With shows like Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and movies like the Blade franchise successfully upping the ante on action-horror in recent years, the 1974 Hammer hybrid Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires is certainly due for a reconsideration. A close-to-last-ditch attempt by the waning British horror film studio to pull in audiences that had switched their allegiances from gothic grue to chopsocky fighting, the movie was produced in collaboration with prolific Hong Kong kung fu producers the Shaw Brothers. The results are a messy hybrid – more Shaw than Hammer, actually – that’s ultimately more goofily entertaining than gothically scary. But if you’re not depressed by the spectacle of this once top-notch B-movie factory yielding to a standard of horror filmmaking that makes the Mexican Santos pics look slick, the movie can be cheesy fun.
Starring Peter Cushing as Professor Van Helsing, a role he originated in the early Hammer classic Horror of Dracula and impeccably portrayed through a series of movie follow-ups (the best of which is Brides of Dracula), and Shaw leading man David Chiang, as one of seven brothers enlisted in a battle against an army of the undead, the movie opens with a prologue set in Transylvania circa 1804. There, a mysterious Oriental traveler named Kah (Shen Chan) makes his way to Castle Dracula in an attempt to strike a deal with the vampire lord (mincingly played by a heavily made-up John Forbes-Robertson: the least menacing Dracula this side of Jeffrey Tambor). Kah is a high priest back in China for a group known as the Seven Golden Vampires, though from what we can gather this gang is so bad at their job that the village they’ve been terrorizing has been rising up against them. The priest has come to enlist Dracula’s aid to help his vampire masters reassert their rightful place, but the master vamp has other ideas. Grasping onto the high priest, he “takes on” the image of Kah (how this is supposed to work is never explained, but it involves a lotta fx smoke – and we never see the human Kah again), then presumably heads for China.
The film shifts to Chung King a hundred years later, where we see (after a nifty village milieu establishing shot that includes a close-up of a frog’s head getting lopped off) Cushing’s Van Helsing lecturing on vampires to a skeptical audience of Chinese academics. He recounts the Legend of the Seven Golden Vamps, which (we sharp viewers realize) is set in the same village that the high priest was talking about in the prologue. It is as Van Helsing recounts the legend that we get our first sense of just how different the Chinese bloodsuckers will be from Robertson’s more familiar Eurotrash Drac. Wearing gold masks to cover their oatmeal-mottled faces and white buggy eyes, along with absurdly large gold bat medallions that appear to provide some sort of mystical protection (and are shockingly easy to remove), they hold up in a temple where they fondle and suckle on those half-naked village girls they keep chained in a circle around a cauldron of bubbling blood, while Dracula/Kah stands back and imperiously presides over the festivities. Instead of being burned by the crucifix, this band of bloodsuckers is susceptible to images of the Lord Buddha.
Despite his reputation as a vampire hunter supreme, Van Helsing’s pleas for help in finding this village largely go unheeded – even though he assures the crowd that he’s had personal experience with the lord of the vampires himself. (But didn’t, the prologue conscious viewer can’t help asking, Count Dracula leave for China a hundred years ago?) Despair not, though, for there’s this one serious-eyed looking student in the group: Hsi Ching (Chiang), one of seven brothers (and a sister!) who come from that self-same village. Hsi has come to ask Van Helsing for help in ridding their town of this vampire scourge, which he agrees to do with the aid of his son, Leyland Van Helsing (Robin Stewart), and a tagalong Scandinavian heiress (non-acting beauty Julie Ege, one of the allergic vixens in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) who funds the excursion. You just know the latter is gonna be vampire fodder before the movie ends, especially after she starts getting close to Hsi on the long ride to the village.
We meet the seven brothers (and a sister!), who all turn out to be mighty fighters with varying skills that are really the only way we have of differentiating ’em (Look! There’s the brother who’s adept at swinging his mace!) The middle part of Legend is primarily devoted to two energetic fight scenes – one against a gang of tong thugs, the second in a rubber-bat-infested cave against the golden vamps – which appear to have been directed by Shaw journeyman Chang Che even though Britisher Roy Ward Baker (a familiar name to British horror buffs) receives credit as the movie’s director. The kung fu scenes are fun, though poor Peter Cushing is shunted off to the sidelines to basically look concerned as the kids all get in their kicks. Son Leyland is shown shooting the vampires, but I’m not sure he hits any.
By the time our crew makes it to the village to hold off a final siege of vamps and zombies, the younger Van Helsing has fallen in love with the group’s knife-wielding and-a-sister! (Shih Szu). The scenes featuring the army of undead hup-hupping toward the village have a surreal charm, while the climactic battle itself is measurably more exciting than the movie’s climactic battle in the temple between Van Helsing and Dracula (who helpfully morphs back into his Forbes-Robertson body). The latter is staged so quickly and perfunctorily (Drac leaps once; Van Helsing stakes him!) that longtime Hammer fans can’t help negatively contrasting it to the great blood-and-thundery confrontations ‘tween Cushing and Chris Lee. Maybe director Baker was being mindful of the actor’s age (he was in his early sixties at the time this flick was lensed), but it certainly falls flat after we’ve been shown so much more dynamic fighting already. You’d almost feel badly for Cushing if you didn’t know he was only two years away from playing Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars.
Despite its seemingly infallible blend of exploitation movie elements, Legend took several years to arrive in the United States (and, even then, it was released with something like fourteen minutes of non-action footage chopped off its 88-minute running time – and retitled The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula). It’s presently available on DVD as a part of Anchor Bay’s Hammer Collection, packaged in a two-disc set alongside the more traditional Cushing starring feature Frankenstein Created Woman. The disc containing Legend is a flipper, which includes the bowdlerized American version along with an audio track that I’ve yet to play of Cushing reading the “Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires.” Not the first of Anchor Bay’s Hammer Collections that I’d recommend to a viewer wanting to see what the studio could do at its best – I’d recommend the line’s Quatermass two-fer first – but it’s still plenty kicky. I’m betting Joss Whedon knows the fight scenes in Legend backwards and forwards. . .