Friday, October 26, 2007

Dr. K's Halloween Countdown Presents: The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires!

I'm going to make a bold statement here: no film in the history of cinema has a greater "anticipation-to-failure ratio" than The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (aka Dracula and the 7 Golden Vampires, aka 7 Brothers vs. Dracula, aka, 7 Brothers and a Sister vs. Dracula, aka The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula, aka Weekend at Bernie's II).

After all, the poster bills it as "The First Kung Fu Horror Spectacular," and the film is a coproduction of Hammer Studios and the Shaw Brothers Productions, each the masters of their respective genres. Clearly, this should be the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup of cinema: a sweet horror shell surrounding a delicious kung fu center--two genres that go great together. Instead, it's like the pancake reuben of cinema: two things that may be awesome on their own, but the sauerkraut and Russian dressing of kung fu fail to work together in execution with the pancakes of horror ("the pancake reuben" and "the pancakes of horror" tm 2007, Dr. K).

The film's biggest problem is that there is no kung fu for the first 30 minutes, and the film is less than 90 minutes long. Clearly, director Roy Ward Baker, who usually knew what he was doing in his other efforts for Hammer Studios (see the awesome Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde), was overwhelmed with the awesome potential of his material and simply allowed the horror and kung fu to negate themselves. If he knew what he was doing, this movie would consist entirely of martial artists kicking vampires in the head for it's entire running length.

Another problem with the film: Dracula only appears in it for about 5 minutes. This may explain why Christopher Lee does not reprise the role. Rumor has it that he was offered the movie, but turned it down once he read the script. Instead, Dracula is played by John Forbes-Robertson, who is pretty terrible. In the opening scene, taking place in 1804, Kah, the high priest of the 7 golden vampires, visits Dracula in Transylvania, and the Count decides to take on Kah's form and travel to China. Unfortunately, Kah speaks with the voice of Dracula, and the dubbing is terrible. Then, with no explanation, the film shifts to 1904. This makes no sense: if Dracula goes to China in 1804, does he travel back and forth to England in the intervening century? When does he get around to fighting Van Helsing and the others in the main Dracula story?

Despite my disappointment in this movie, the film features one of my favorite concepts in a vampire movie: the Chinese vampires respond to images of Buddha in the same way that Western vampires respond to the Christian cross or crucifix. As Van Helsing describes, "they abhor anything that has a holy significance." It also seems that, in general, rules for killing vampires differ from West to East. Eastern vampires are still susceptible to wooden stakes and silver bullets, but they can also be destroyed by fire.

Peter Cushing does return as Van Helsing, who is now traveling in China giving a lecture tour on Chinese folklore, which includes a poorly received lecture on the eponymous legend of the 7 golden vampires. Van Helsing is also accompanied by his son, Leyland (Robin Stewart), who manages to sit around a lot while others fight.

Van Helsing's lecture is believed by one audience member, Hsi Ching (David Chiang), who, along with six other brothers and a sister, has sworn to protect his ancestral village from the 7 golden vampires. Ching's brothers and sister all have special fighting skills: one is a master of the axe, another the spear, a third can swallow the sea, and a fourth can stretch his legs ... wait--I'm thinking of the 5 Chinese Brothers. Also, these shouldn't be mistaken for the "7 Chinese Brothers" of the REM song, though I don't have any idea of what that song's about, so it very well could be about this movie.

Soon, Van Helsing and Ching are planning an excursion to find this ancestral village, and they are soon joined by Scandinavian heiress Vanessa Buren, played by Julie Ege, perhaps the single worst actress to appear in any Hammer movie. That's no small accomplishment, considering that the primary requirements for casting women in these movies seem to be breast size and the ability to scream (Julie Ege also had a starring role in the sex comedy The Amorous Milkman, a film whose only virtue is its title).

In a rather nice and surprising move, romantic plots play out along inter-racial lines. It looks like, at the beginning, that Vanessa Buren will be hooking up with Leyland, but instead, she sets her eyes on Ching, while Leyland falls in love with the sister, Mai Kwei (a name that Leyland pronounces like "Make Way," which sounds like a rejected Asian Bond girl name). As Leyland says to Mai Kwei after a battle: "You are like a beautiful porcelain kitten, then suddenly you are a fighting tiger." (Coincidentally, I proposed to my wife with that very same line.)

If you are planning on watching this movie at any time, my biggest recommendation is to skip the first 30 minutes all together. It's mostly useless exposition that can be filled in by anyone who has ever seen a vampire movie before. After that, the movie has three fight scenes that are, generally, pretty good. Each of the brothers has his own specialty, and some are fun to watch, especially the axeman, the mace wielder, and the two swordsman who, for some reason, have to fight holding hands. The first fight happens for no apparent reason--the travelers are suddenly attacked in the middle of the desert by some random gang. In the second fight, the travelers seek shelter in a cave, only to be attacked by three of the golden vampires and their zombie army. Here, they learn some of the methods for killing vampires and zombies. Ching, for example, discovers that he can destroy zombies by thrusting his fists through their chests--a move I like to call the "dusty heart strike." When the golden vampires die, however, they look like deflating, dust-filled balloons.

The film's climax, however, does live up to expectations and makes the viewer wish that the rest of the film had more of the same excitement. There are even some genuine surprises, as in this scene, featuring Ching and Vanessa Buren, which you shouldn't watch if you plan on seeing the movie, as it spoils the ending:

In the end, there are many better horror movies and kung fu movies, so I find little to recommend here beyond the curiosity that this movie presents by virtue of its mere existence. By 1974, Hammer was pretty much tapped out creatively. In the next few days, though, I hope to look at some of Hammer's masterpieces, which are among my favorite horror movies.


Chris Sims said...

Tsui Hark's Vampire Hunters is another example of something that should've been nothing but the awesome sight of karate masters versus the undead, but except for a scene where the main characters introduce themselves in rapid-fire style ("Wind!" "Lighting!" "Rain!" "Thunder!"), it works out about the same way.

Anonymous said...

If you have the option (both versions were included on my widescreen VHS release from ~10 years ago), it's interesting to compare the full international cut of "Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires" with the U.S. cut, titled "The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula."

The U.S. version takes a pretty short movie and makes it even shorter, while also cutting even more material than you'd think, because a lot of footage is repeated twice or more. The guiding principle seems to have been to ramp up the "exploitation" elements of the movie for the drive-in circuit by any means necessary. All the vampire action scenes appear to be shown at least twice, and I believe the couple of brief topless scenes are recycled even more than that. The editing makes the movie spectacularly incoherent. Oddly, much of Dracula's footage is cut too, so you don't get any exposition about *why* an evil Chinese Monk makes a voyage to Castle Dracula, or why Dracula himself takes a sudden interest in Chinese affairs.

Dr. K said...

The DVD does have the 75 minute version of "The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula" on the flip side, but I have to confess that I've never watched it. From what you say, though, it sounds like a comparison would be interesting.