When studios pool their resources the results sometimes tend to be a little erratic. Now, when I say pooling, I don’t mean two Hollywood powerhouses sharing the budget and distribution rights in order to bankroll a gargantuan blockbuster, no, what I mean is two completely different studios that dabble in utterly contrasting styles uniting to mash up their talents to hopefully create something new. An obvious, modern example might be Toho loaning out their Kaiju menagerie to Legendary to form what we know as the Monsterverse, but a far more out there experience would undoubtedly be gothic horror specialists Hammer doing a cinematic version of that infamous bro-shake from Predator with the martial arts experts at Shaw Brothers to try and create a Kung Fu vampire film the likes of which the world had never seen before. Key word: try.
A Taoist monk named Kah is taking a busman’s holiday in Transylvania, taking some much needed time away from being the high priest of the Temple Of The Seven Golden Vampires back home in China. His mission is to locate Castle Dracula and free its fanged inhabitant in hopes to bring back the fading power of his order before it’s too late and Dracula, being a kindly sort and all, agrees on one condition – that he possesses Kah’s body to escape the prison his castle has become. With that done, the Count/Kah meat puppet heads back to China.
A century later, Professor Van Helsing is in China to give a foreboding lecture about Vampires, how to spot them and, most important of all, how to kill them but is mostly met with snorts of derision from other scholars who simply believe this westerner is mocking them. However, one man, Hsi Ching, not only believes Van Helsing’s stories of a village terrorized by the cult of the Seven Golden Vampires, but reveals that it was his grandfather who not only reduced their number to six, but managed to steal one of the vampires groovy gold medallions as proof. Energised by this news, Van Helsing wishes to mount an expedition to find this beleaguered city and free them of this vampire curse and is overjoyed when wealthy, adventure seeking widow Vanessa Buren agrees to fund it. Setting off with Van Helsing, his son Leyland, Buren, Hsi Ching and Ching’s seven kung fu trained siblings (that’s lucky), the band hopes to bring the number of Golden Vampires down to a nice, healthy zero.
But as romance flourishes between both Vanessa and Ching and Leyland and Ching’s sister, Mai Kwei, will Van Helsing’s quest succeed in thwarting the vampire threat with the aid of death blows and flying kicks?
What sounds on paper as something that should have been a campy train wreck waiting to happen, it’s something of a disapointment to report that the fruit of Hammer and Shaw Brothers’ loins is surprisingly subdued. I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting when I sat down to watch The Legend Of The 7 Golden Vampires, but it certainly wasn’t something so blandly straightforward and strangely ordinary as this as the main problem of this ambitious pairing seems to be that both of the studio’s respective styles seem to have cancelled each other out. In a perfect world, you’d expect Hammer to bring acres of gothic kitsch, barely restrained sexuality, lashings of crayon coloured blood and some English actors delivering their performances complete with thick slices of ham while you’d hope that Shaw Brothers would strive to not be overdone by bringing spectacular fight choreography, stunning production values and some endearing, over-complicated plotting to the party.
Alas, it simply wasn’t to be and the first hurdle was the simple fact that by 1974, Christopher Lee had hung up his cape for the final time with The Satanic Rites Of Dracula, leaving John Forbes-Robertson to try and fill the role, although his Dracula, with his bright red lips and his thick black guy liner, looks like he’s tried to follow a makeup aplication on Tiktok after one too many sherrys. However, thankfully, Peter Cushing returns as Van Helsing and while watching him caucasian-splain Chinese vampires to the Chinese is a little much, watching him get stuck in with a flaming torch during the expansive battle scenes does the heart good, even if the sight of Cushing and Lee dueling in the midst of a martial arts melee like a tweed coated Neo and Agent Smith is denied to us.
While there are some nicely surprising moments where the film chooses to jump the rails slightly with your expectations (the fate of Ching and Vanessa’s romance is as cruel as it is abrupt), The Legend Of The 7 Golden Vampires treads a rather uninspired path, unfolding most of its action in flashbacks and then having the bulk of the rest be taken up with a standard trudge to meet the enemy and when we finally get to the juicy stuff we’re left somewhat disappointed. Hammer’s horror input may chuck in some typically cobwebby crypts, stylish writing and creepily unnecessary nudity (not too sure why the Golden Vampires feel the need to rip the entire shirt off a woman in order to just get to the neck), but by the 70’s their schtick was starting to feel distinctly like an R rated pantomime. Similarly, the Shaw Brothers end of things felt compromised by the fact that the majority of the Asian characters have barely one character trait between them and that director Roy Ward Baker had no idea how to shoot a Hong Kong martial arts scene like the studio wanted, choosing instead to merge all the different fight choreography into one big formless battle scene rather than breaking the fight down into the individual characters. As a result it’s kind of like casting Jackie Chan in a Lord Of The Rings movie and then setting his big, complicated fight scene in the middle of Helm’s Deep.
Still, while the detail is missing, you can’t fault the scale – although Shaw Brothers demanded the fight scenes reshot with director Chang Cheh to forge a longer version for Hong Kong audiences – and maybe if the two studios have had more faith in what each other was bringing to the party, The Legend Of The 7 Golden Vampires could have predated such seminal, ground breaking, home grown, Kung Fu horror films such as Sammo Hung’s Encounters Of The Spooky Kind or the Mr. Vampire franchise.
More of a collision than a merging, The Legend Of The 7 Golden Vampires – while fun in a camp kind of way – is a Kung Fu/Vampire epic that suffers from an unclear vision of what everyone wanted and the contrast of styles ultimately leaves it as disapointedly restrained mess.
Golden vampires – bronze for effort.