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The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974)

legendof7goldenvampires_1The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires [七金屍] (1974)
AKA The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula, Dracula and the 7 Golden Vampires

Starring Peter Cushing, David Chiang, Robin Stewart, Julie Ege, Shih Szu, Chan Shen, Lau Kar-Wing, Huang Pei-Chih, John Forbes-Robertson, Tino Wong Cheung, James Ma Chim-Si, Wynn Lau Chun-Fai, Ho Kei-Cheong, Wang Han-Chen, Lau Wai-Ling, Robert Hanna

Directed by Roy Ward Baker (with an uncredited assist from Chang Cheh)

Expectations: Been looking forward to revisiting this for a while now.

On the general scale:

On the B-movie scale:

What a difference a few years makes. When I first reviewed The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, Silver Emulsion was only six months old, I had never seen a Hammer horror or a David Chiang film, I had no idea who Shih Szu or Chan Shen was, and I definitely couldn’t recognize Lau Kar-Wing on sight. If I remember right, my main takeaway was that it was OK, but nothing special, and that I wanted to watch some actual Hammer films. This initial reaction is a great example of why I set out about reviewing the Shaw films chronologically.

Taken as a single film, it’s true, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires isn’t anything all that special. It is a watered-down Shaw film, mixed with watered-down Hammer elements, and I can understand it not resonating with staunch fans of either studio. But within the context of the Shaw output of the time, along with an understanding and appreciation of the Gothic Hammer feeling, the mixture adds up to one very fun, fast-paced film filled with thrills. I only see my love for this film growing with each successive viewing.

A flimsy story has been constructed to bring the stars of these well-loved genre studios together, but it’s a fun one so it doesn’t matter how flimsy it is. Professor Van Helsing is teaching in China, apparently trying to educate the Chinese that vampires are real. He tells them of the legend of the seven golden vampires, rumored to exist in a small, unknown village in China. In his class is Hsi Ching (David Chiang), who just so happens to be from that ancient village cursed with the pesky, golden vampires. He convinces Van Helsing that he’s telling the truth, and before you can whistle a period-appropriate Chinese folk song they’re off to destroy those golden bastards. There’s not much else going on besides that. They are ambushed by some vampires every now and then, but it’s a pretty straightforward journey.

The only wrinkle comes during the intro, when evil vampire priest Kah (Chan Shen) visits Dracula’s tomb to enlist his help in resurrecting his golden brethren, and Dracula decides to just inhabit Chan Shen’s body. So not only do Van Helsing and Hsi Ching have to take care of the golden vampires, they must contend with Dracula himself! Oh no! This was clearly done so that they could have a reason for Chan Shen to speak English, but it also serves the purpose of making the screen-time of John Forbes-Robertson as Dracula a very limited affair. He’s not great, and I imagine if Christopher Lee had taken the role they would’ve figured out a way to have him in the film more. I usually don’t like these kinds of dumb movie reasons for a foreign character to speak English, but in this case I’d much rather watch Chan Shen ham it up than the Drac dude, so I’ll take it!

The two studios were at very different eras of their lifespans when they decided to join forces (for this film and Shatter). The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires was Hammer’s final Dracula film (with barely any Drac action), as well as one of their last films overall, and I can’t imagine it won too many hearts back to the Hammer fold. They were on their way out, and the partnership seems like an attempt to stay relevant and afloat in a changing industry. Shaw Brothers, on the other hand, had been firing on all cylinders for a few years, and had their best years still to come. It’s much more of a Shaw film than anything else anyway — it was all shot in Hong Kong — but the Hammer influence comes through on the distinct, colored lighting (which looks phenomenal). And since both studios love their gore, there’s quite a bit to be had in The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires!

Chang Cheh was the film’s uncredited co-director, and his camerawork seems evident in the film’s fight scenes more than anywhere else, so I imagine that’s what he worked on. The fights were much better than I remember them being, probably because I’m much more aware of the standard style of 1974 fights and I have grown into a loving fan of both Chiang and Shih Szu. In any case, the fateful battles between mortals and vampires were choreographed by Lau Kar-Leung and Tang Chia, so you know it’s quality. This film definitely isn’t up to the standards of the Shaolin films that had come out earlier in the year, but it’s still got a lot of varied and fun choreography thanks to Hsi Ching’s family and their dedication to unique weapons. But like their work in Friends, it feels like Lau and Tang weren’t trying to make the fights stand out — Can’t upstage the Hammer guys too much! — which does limit their appeal to us fans in the future. The fights remain great fun, and with vampires, zombies, and martial arts in the mix it’d be quite the feat if they weren’t! The muddy-faced vampires also reminded me heavily of the muddy-faced, frenzied zombies of Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City, which is always a good thing in my book!

David Chiang’s voice really took me by surprise, though. Is this his actual voice? Is his voice in the traditional Shaw films this high? It wasn’t anything that detracted from the film, but it did make me wonder how they shot it. Shaw films were all traditionally shot without sound (I’m sure there are exceptions later in the catalog), but most of The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires looks like it was shot with sync sound on-set. The fight scenes carry the familiar Shaw sound effects work, so I would guess that at least those were shot without sound. I imagine Hammer used sync sound, and somehow they were able to make a film at Shaw Studios in this manner. Perhaps this is why the film uses many outdoor locations and some sets built just for the film.

When I first saw The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, I was like one of those audience members in the early ’70s who didn’t know a thing about the Chinese people in the film. As a consequence, the film didn’t particularly grab me. I don’t think the quality of the film is much better than my initial estimation, but my love for both the Shaw and Hammer studios has grown considerably in the intervening years, making this film a truly joyous experience. There’s barely a wasted moment, and I think any like-minded fan will get a kick out of this unique curiosity of a film.

Note: I purposefully stayed away from the things I talked about in my previous review, so check that one out if you want to read more about the film.

Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is a non-Shaw independant film that made the HK Box Office Top 10: Kao Pao-Shu’s The Virgin Mart! I’ve been looking forward to seeing another of Kao’s films after reviewing her beast of a Shaw wuxia, Lady With a Sword, about three years ago! See ya then!

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