After King Boxer (aka Five Fingers of Death) started the kung fu boom in 1972, Shaw Brothers Studio embarked on various co-productions with Italian, German, British and U.S. studios in the wake of its first international success. One company that sought a partnership was Hammer Films, which previously made a name for itself in the 1950s and 1960s as the virtual heir apparent to Universal Studios, becoming the world’s premiere studio for horror films.
In 1958, Hammer released Horror of Dracula, starring Christopher Lee as the infamous Count and Peter Cushing as his nemesis Dr. Van Helsing. The movie proved to be a success, spawning seven follow-ups, the last of which was The Satanic Rites of Dracula in 1973. A year later, Hammer decided to co-produce with Shaw Brothers its final installment in the Dracula franchise, albeit adding a decidedly Chinese twist. Capitalizing on the recent interest in martial arts films, Hammer switched the main action from Transylvania to China for The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, a kung fu horror flick that simply has to be seen to be believed.
The film opens in 1804 with an evil Taoist monk named Kah (Chan Shen) trekking all the way to Transylvania to meet the great Count Dracula (John Forbes Robertson subbing for an unwilling Christopher Lee). Kah tells Dracula that he once maintained control over the Seven Golden Vampires and is looking to the Count to help restore them to power. Dracula, who somehow magically understands Mandarin (unless he was reading the subtitles), seems familiar with Kah’s vague mention of his golden Chinese “cousins.” As a result, the Count decides it’s finally time to take the trip to China that he’s always put off. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Dracula seems to be trapped in his own castle, but sees the monk’s intrusion as the perfect opportunity to escape. In a puff of smoke, he assumes the guise of the wayward monk and heads for China.
The story resumes in 1904, as we find Professor Laurence “Don’t call me Abraham” Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) lecturing at Chunking University about arcane vampire lore to a highly skeptical audience. In an effort to connect with his Chinese listeners, Van Helsing mentions a local vampire legend that supposedly happened a long time ago in an unidentified village located somewhere in the far-flung reaches of the Chinese countryside. If it weren’t Peter Cushing delivering these lines, Van Helsing would sound absolutely deluded, which is exactly how his in-film listening audience interprets his claims. Unimpressed by Van Helsing’s vampire spiel, the Chinese audience walks out on his lecture en masse.
Despite the unpopularity of Van Helsing’s talk, there is one person in the classroom who seems receptive to the good doctor’s wild yarns, a young man named Hsi Ching (David Chiang). After tailing Van Helsing back to his hotel, Hsi Ching reveals that he is the descendant of the legendary Hsi Tien-An (also played by Chiang), who is shown in the requisite flashback sequence to have vanquished one of the Golden Vampires during their initial reign of terror many years ago.
Since Van Helsing claims to have fought off Dracula himself, Hsi Ching thinks the doctor may be the only one who can help his village exterminate these vampires once and for all. Of course, if Dracula really did turn into a Chinese monk and left for China in 1804 as the movie claims, it’s not humanly possible for Van Helsing to have met and fought Dracula – that is, unless he did it beforehand, which means he’s well over a hundred years old! But let’s not focus on this plot hole; after all, none of the characters do.
After some initial resistance, Van Helsing reluctantly agrees to Hsi Ching’s request. Joining Van Helsing on his crusade will be his rascally son Leland (Robin Stewart) and Vanessa Buren (Julie Ege), a rich, single and strong-willed woman who is more than willing to fund the expedition in return for some high adventure. Vanessa also happens to bear one of Hammer’s other trademarks, an impressive décolletage. Neither of Van Helsing’s companions seem especially skilled in the area of vampire hunting.
But never fear, these gwailos will not have to face the vampires alone, as Hsi Ching’s six brothers and one sister Mai Kwei (Shih Szu), all of whom are well-versed in the martial arts, will be accompanying them on their perilous journey. And so, this ragtag group of souls embarks on a quest to Hsi Ching’s ancestral home, fighting off everything from Chinese bandits to decrepit zombies to the fabled Golden Vampires themselves. In between, there are a number of gratuitous bare breast shots and plenty of Lau Kar-Leung-coordinated kung fu fighting. The film culminates with an all-out vampire siege on the village and a final, fatal encounter with Dracula himself.
As Hammer’s last vampire film, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires is certainly an unconventional way to end the series. It’s a terrible shame that Christopher Lee declined to appear in the film (he apparently did so after reading the script). Not only would it have reunited Lee with Peter Cushing one final time in a Dracula movie, but it would have spared us the performance of John Forbes-Robertson, who – pardon the pun – pales in comparison to Christopher Lee. Forbes-Robertson isn’t helped by the makeup and lighting department either, which make him look less like a bloodthirsty lord of the undead and more like a lipstick-smeared insurance salesman dressed in a cheap Halloween costume.
As title characters go, the 7 Golden Vampires aren’t as fleshed out as Count Dracula in his various incarnations. They don’t speak and seem largely mindless, as they are under Kah/Dracula’s dominion. However, what they lack in brains, they make up for in style. Simply put, the 7 Golden Vampires sure are snappy dressers. True to their name, they drape themselves entirely in gold. They wear golden Qing Dynasty robes, gold tiara-like headbands, golden Phantom of the Opera-style masks, and solid gold bat-shaped neck ornaments. Seriously, the amount of bling these guys wear makes them look like a cross between Mr. T and Count Chockula.
