AKA THE SEVEN BROTHERS MEET DRACULA
UK/ Hong Kong
AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME: 110 mins [Hong Kong version], 89 mins, 72 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Transylvania 1804: a Chinese priest makes his way through the countryside and into Castle Dracula to ask the Count for his help in restoring the power of the Seven Golden Vampires. Dracula accepts on one condition: that he takes on Kah’s body and image to escape his castle, which has become his prison. 1904, Chungking: Professor Van Helsing tells of how a farmer killed one of the Seven Golden Vampires who were terrorising his village during a lecture, and is then approached by the farmer’s grandson Hsi Ching who knows where the village is, and asked to join him in destroying the menace. Van Helsing agrees and embarks with his son Leyland, Ching, and his seven kung fu-trained siblings on a dangerous journey, funded by a wealthy widow named Vanessa Buren who insists on also coming along.…
When my family first got a video player, we hired out three movies: A Passage To India chosen by my mum and stepdad, some animated film I can’t remember for my two very young stepbrothers, and my selection: The Legend Of The 7 Golden Vampires, which I was actually several years too young to legally hire, but never mind. That could be one reason why I love this film, why it’s probably the ultimate Hammer guilty pleasure for me, though of course it’s only partly a Hammer production, being a collaboration between Hammer and the mighty Shaw Brothers of Hong Kong, another studio which, while it made films in several genres, became famous and beloved by its many fans for its movies in one particular genre – martial arts. When you adore a film it’s sometimes harder to spot flaws but, watching it for once with a critical eye, it did become apparent to me that The Legend Of The 7 Golden Vampires fails to develops its story in an especially interesting way and after a while is just content to give us lots of sequences of our heroes and heroines battling vampires, zombies and bandits, while it also fails to treat us to some one-on-one showdowns in which the martial arts performers can really show their stuff. And Dracula appears even less than he does in The Satanic Rites Of Dracula! Yet there’s still a wonderfully old fashioned sense of adventure, of derring-do, to the whole piece, it’s certainly the most visually impressive of Hammer’s later pictures, and there are some sequences where East meets West very well.
A two-film deal was made where Hammer and Shaw Brothers would share production costs, though rows over precise costs scuppered production before it had even began. Christopher Lee declined to play Dracula, so John Forbes-Robertson, who’d been considered for the role in Scars Of Dracula, was brought in, though he was furious when he discovered that he had been dubbed by David de Keyser. The film was shot at the Shaw Brothers studio and some nearby locations, and the English technicians were horrified to find that the stages were not sound proofed, sound always dubbed in later in Hong Kong movies. Tension rose between the two crews, the English finding the Chinese not too competent and the latter thinking the former arrogant. Shaw Brothers boss Run Run Shaw viewed a rough cut of the film and wasn’t impressed, so he got the studio’s top director Chang Cheh to shoot some more action scenes with the Chinese cast members for the Hong Kong version which ran 110 mins, though even before that the film had gone over budget. It did well in the UK, and even got some good reviews, though for some reason Warners declined to release it in the US for five years when it was put out by Dynamite Entertainment, shortened from 89 mins to 72 mins and heavily re-edited as The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula [see bottom of review]. The UK cinema version was cut by the BBFC to remove shots of a man spitting blood during a fight scene and a frog being cut up in a street market, while the video release was cut by 12 seconds to edit a throat being punctured in a fight scene, remove an ear clap and remove a shot of one of the village girls being stripped during the village attack. The cuts were fully restored in the 2004 DVD release which was lowered to a ‘15’ certificate. Sadly the proposed follow-up, Kali, Devil Bride Of Dracula, was never made.
The beginning scene of Dracula ‘becoming’ Kah, the two seeming to revolve round as smoke rises to eventually reveal just Kah, is very well acted by Shen Chan – he looks absolutely terrified – though it’s hard not to laugh at how Dracula and Kah can seem to speak to each other in their own languages and be understood. Of course the interior of the castle is nowhere near as impressive as before, though bathing much of it in a very strong green does help a little. Switch to Chungking, and Van Helsing is telling a classroom of distinctly unimpressed students [and why is he lecturing in China anyway?] of how an old man set out to rescue his wife from the Seven Golden Vampires, leading to probably the most impressive set piece from Hammer’s last few films. The poor man finds that the vampires have his wife and some other topless women strapped to tables, screaming as they’re about to be bitten and then their blood running down into a huge pot. What the purpose of the latter is I don’t know but it all makes for a vividly Sadean image. He tries to grab his wife but she’s killed and he has to flee, albeit holding one of the golden bats which hang around the vampire’s necks. Kah bangs a gong and we’re treated to a vivid and creepy zombies-coming-out-of-the-ground sequence. The way some of them seem to run in slow motion, and others actually hop [true to the vampires of Chinese legend as seen in films like the Mr Vampire series] in slow motion, manages to be both amusing and unsettling, there’s something uncanny about it even if it looks ridiculous if you think about it for too long. Some of them even ride horses, but if you’ve seen any of the Blind Dead films then you should know not to ask questions like where the horses came from.
