Monday, February 9, 2009

The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (Great Britain, 1974)

The Decline and Fall of Hammer Film Productions sure was a quick one, wasn’t it? Founded in 1934, it was a nominal production firm of B&W films until it suddenly took off with the film versions of the television series The Quatermass Experiment (1953) and Quatermass II (1955/trailer). Soon after, beginning with The Curse of Frankenstein (1957/trailer), Hammer gained an international and eternal reputation with its famous Gothic horror films that revitalized horror cinema and are now (as then) so dearly loved by so many. For years it followed the basic formula of cheaply producing what looked to be lavish productions of horror films of varying (but mostly good) quality, but by the early seventies the Gothics were out of fashion and Hammer was in search of new genres, ready to try anything to make money, finally bankrupting itself with an ill-advised (and truly crappy) remake of The Lady Vanishes in 1979 starring Elliot Gould and Cybill Shepherd. Before that dreadful day, the company brought out innumerable classics and almost-classics films (as well as a few turkeys) of varying genres, from cave-gal to gothic to suspense. (And since then, but for a brief foray into television, the company has been in limbo, only shaking its bones every so often when some press release or other heralds a return that never happens.)
Regrettably, as enjoyable as The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974) is, it is neither a classic nor almost classic of the Hammer oeuvre, but much more a brainless but highly entertaining piece of flotsam that serves well as an example of how Hammer lost its way in the twilight of its years. Directed by Roy Ward Baker three years after his last Hammer film, the indefinitely better Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde (1971/trailer), The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires was one of two films Hammer made within a year — the other being the truly and painfully abysmal so-called "action" film Shatter (1974/trailer) — with which the firm tried to ride the then new and popular wave of Hong Kong sock-‘em-chop-'em flicks, both of which were made as co-productions with the legendary Shaw Brothers of Hong Kong, a studio as idiosyncratic as Hammer. Both productions are so flawed that they support the argument that there was a lack of decent interpreters both leading up to and during the actual productions, but of the two The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires is definitely the more enjoyable, for as silly as it is, it remains relatively fast-paced and funny enough to be a painless 89 minutes (unlike the incomprehensible 72-minute version entitled The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula originally cut for the US market, which keeps the blood and bare Asian breasts but jettisons almost all continuity — but then, who really needs continuity when there are enough tits and blood?).
Theoretically, the film is the ninth and last of the Hammer Dracula series, and along with the second of the series, The Brides of Dracula (1960/trailer) it is one of the only two to not feature Christopher Lee as the famed blood-sucker. Not that it matters, for shortly after the film starts Count Dracula (John Forbes-Robertson, looking very much as if he’s having a bad-hair day and sounds as if he’s suffering from hemorrhoids) shape-shifts into a Chinese guy named Kah (Shen Chan) and isn’t seen again until the final frames of the film, when Prof. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) manages to bump him off within a few seconds, despite the fact that every other confrontation with the Asian vampires earlier in the film was a long, drawn-out ordeal. But this is only one of many dramatic flaws in Don Houghten’s seemingly tossed together screenplay. Indeed, going by his scripts for this film, Shatter, and the two prior Dracula updates — Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972/trailer) and The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973/trailer) — the man was less than a noticeably talented scribe, for his films tend to be low on logic and high on loose ends and inconsistencies, sort as if he were maybe experimenting with William Burroughs cut-up method of narration but without any artistic pretensions. In The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires Houghten lets his lack of literary skills go particularly free, which, assisted by Roy Ward Baker’s stolid direction, makes for some true chuckles.
Typical of the script is the film’s inability to do much of anything with the dues ex machina played by the statuesque Julie Ege, an “emancipated” woman named Vanessa Buren that pays for the journey into the backwaters of China but is seemingly incapable of ever doing anything other than either tower above her Asian co-stars or cower in the corner screaming in fear of vampires (rather unlike the only other female of importance in the film, the petite Asian sister who can both kick butt and do the dishes). Unlike in her first Hammer film, Creatures the World Forgot (1971/trailer), Ege keeps her 36-24-36 figure demurely covered throughout the film, which also severely hampers the audience from seeing her talent. (In regard to neked skin, that which is seen in The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires is supplied by the Asian village gals, for not one is ever taken without the vampire first ripping off her top.)
The plot of the film is as contrived and ridiculous as could be expected in a film that can only be described as an un-frightening vampire kung-fu movie. Kah, the keeper of the Seven Golden Vampires tramps to Transylvania to ask Dracula to help him watch over the vampires, but Drac kills him, takes his on shape and then skedaddles back to the back waters of China ‘cause he’s tired of living in the backwaters of Transylvania. What do you know, but Prof. Van Helsing just happens to be in Asia giving a lecture on vampires and implores his audience to believe the legend of the Seven Golden Vampires even though he’s never seen them. They treat him like the wacko he truly appears to be, but in no time His Ching (David Chiang) not only proves that the best way to gain a man’s trust is by breaking into his apartment while he’s there alone, but also reveals to Van Helsing that he comes from the cursed village of Ping Kuei, where six of the Seven Golden Vampires still terrorize the townspeople (one of the seven is long dead, having been killed by Chiang’s grandfather). One wonders how a town as small as Ping Kuei could have enough inhabitants to survive the continual and extensive pillages of the vampires, but that is a typical lack of logic innate to the film. Funded by the thrill-seeking Vanessa Buren the motley crew of Buren, Van Helsing, his son Leyland (Robin Stewart), His Ching and assorted siblings – 6 other brothers and one sister (Shih Szu), all specialists of different weapons – make their way across the desolate landscape, delayed first by an attack of vengeful triads and then by the Golden Vampires and their walking dead slaves. (In an odd compromise between East and West sensibilities, the walking dead of this film don’t jump to get around — as they do in most Asian vampire films, be it the excellent comedy Mr. Vampire (1985/trailer) or Tsui Hark’s disappointing Vampire Hunters (2002/trailer) — nor glide as they tend to do in the West, but sort of boogie forward instead.) Finally reaching Ping Kuei, otherwise known as the village of endless fodder, they group dig in for the big showdown as the undead come dancing around the mountain. Considering how easy it actually is to kill the undead, it is odd that the motley crew is so ineffective. But all the better for the viewer, naturally, for it is in the dwindling of their numbers that gore finally kicks in...
To claim that The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires is a good film would be more than stretching the truth, but to claim that it is a fun film is not. Patently ridiculous and cheap looking, the overall cheesiness of the project combined with the dead-seriousness with which everyone approaches their parts does wonders and changes a turkey into, well, fine ham.

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