Assisting these vampire overlords in their quest to harass the living are the zombie hordes of the undead. These reanimated corpses don’t quite run and they don’t quite hop, but actually skip to much comic effect as they wreak havoc on the lives of innocent villagers. Like low-rent versions of Tolkien’s Orcs, these decomposing monsters launch an all-out assault on the village fort. Luckily, they seem susceptible to just about any physical attack and the Seven Brothers (and one sister!) just happen to know kung fu. You do the math.
While the film’s outlandish premise is perhaps its main draw, the initial appeal of its curious genre and cultural mishmash can only take a viewer so far. As such, the film succeeds largely on the performance of Peter Cushing. The man’s angular, razor-sharp features – as if his face were cut from stone or perhaps drawn by a cartoonist – are mesmerizing, as is the actor’s ability to deliver even the most laughable bit of exposition with enough gravitas to make it seem plausible. Sadly, the film offers Cushing little more to do than stand furtively on the sidelines, as the brothers do most of the heavy lifting. Still, the film gives the spry sixty-year-old actor dramatically more physical stuff to do in the final showdown with the Count.
David Chiang serves as the film’s co-lead and makes for a welcome presence, speaking a majority of his lines in English. One curious scene involving the character occurs when he and his siblings fight off an ambush by local bandits. During the melee, Hsi Ching kills an assailant using only two fingers and then proceeds – with a smirk – to casually wipe the blood off using the dead man’s lapel. For an everyman hero character along the lines of your typical Jackie Chan-style character, Hsi Ching certainly relishes his heroic bloodshed.
As for the Hsi Ching’s seven brothers, they are asked to do little more than fight and listen to Van Helsing’s sage advice, as they have no lines of dialogue – either in English or Mandarin – eventually becoming glorified cannon fodder. The only Chinese sibling who stands out besides Hsi Ching is his sister, Mei Kwei, although that seems more due to gender differences than anything outwardly remarkable about the character.
If Mei Kwei serves a purpose beyond eye candy (albeit the kind that can kick ass), then it may have something to do with her insertion into one of the film’s two interracial romances. Initially, the film presents Leland and Vanessa as an almost certain love match, only to subvert expectations by having Leland fall for Mei Kwei. What is perhaps more interesting is the fact that the buxom Vanessa only has eyes for the valiant Hsi Ching. Although there’s some flirting, held hands, and vaguely suggested off-screen activities, nothing really comes of these interracial romances – that is, there’s no political or social import to their relationships.
Still, the matter-of-fact way in which these characters proceed in their respective romantic pairings makes for a refreshing change of pace, as it takes a largely “no frills” approach to what could have been a taboo subject only a decade or two earlier. One might be tempted to view the history of British/Chinese relations or the then-contemporary racial norms as a way to read these two relationships, particularly in their differing outcomes, but I’ll leave you to come to your own conclusions on that subject.
In the end, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires amounts to a kooky, over-the-top kung fu/horror film that makes for more than passable entertainment, but doesn’t quite capitalize on the potential of its ingeniously offbeat premise. Still, whatever its faults, there’s enough going on in this curious Hammer/Shaw co-production to make it worth checking out for yourself. I mean, with Peter Cushing waxing poetic about Dracula and David Chiang busting vampire heads, can you really go wrong? (Calvin McMillin, 2011)
The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires
was a co-production between Hong Kong's Shaw Brothers and England's
Hammer Studios in an attempt to cross Hammer's popular Dracula
series with classic Shaw style Kung Fu. The film opens with Kah
(Chan Shen), the high priest of the 7 Golden Vampires paying a
visit to Count Dracula (played tolerably by Christopher Lee substitute
Kah asks Dracula for assistance with resurrecting
his currently departed comrades. Dracula declines, but seizes
the opportunity to leave his dreary mausoleum by taking over Kah's
body and giving him the power to dub himself into English. Dracula
then resurrects the 7 golden vampires and becomes their leader.
Flash forward to turn of the century
Mainland China where Dr. Abraham Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) joins
forces with Hsi Ching (Shaw star David Chiang) to rid Ching's
ancestral village of the marauding vampires. From here the movie
takes on a road picture quality with lots of east vs. west vampire
exposition, quirky humor and three big fight scenes.
The first battle leaves something to
be desired, as it uses poor camera angles which expose the fact
that none of the hits are connecting. However, since Lau Kar-Leung
(billed here as Chia-Liang Liu) handled the fight choreography,
it isn't long before some top notch vampire kung fu action ensues.
There are also some very sweet romantic subplots involving Van
Helsing's son Leyland (Robin Stewart), who falls in love with
Ching's sister Mai Kwei (Chang Cheh regular Szu Shih), and Hsi
Ching, who makes eyes at millionaire benefactor Vanessa (Julie
The conclusion of The Legend
of the 7 Golden Vampires is a satisfying but somber ending
which is typical of many of the Hammer films of the period. It's
a pity there wasn't a sequel, because this is quite an enjoyable
film, with great characters that are worthy of more development.
The acting is above par, as well. David Chiang is very charming
and displays very good chemistry with Peter Cushing and Julie
Also, the crossing of cultures is
handled very well and people familiar with both the Hammer gothic
Dracula films and HK hopping vampire genre will be especially
pleased. A great deal of attention is paid to specific cultural
details, and it's obvious that the filmmakers were careful to
respect the Chinese. This isn't the best of the Shaw Brothers
Kung Fu films, nor is it the best of the Hammer horror films,
but The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires is a very good
mix between the two. (Magicvoice 2002)