Saturday, 16 March 2013


Peter Cushing (Professor Lawrence Van Helsing), Robin Stewart (Leyland Van Helsing), David Chiang (Hsi Ching), Julie Ege (Vanessa Buren), Shih Szu (Mei Kwei), Chan Shen (Kah), John Forbes-Robertson (Count Dracula)

Director – Roy Ward Baker, Screenplay – Don Houghton, Producers – Don Houghton & Vee King Shaw, Photography – Roy Ford & John Wilcox, Music – James Bernard, Music Supervisor – Philip Martell, Special Effects – Les Bowie, Makeup – Wu Hsu Ching, Art Direction – Johnson Tsau. Production Company – Hammer/Sir Run Run Shaw. 

It’s no secret that Hammer Film Productions was in deep trouble in the 1970s. Having established themselves as the premiere fright factory in the world in the 1950s, they managed to crank out a steady stream of box office hits - along with a few flops - throughout the 1960s. But by the 70s, cracks were appearing in the foundation. Audiences were growing tired of the usual run of Frankenstein and Dracula sequels, for one thing, and for another, the general attitude towards horror as a genre was beginning to change. Major studios began dipping their toe into the genre, while independents began to explore the possibility of more visceral thrills. Hammer’s product, though cutting edge in the 1950s, suddenly seemed quaint, even conservative. Sir James Carreras apparently saw the writing on the wall, and in 1971 he sold the company to his son, Michael. Long viewed as something of a whipping boy by Hammerphiles, Carreras did his damndest to bring Hammer up to date - but some of his ideas were admittedly wrong headed, while others failed to come off, due to budgetary constraints. One of his more outlandish concepts came when he struck a deal with Hong Kong-based producer Run Run Shaw, head of Shaw Brothers Productions. In theory, it seemed an ideal match - Hammer horror married to Hong Kong kung fu. Unfortunately, it would prove a hard sell - and the marriage would end almost as quickly as it began.

The screenplay by Don Houghton attempts to meld the two disparate strains, but it fails to reconcile them, thus making for an uneasy blend of Eastern and Western mythology. Nowhere is this more evident than in the attempt to shoehorn Dracula into the proceedings. By this stage in the game, Christopher Lee had had his fill of the character, however, and he remained steadfast that The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) would be his last crack at the character (and he arguably kept his word, though the French farce Dracula and Son, 1976, saw him offering a variation on the theme). Hammer turned instead to character actor John Forbes-Robertson, inspired, no doubt, by his silent turn as a sinister vampire figure in The Vampire Lovers (1970). Forbes-Robertson may have seemed a credible alternative to Hammer’s biggest star, but he makes for a poor replacement. Matters aren’t helped by the overdone makeup, which manages to make the King of the Vampires look a bit like a drag queen, or by the fact that the actor is dubbed throughout by another performer; Forbes Robertson wasn’t even notified of the latter, and was reportedly very unhappy when he discovered this on his own. On the upside, Dracula only factors in to the opening and closing scenes of the film - on the downside, the scenes in question feel grafted on, which they more than likely were in a bid to appeal to Warner Brothers. Having Dracula on board was one thing - but having him portrayed by somebody other than Christopher Lee didn’t help to make it more of a commercial proposition.

Fortunately, Hammer had no trouble enticing Peter Cushing back into the fold, dutifully reprising his role as vampire hunter extraordinaire, Professor Van Helsing. Cushing was older and frailer here than he was when he first portrayed the character in Dracula (1958) and The Brides of Dracula (1960), but his energy and commitment remained undiminished. Cushing once again demonstrates why he was such a tremendous asset to films such as this, as his cultured delivery helps to make even the most preposterous dialogue sound somehow intelligent. Given the addition of kung fu to the franchise, however, it is something of a relief to see that Van Helsing wasn’t expected to get in on the action himself! 

Hammer enlisted the veteran Roy Ward Baker to direct, and the director would later recall the experience as something of a disaster. Baker, who had helmed several big budget Hollywood productions (including the Marilyn Monroe noir Don’t Bother to Knock, 1952) before directing what many deem to be the best screen version of the Titanic tragedy (A Night to Remember, 1953), had become accustomed to the facilities inherent in American and British filmmaking. Thus, upon arriving in Hong Kong, to find a primitive studio without the benefit of sound proofing (like Italian productions, Chinese films were shot without direct sound), and a script that needed plenty of work, he was in the unenviable position of trying to salvage a project that had “disaster” written all over it.  

The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back arose when producer Shaw informed Baker that he was entrusting the fight scenes to one of their in-house action specialists. Baker blew his top and insisted that if he was directing the picture, he was directing the whole thing. A standoff ensued, but Baker ultimately had his way. The fight scenes were choreographed by Liu Chia-Liang (who would later win acclaim working with Jackie Chan on the fight scenes of The Legend of the Drunken Master, 1994), but the staging and coverage was orchestrated by Baker. The director would later claim that he did a better job than the usual “specialist” because he varied the coverage; the point is debatable, but he still delivers a few rousing action scenes along the way. The experience of making the film, encumbered with so many problems (to say nothing of the obvious language barrier with a largely Chinese crew), would linger with Baker; he would direct only one more theatrical feature (the disastrous non-Amicus horror anthology The Monster Club, 1980, with Vincent Price), though he would continue to dabble in episodic television, even helming the made for TV Cushing-Sherlock Holmes feature The Masks of Death (1984). He died in 2010, at the age of 93. 

Baker is to be commended for making something watchable out of this material. The script is no great shakes, and apart from Cushing, most of the performances are stilted. Baker approaches the film with stylistic gusto, however, approaching the horror sequences with some of the stylistic bravado of Italian maestro Mario Bava. The sequences of the titular vampires and their zombie slaves shuffling through barren landscapes have a peculiar poetry, and if the impact is let down by some uncommonly bad special effects work by Les Bowie, there’s still a rousing score by James Bernard to keep things moving. Bernard would come back to Hammer to do a couple of scores for their TV series, The Hammer House of Horror, but Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires would remain his final feature score for the studio.

If Carreras really believed that tapping into the kung fu market would help to revive Hammer’s standing, he was bitterly disappointed. Warner Bros. picked the film up for distribution in the UK, where it was distributed more or less uncut (some minor gore was trimmed at the insistence of the BBFC); it did less than stellar business, however, and reviews were predictably miserable. In the US, it would suffer the same fate as The Satanic Rites of Dracula - it would sit on the shelf for years, before being drastically cut, retitled (as The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula), and trotted out by Dynamite Entertainment, who also failed to elicit much in the way of audience interest.

 Ultimately, one doesn’t want to make inflated claims for The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. It’s a silly film in many respects, and it’s certainly burdened with more than its faire share of flaws, but fans of Hammer horror, or of Cushing in particular, should enjoy it for offering a variation on the formula. Truly, one of the best things one can say about it is in the nature of a side note - while a comic remake (with Tim Allen!) was threatened for several years, it eventually fell through. Be grateful for small miracles, indeed!


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