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Retro Review: THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES (1974)

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THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES
aka THE 7 BROTHERS MEET DRACULA
(UK/Hong Kong - 1974; US release 1979)

Directed by Roy Ward Baker. Written by Don Houghton. Cast: Peter Cushing, David Chiang, Julie Ege, Robin Stewart, Shih Szu, John Forbes-Robertson, Robert Hanna, Chan Shen, James Ma, Liu Hui Ling, Liu Chia Yung, Wong Han Chan, Chen Tien Loong, Fong Kah Ann. (Unrated, 89 mins/R, 75 mins)

With 1970's THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, Hammer Films started spicing up their horror offerings with generous doses of skin and sex in an attempt to inject new life into their product. They made a play for the youth market by benching Peter Cushing in favor of Ralph Bates as a much-younger Dr. Frankenstein in 1970's little-loved HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN, and while they didn't replace Christopher Lee as Dracula, they did transport him with Cushing's Van Helsing to mod, swinging London in all its Austin Powers glory for 1972's DRACULA A.D. 1972 and 1973's THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA. Neither film was a hit, and while Cushing soldiered through them, Lee made sure to voice his displeasure with Hammer and the DRACULA series to anyone who would listen. Warner Bros. shelved SATANIC RITES in the US, where it wouldn't be released for another five years, and when pandering to the counterculture demographic failed, Hammer took an even more unpredictable approach by partnering on two 1974 projects with Hong Kong's Run Run Shaw, whose Shaw Brothers outfit was for responsible much of the burgeoning martial-arts craze: the horror/kung-fu hybrid THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES and the Stuart Whitman-starring Hong Kong-set actioner SHATTER.






Hammer was in a strange place by 1974. THE EXORCIST was enough of a game-changer that "classic"-style horror was falling out of fashion. Cushing returned to his Dr. Frankenstein role for one last time with 1974's FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL, by far the goriest entry in the series and the same year saw the release of their most inspired film in years with Brian Clemens' horror/swashbuckler cult classic CAPTAIN KRONOS: VAMPIRE HUNTER, which was actually completed in 1972 but Hammer didn't have any confidence in it and shelved it for two years. Bad decisions, diminishing returns, and a changing genre landscape would eventually cause the company's classic incarnation to fold after 1976's TO THE DEVIL...A DAUGHTER, but THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES, like CAPTAIN KRONOS, was a film tragically unappreciated in its time and one that has aged remarkably well over the decades.


It would've been even better had Lee returned as Dracula, but he was so fed up with whole thing after SATANIC RITES that he walked away and refused to have anything more to do with the series, and it's doubtful that he would've been wooed back by the prospect of Dracula in a kung-fu setting. While Cushing returned as Van Helsing, Dracula was now played by jobbing British character actor and one-and-done trivia question response John Forbes-Robertson, the George Lazenby of the Hammer DRACULA series. Since Dracula's screen time is limited to the beginning and the end, the actor doesn't have much of a chance to make an impression beyond his excessive rouge and pasty makeup. And on top of that, he's dubbed over by veteran voice actor David de Keyser, whose familiar tones can be heard revoicing John Richardson in THE VENGEANCE OF SHE and Gabriele Ferzetti in ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE. Forbes-Robertson has very little to do here, but it's likely Dracula would've received more face time had Lee agreed to be in it, but with the end result, it hardly matters. Directed by the venerable Roy Ward Baker (ASYLUM, THE VAULT OF HORROR, AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS), with uncredited assistance from top Shaw Brothers director Chang Cheh, who handled the action sequences, THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES is a dark horse underdog in the Hammer canon that's long overdue for respect and appreciation. As recently as 2018's comprehensive, 992-page chronicle Hammer Complete: The Films, The Personnel, The Company, author Howard Maxford calls the film "a letdown on almost every level." Quite the contrary...it's clever, wildly entertaining, paced like a freight train, and better than at least the last four of Lee's DRACULAs.


Disregarding the A.D. 1972 and SATANIC RITES continuity even though, like those two, it was written by Don Houghton, 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES opens in 1804 Transylvania, where Chinese priest Kah (Chan Shen) awakens Dracula (Forbes-Robertson) to beg for his help in resurrecting the legendary "seven golden vampires." A weakened Dracula decides to use Kah as a vessel to strengthen his own evil spirit and to use the seven golden vampires to wreak his vengeance on mankind (having Dracula possess Kah is also a convenient way around Forbes-Robertson being cast late in production). 100 years later, Van Helsing (Cushing) is in Chung King as a guest lecturer on the subject of vampirism, telling his students of the legend of the seven golden vampires who have terrorized the remote village of Ping Kwei for the last century. Most scoff and walk out, but one, Hsi Ching (David Chiang) knows he speaks the truth: his family comes from that village and his grandfather lost his life battling the seven golden vampires, but not before killing one of them. Van Helsing, with his son Leyland (Robin Stewart) and wealthy, widowed Scandinavian socialite Vanessa Buren (Julie Ege), who thinks "a vampire hunt sounds exciting," agrees to accompany and advise Hsi Ching, his six brothers, and their ass-kicking little sister Mei Kwei (Shih Szu) on a treacherous journey to Ping Kwei to find and destroy the six surviving golden vampires while frequently fighting off a growing army of their undead victims, now resurrected as kung-fu zombies.






I'm not sure how "Peter Cushing leading a band of sibling martial-arts warriors against vampires and kung-fu zombies" wasn't the most slam-dunk cinematic sales pitch of 1974. It's handsomely-produced and stylishly shot in garish greens, blues, and reds, with spirited performances (this is one of Cushing's best turns as Van Helsing, even taking part in some of the kung-fu fighting) and a sharp use of the region and its iconography (Van Helsing warns that crosses are useless against these vampires, who can only be warded off by Buddha imagery), but THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES was met with general apathy by UK audiences. Like THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA, it was shelved in the US by Warner Bros, who eventually sold both films to the short-lived grindhouse outfit Dynamite Entertainment. They eventually released SATANIC RITES in 1978 as COUNT DRACULA AND HIS VAMPIRE BRIDE, while 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES underwent a drastic restructuring into the cheesily-titled THE 7 BROTHERS MEET DRACULA, which hit theaters in the summer and into the fall of 1979. It's one of the worst botched re-edits of all time, gutting the film from 89 to 75 minutes, losing tons of exposition and shifting scenes around to the point where the story makes no sense at all. This had to be part of the reason the film was dismissed as gutter schlock and was maligned for so long by American audiences until Anchor Bay's original DVD release in 1999 finally made the original 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES cut widely available (the butchered 7 BROTHERS MEET DRACULA was included as an extra, and both cuts are present on Scream Factory's new Blu-ray, because physical media is dead). Considering how well-crafted the original version was, and that kung-fu films were all the rage in 1974--especially with Warner Bros., who had huge hits with  5 FINGERS OF DEATH and the landmark ENTER THE DRAGON--shelving the film in the first place was an astonishingly bone-headed decision, let alone Dynamite's later catastrophic mangling of it, basically reducing it to fight scenes and T&A, with one topless shot of a woman repeated three times. Forget the 7 BROTHERS cut unless you need to analyze just how badly a good movie can be fucked up beyond recognition. THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES is an absolute blast and a worthy conclusion to Hammer's DRACULA series, and it's time for it to be given its rightful place among the studio's crowning achievements.



The butchered 7 BROTHERS MEET DRACULA version
opening in Toledo, OH on 10/5/1979





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