Hello one and all, and welcome to another edition of what I realise is threatening to turn into Bad Cult Horror Movie of the Week. Try to be strong: they've just pushed back the release of No Time to Die, again, so we could be stuck in this groove for a while yet.
When the respected British film director Roy Ward Baker died in 2010, his career received the usual reappraisal: many kind things were said, usually focussing on his classic take on the Titanic disaster, A Night to Remember. I was pleased to see a few of the more perceptive commentators making reference to his work on the brilliant horror-SF movie Quatermass and the Pit. However, no-one at all made the slightest reference to his work on the unique 1974 movie The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. The fact that the DVD packaging accurately describes this film as ‘…fist meets fang in Dracula's kung fu showdown!' may have something to do with this.
Well, it was 1974, and Hammer Films were yet again looking around for a new direction. This time around they hooked up with Hong Kong-based film-makers the Shaw Brothers to make a movie in which the stuff they did really well – gothic vampire horror with lashings of fake blood – collided head-on with the Shaws' areas of special interest: lengthy kung fu action sequences.
Alas, this was a wacky new angle too far for Christopher Lee, who point-blank refused to be involved. (Legend has it he was basically blackmailed into doing his last few Dracula movies anyway, on the grounds it would be churlish of him to put the rest of the actors and crew out of work by not participating.) And so this is the only Hammer Dracula where someone else plays the part: John Forbes-Robertson, who's clearly been cast for his resemblance to Lee, but who rather blows it by overdoing his lipstick.
Anyway, in a striking prologue, a Chinese monk makes the strenuous journey to Transylvania. He's there representing the vampire lords of Szechuan Province (yep, where the chickens come from). The Chinese vampires are having a tough time of it and would quite like the help of the Prince of Darkness. Initially scornful, Dracula rapidly realises his castle is actually a bit of a dump and takes up the offer of helping out this foreign enterprise, but not before he possesses the monk (presumably this is to cut down the amount of time that the non-Lee Dracula is on screen).
Some time later, who should pitch up at Chungking University but Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing), intent on investigating Chinese vampire legends. Van Helsing runs into Hsi Ching (David Chiang), whose large family of kung fu experts hails from a village in Szechuan which has been terrorised by the seven golden vampires of the title since time immemorial. A deal is soon struck where together they will deal with the vampire problem, as long as Cushing is excused kung fu duties, Chiang doesn't have to say Transylvania too often, and they can find an appropriately striking blonde to provide the obligatory Hammer glamour (Julie Ege steps up as a wealthy Danish widow who finances their expedition).
I'm making the plot sound rather more complex than it actually is – most of the foregoing is back-story, handled very directly. What happens on screen is actually extraordinarily straightforward: the vampire hunters set off on their expedition (Cushing wears a pith helmet). Some gangsters try to stop them and there's a lengthy kung fu battle. Then, they stop for the night in a cave, where the vampires attack them. There's a lengthy kung fu battle. Finally, they arrive at the cursed village where the vampires attack them again. There's a – oh, you guessed. The plot is totally linear (though not wholly without surprises – not everyone you may be expecting to survive to the closing credits actually does so).
The 'village plagued by bad guys calls in expert fighters' scenario inevitably recalls Seven Samurai and its legion of pasticheurs, but things seem to have got a bit mangled: in this movie the 'seven' of the title are the bad guys. Nevertheless, Cushing is backed up by seven of his own guys, though any thoughts you may be having that this is a fair fight are mistaken, as the vampires are supported by hordes of charmingly duff-looking zombies (to be fair, all the makeup in this movie is fairly lousy).
On paper this movie looks like one of the greatest pieces of junk ever committed to celluloid, an aberration committed solely in the name of market-chasing. Neither the script or the production values are up to Hammer's usual standard, and the film doesn't even make sense on its own terms. The graphics department don't seem to have read the script, as a caption establishes Dracula heads for China in 1804, a century before the rest of the story happens. This in itself is enough to put the film in its own continuity, separate from the 'classic' Hammer Draculas (1958-1970) and the 'contemporary' films featuring the character (1972-3). However, the script makes it quite clear that Dracula and Van Helsing have met before, which is impossible given what we're shown on-screen. Does it really matter, given that this is, after all, a Hammer horror-kung fu movie fusion? Probably not. Is it, nevertheless, annoying? You bet.
Legend remains stubbornly watchable, mainly due to another incredible Peter Cushing performance – the man's dedication and commitment to his craft remain truly astounding, to say nothing of his sheer ability to sell dodgy scripts to an audience – and Baker's contribution as director. He's not the most naturally gifted director of martial arts sequences, but then the fights in this movie are a little atypical anyway, generally featuring at least half a dozen performers on each side. Where he does deliver is in terms of atmosphere: the wordless build-up to the final conflict, as each side steels itself for battle, is genuinely rather thrilling. He's helped by James Bernard's strident if slightly repetitive score, even if it does recycle bits of his classic Dracula score in a rather uninspired fashion.
The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires is what you get when a fairly silly idea gets written up as a so-so script (Don Houghton, writer of the two contemporary Hammer Draculas, was once again responsible), which then has rather too much talent and energy and not enough money thrown at it. You can't really imagine Christopher Lee actually doing a movie as weird as this one, because it is weird – bordering on the actually demented. But if nothing else, that gives it definite novelty value. This is ultimately quite a bad film. But it manages to be bad in a uniquely interesting and enjoyable way.