Thursday, January 16, 2014

Hammer Rewatch: The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974)

            A look at Hammer’s Dracula series, Part 9…

             Peanut butter and chocolate… through some alchemical process, their differing flavors come together to create a complimentary effect. It seems like a given that two great tastes would taste great together, but it is not always necessarily so. For instance, a coproduction between Hammer Films and the Shaw Brothers Studio certainly sounds like the greatest idea ever. But could it really be possible? Is it even thinkable that two of the most legendary companies that virtually shaped genre films for decades to come would actually be able to produce a film to live up to that initial promise? Or, to keep with the food analogy started above, would the resulting film be peanut butter and chocolate, or barbecue and ice cream?
            Fortunately, The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires is Reese’s cups all the way, even though it has a few hiccups along the way. It doesn’t really have much in the way of story, and the strain of Hammer’s dwindling budgets constantly makes the effort hokier than intended (and we have to assume the filmmakers intended it to be pretty damn hokey in the first place, anyway). But the film offers just about everything a Hammer or a Shaw Brothers fan could want, with copious amounts of vampires, kung fu and Peter Cushing - all moving at brisk and lively pace.

One downside is Christopher Lee not returning for this installment, instead being replaced as Dracula for the first time in the Hammer series. The role of the Count instead goes to John Forbes-Robertson, who - with his goofy red lips and pale complexion - doesn’t really strike the same intimidating pose Lee did. But no matter: after a somewhat confusing opening, he takes control of Kah, a Chinese High Priest of the Seven Golden Vampires, and virtually disappears from the film. Kah/Dracula travels back to China, to raise the Seven Golden Vampires once more and begin a reign of terror on a local village. Fortunately for the villagers, Dr. Lawrence Van Helsing is giving guest lectures at a nearby university, where he is then recruited by His Ching, who enlists his help in ridding his village of the vampires plaguing them.

The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires has been somewhat maligned throughout the years, perhaps justifiably so. The film definitely straddles the line between “so bad, it’s good,” what with it’s cheap, mud-encrusted hopping vampires (that’s actually what Chinese vampires are known for) and the myriad of light gels thrown over the cheap sets to hide how under-dressed they are. But the film still works, and quite well, at that, if taken on its own terms. As any kung fu fan will tell you, the films live and die by the fights. And with plenty of kung fu battles with esoteric weapons and excellent choreography from Liu Chia Liang, The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires excels in that regard. The whole film has a fun, comic book-style feel that is sort of irresistible, even with its many shortcomings. There’s a certain kind of thrill to watching kung fu star David Chiang fighting alongside Peter Cushing in one of his most memorable roles, and the film lives up to the hype of such a pairing.

Hammer tried to get one more Dracula film off the ground: Kali, Devil Bride of Dracula, but like many of the studio's proposed films during the era, it never went further than a poster. 

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