The man has his throat gorily slit but before that manages to put the bat on an altar, causing the vampire to whom it belonged to burst into flame. Back to the present and the grandson of the man Hsi Ching asks Van Helsing to go to the village with him. His son Leyland is also in town, and offends a Triad boss when he offers to take widow Vanessa home, but never mind, two of Ching’s brothers are around to save the day. The adventure begins, and I’ve always liked the romantic entanglements that occur. Very emancipated Vanessa is perhaps too much for David, so he turns to Mei Kwei, the one female out of the seven fighting siblings, though this meek and mild girl becomes deadly when enemies are around. Meanwhile Vanessa is drawn to the quiet, noble Ching. I would have actually liked to have seen some more development of these, particularly the one which ends tragically; as it stands, where we don’t quite see the point of one particular self sacrifice, and would have been more moved if there’d been more of a romance beforehand. In fact several characters seem to virtually kill themselves and therefore leave the good guys even more outnumbered than before, which is a little silly. In any case, the majority of the film is taken up with the battle scenes, with the vampires and their zombie cohorts being rather harder to kill than the human bandits. “Strike at their hearts” cries Van Helsing, which helps a little. The fighting isn’t really top Shaw Brothers quality despite the legendary Lui Chia Liang being one of the choreographers, but it’s still exciting enough and there’s plenty of blood on display, while I can’t get enough of the sight of Peter Cushing, clearly having fun, wielding with some skill a torch during the battles.
However, Dracula fails to appear in his actual form until the end, where, following Christopher Lee’s example, he clumsily falls onto a stake after knocking Van Helsing down a couple of times in a rather pathetic showdown. Far more could have been done during the final act. How cool it would have been, for example, to see one or more of the brothers take on Dracula who would reveal himself to be a deadly martial artist or at least have some skills that would match his opponents? Still, the shots of vampires dissolving into skeletons are enjoyably grotesque and outdo some of the other comparable Hammer scenes, though a few bats look even even worse than normal. The vampires look effectively horrid, though the limited makeup on the skeletal [but with hair] zombies shows during close-ups. Some attempt has been made to make it all good to look at though, with the scenes in Kah’s pagoda particularly notable in the blending of lurid green with even more lurid red. It’s not subtle and not even that artful, but it sure suits the movie, though I don’t know if this was more down to the Chinese crew or the British. Director Roy Ward Baker and the two cinematographers Roy Ford and John Wilcox were British, but lighting, art direction and most similar jobs were done by Chinese.
The acting, except of course from Cushing, is generally a bit stilted, though of course many of the cast members had never acted in English before. Julie Ege, looking far better than she did in Creatures The World Forgot, and Szu Shih, are both cute female leads, but are rather stiff performers. As for Robertson, lumbered with makeup that makes him look like a drag queen, he certainly has a strong presence as Dracula, but it’s hard to really judge his very short and dubbed performance. It seems that James Bernard was brought in as composer quite late, as there are four cues from Taste The Blood Of Dracula and even part of one from Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed in the film, while a couple of new cues are partly repeated. His new music is very good though. His main title combines a speeded up version of his original Dracula theme with an Oriental-leaning theme for the vampires to exciting effect. There’s also some dynamic battle music and a great semi-march for the zombie army. A three note pattern forms the basis for most of the motifs but it’s all well done. No, The Legend Of The 7 Golden Vampires doesn’t do quite as much it as it could have done with its premise, but it’s still a piece with a surprising amount of charm despite its exploitative elements.
The US edit of The Legend Of The Seven Golden Vampires was available on the old Anchor Bay DVD, but I managed to see it on YouTube. And it isn’t very good. They obviously intended to highlight the action, horror and nudity, but the result was something of a mess. The opening titles combines footage from three different scenes, some of it freezeframed, into one virtually incoherent sequence while various music cues come and go on the soundtrack. Then we get portions of the vampire attack on the village, then a shortened version of Kah’s visit to Castle Dracula – and then the full version of the attack on the village! After this things settle down into an edited version of the original movie, missing a great deal of dialogue including the romantic stuff, though we still get some repeated footage. Shots of the vampires biting their victims and stripping a couple of girls are repeated three times, while Mei smiling at Ching is shown twice, the first time zoomed in so it’s a close-up. Distributors Dynamite Entertainment must have thought that audiences were stupid.