out all the stops for this one. There are tons of vampires, special FX & fights, all brought together with quality production values and a sure camera. Despite all the elements being in place though, it just fails to fully connect with its audience. I do have the feeling that this could grow on me as a guilty pleasure though and I think this is the kind of movie that would play a million times better on the big screen, so hopefully I’ll get that chance one day.
Shaw Horror week continues tomorrow with my review of the black magic extravaganza, Bewitched!