Home Video Hovel: The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, by Dayne Linford
One of the most fascinating aspects of cinematic history is how often key elements of second run and B studio products are later appropriated by mainstream studios in billion dollar movies, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. Hammer Studios, a British B circuit studio best known for their horror films, long predated the current trend of creating “universes,” replicating and ultimately surpassing Universal in the 30s and 40s with their long string of Hammer horror films, each tangentially related to the other. Though lacking any kind of singular guiding vision like that found in the Marvel franchise, these films nonetheless hung together and led one into the other. As an added bonus, this lack of a particular organizing principle meant that they could dip into other genres and filmmaking styles, as if on a lark. You might, say, have Dracula pop up in early twentieth century China, with Van Helsing along for the ride, of course. If this co-production with the famous Chinese Shaw Brothers Studio, best known for being behind the explosion of kung fu films in the 60s and 70s, means that Dracula’s seven sword wielding vampires engage in martial arts combat with Helsing’s allies, the seven Hsi brothers and their one sister, then all I can say is a resounding “Hell yes” and a quiet prayer to the effect of, “God bless and protect B movies and can we please go back to more of this, while You’re at it?”
In their, unfortunately only, team up, Hammer and Shaw give us The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, as near a perfect mix of kung fu craziness and fun with super soapy vampire hunting as you can create. The basic plot is just enough to get us started. Dracula (here played by John Forbes-Robinson) has taken over the body of a Chinese supplicant named Kah (Chan Shen) in order to restore the power of the Seven Golden Vampires, who’ve been terrorizing a local village called Ping Kuei, and joins them in their terrorizing for the next hundred or so years until 1904 when Van Helsing (an always delightful Peter Cushing) arrives in town. Helsing is met by Hsi Ching (David Chiang), the eldest of the Hsi families’ eight children and the descendant of a poor farmer who’d managed to dispatch one of the Golden Vampires back in the day. Helsing and Hsi team up, accompanied by Hsi’s siblings, each a master of a different weapon, and Helsing’s son, Leyland (Robin Stewart), and funded by “modern woman” Vanessa Buren (Julie Ege), going deep into China to save Ping Kuei from the ravages of the Golden Vampires.
This movie is just an unbelievable blast, with apologies to the harm Blu-ray level presentation does to their special effects department. But a key element of these kinds of movies is the charm of old-school, cheap filmmaking, relying on camera and editing tricks to create illusions of supernatural horror and martial arts abilities with generally more than less success. It’s surprising, though it perhaps shouldn’t be considering how deeply they share this bag of tricks, how well these different styles of filmmaking blend together. The gothic dread and frank prurient exhibitionism of Hammer’s horror films finds a great home in the grand opera of wuxia, with its sweeping camera work and brutal combat sequences, and each feeds into the other in surprising and effective ways, ultimately standing in for a kind of cultural conversation the movie actively engages in.
You could argue that the East-West dynamic in the film is unavoidable but considering how much else is fudged throughout, it’s very surprising a movie with these ambitions and aesthetic background would engage it at all. But it does, with a surprising deftness. When Helsing first appears on screen, he seems to be lecturing at a university in Chungking, and the implication is more or less obvious–the esteemed white academic is here to inform backwards Chinese people of the reality of Western science and cultural values (and vampires). Except that Helsing ends his lecture not with aplomb or accolades but with a plea, begging the faculty at this university to allow him to study their texts and learn from them following his encounter with Dracula (best not ask questions here) so he can find out everything to know about vampires. Moreover, he’s met with derision from the faculty, who are offended at his request and the larger implication that Chinese society lacks the sophistication of western society and therefore believes in vampires. They discard his fight with Dracula as one against a madman and categorically refuse his request. Right from the beginning, the movie is working against some of its audience’s more obvious racial constructions and the Chinese and European characters are very consistently on equal footing throughout the film, both as characters and protagonists.
One of the most interesting elements of this dynamic surrounds the romantic subplots of the film. Again, a rather obvious paradigm is introduced when Leyland first lays sight on Vanessa Buren, a wealthy “modern woman,” as he condescendingly refers to her, who is financially independent and fascinated with Professor Van Helsing. It’s clear that there’s attraction there and the beginning of a kind of romantic conflict surrounding Leyland’s discomfort with Buren’s modernity. However, this quickly gets discarded in favor of two interracial romantic subplots, one between Leyland and the Hsi sister, Mai Kwei (Szu Shih) and the other between Buren and Hsi Ching. Even by the 70s, this kind of interracial union in a western film was uncommon but especially in a B movie like this, a genre rather infamous for somewhat reactionary conservative politics, you don’t expect to find a passing serious exploration of that kind of romantic relationship. What’s more, though the film is rather regressive generally in its portrayal of women, it’s not out to doom the interracial romances in the fashion of many of its kind. This interesting, rather progressive portrayal, though, is undercut by the general misogyny evident in the film and I’m not even referring to the numerous scenes of bodice ripping during vampire attacks. Mai Kwei might kick ass but her first line in the film, spoken to Leyland, is, “Does that not please you?” Accompanied by the way the film works to punish Buren for being a “modern woman,” this is really not ideal. But all in all, the racial and sexual politics of the film are quite surprisingly interesting, coming as they are through this hybrid cultural product.
In the final counting, this is a film where both the pleasures of a dark castle lit only in reds and greens and of a group of combatants lining up in order throughout a long tracking shot, displaying their weapons of choice, soon to be used on as many enemies as possible, are to be found. It utterly lacks pretension and succeeds entirely at being the movie it set out to be, for which all involved are to be commended. It’s a hell of a good time and an interesting film to parse to boot. You really shouldn’t miss it.