The final film in Hammer’s Dracula series is perhaps the least talked about, despite being the weirdest. By 1974, Hammer’s star was fading. The seminal British studio struggled to keep up with the changing tastes of genre audiences and attempts to cram their gothic ghouls into modern film styles weren’t working. While some experiments – like Dracula AD 1972 or Satanic Rites Of Dracula – have a certain cult appeal now, they were poorly received at the time and drove their star Christopher Lee to quit the franchise for good.
Not to be dissuaded, Hammer decided to inject new blood into the Dracula franchise one last time by cashing in on the latest cinematic craze – kung fu.
Meanwhile in Hong Kong, Shaw Brothers studios were prolifically exporting high-end martial arts films all over the world, thanks to the success of King Boxer (1972), and were keen to expand their portfolio further with a series of international collaborations. When Hammer came knocking, it made a surprising amount of sense for them to work together. Both studios had distribution deals with Warner, both were the go-to names for their respective genres and both were adept at turning tight budgets into what looked like lavish period productions. On paper, it was a perfect combination but, in reality, it was like serving a roast dinner and sweet-and-sour chicken on the same plate. Interesting, mostly enjoyable, but probably not something you’d want to try again.
Hammer flew their crew to out to Hong Kong in 1973 to shoot two films back-to-back with the Shaws; Legend Of The 7 Golden Vampires and a Stuart Whitman action vehicle called Shatter, a film so problematic its director vowed never to make another again. While Golden Vampires was the more palatable product of the two, its shoot was equally tough. The Chinese and British crews had wildly different ways of working and the added language barrier ensured an air of tension and confusion throughout that, unfortunately, feeds into the film. It’s a shame because, at the heart of David Houghton’s screenplay is the spark of a great idea that just never quite catches fire.
A Transylvanian prologue set in 1804 introduces us to an evil Taoist priest named Kah who has found the castle of Count Dracula (played by John Forbes-Robertson in what amounts to a glorified cameo). The vampire’s vampire has somehow been magically imprisoned. It’s not clearly explained why but let’s go with it. Let’s also just go with how Kah wants Dracula’s help in restoring the glory of the 7 Golden Vampires (a group of ancient bloodsuckers who have been terrorising a Chinese village for centuries but whose powers are weakening) and how Dracula decides that he will possess Kah’s body and become the 7 Golden Vampires’ leader himself…
There’s not much time to dwell on things anyway because we soon flash-forward 100 years to Lawrence Van Helsing (Peter Cushing, always touchingly game for this kind of nonsense) delivering a lecture on the 7 Golden Vampires to a group of unimpressed Chinese students. To be honest, most viewers will be unimpressed too as we’re treated to an interminable dialogue-free flashback sequence (seriously, it kills the pace dead right from the start) in which a farmer steals a natty bat medallion from one of the vampires. He places it on a jade Buddha before getting murdered by zombies for his trouble (yep, they are able to summon the corpses of their victims to do their dark bidding). However, when the vampire tries to take his medallion back, he’s destroyed by Buddha’s power, leaving only 6 Golden Vampires.
Van Helsing believes these six still exist but no one believes him and the lecture empties out quickly as Cushing – with admirable pathos – shouts “Vampires exist! I know they exist and I beg you to take me seriously!” (which could almost be read as a plea to the cinema audience). However, his words haven’t fallen entirely on deaf ears. A student named Hsi Ching (David Chiang) claims his grandfather was the farmer who killed the seventh vampire and he shows Van Helsing the medallion as proof. Hsi Ching has several brothers (and a sister) who are masters of various martial arts so he implores Van Helsing, the famous vampire hunter, to join them as they journey to the cursed village to destroy the remaining bloodsuckers.
Meanwhile, Van Helsing’s son Leyland has upset a local Chungking gangster by vying for (and winning) the affections of Vanessa Buren, a rich and beautiful Scandinavian widow (Julie Ege). This provides not just a pressing impetus for the party to leave Chungking but, in the form of Vanessa, gives them the money and resource to do so, setting in place a grand old adventure. As our merry mismatched band travel the country, you’d expect characters to develop and things to happen but this is where 7 Golden Vampires somehow loses the plot entirely. A huge section of the film is just people walking from one place to the next, spouting clunky exposition. There are several fights but nothing ever feels like it has any narrative consequence until the very end of the film where suddenly everyone starts martyring themselves and it goes from 0 to 100 then ends.
This total lack of viewer engagement really puts a damper on all the film’s merits but they are in there if you look hard enough. The production design is gorgeous – all Bava-esque grottoes and typically lavish period settings – and the fights, out of context, are pretty decent. Although Hammer stalwart Roy Ward Baker is credited with directing the film, Lar Kau Leung and Tang Chia choreographed the combat and (apparently) Chang Cheh directed some of it, which is quite a pedigree. The battles do bear Cheh’s brutal, gory style as axes, spears and swords whirl and clash and draw blood at every turn.
The horror is maybe not so strong with the vampires all looking weird and waxen (this will either freak you out or make you laugh, depending on your feelings for unusual papier mache masks) and Dracula himself gets far too little screentime, but Cushing delivers his usual valiant performance as Van Helsing. Fans of novelty will be overjoyed to learn he even gets involved (slightly) in the fighting, swinging a flaming torch around in a vaguely co-ordinated fashion while kung fu vampires flank around him.
If you really want a good Chinese vampire flick, I’d stick with Ricky Lau’s seminal Mr. Vampire (1985) but Legend Of The 7 Golden Vampires, while not the dream project it could be, is definitely an odder prospect and a unique one too. It’s not quite mad enough that you’d invite friends round on a Friday night but it’ll entertain any Hammer or Shaw Brothers fan through a Sunday afternoon hangover. And at least, unlike Dracula AD 1972, it does spare us the upsetting sight of any flared trousers or paisley blouses.