So there’s this legend, right? And it involves seven vampires, right? In, like, these suits of golden armor or something. So what would do to try and defeat them? You’d gather up a roving band of kung-fu wielding Robin Hood types… and of course their one sister, to try and help you fight these seven golden vampires, which are being controlled by Dracula. That’s obviously the only logical thing to do.
This is how the premise of Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires was originally explained to me. What the storyteller neglected to tell me is that this narrative was completely manufactured so that Hammer Studios, my all-time favorite classic horror movie production house, and the Shaw Brothers Studios, the most famous chopsocky movie production house, could work together.
Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires is the Marvel Team-Up of East meets West. The movie only exists as an amazingly bad showcase of talent and production value. This was the Hammer equivalent of Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman or Frankenstein meets Abbott and Costello. Or, to put it in more modern terms. This is the Hammer version of Alien Vs. Predator.
Hammer is a production company based in England that, at the time, was know for lavish productions that took classic horror stories and updated them with modern sensibilities. The films are dark, and filled with heaping doses of blood and cleavage. Hammer most famously had two horror franchises that were built around Dracula and Frankenstein, respectively. Oh, sure they produced movies about the Mummy and Werewolves and lots of other one off spooky things but Dracula and Frankenstein were their bread and butter.
At the heart of Hammer’s wining formula were actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. In the Dracula movies Cushing played the kind hearted and righteous Dr. Van Helsing, while Lee portrayed the titular malevolent undead antagonist. In the Frankenstein franchise, Lee would only play the monster in the initial film the Curse of Frankenstein (1957). While Cushing would take on the role of the vile Dr Frankenstein for six of the Frankenstein installments. Cushing and Lee would become as synonymous with the roles of Dracula, Frankenstein, and Van Helsing as Hammer was with Horror.
And now we get to Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires. I was a big Hammer fan in college. The lavish purples and greys made the films pop and seem somehow even more terrifying. The inevitable deaths and rebirths of Dracula were so inventive it was almost worth watching the next film just of the five minutes of resurrection explanation. The films were slow, sure, and the acting wasn’t always the best, but the intent was always breathtakingly menacing. Except for Dracula 1972 AD, and ill advised attempted re-boot of the series in a failing attempt to gain more younger viewers.
In my initial hunt for the Hammer Dracula movies Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires eluded me. Possibly because of the fact that it was also released under the names The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula and The Seven Brothers and Their One Sister Meet Dracula. I wish more films had titles that were simultaneously that simple and that inventive. I wish Star Wars Episode VI: Return Of the Jedi was actually titled Luke Finds Out That Leia Is His Sister and Destroys the Death Star Again.
Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires is a relatively simple and formulaic story. Some, in this case a shaman, comes to Castle Dracula, unearths him, and raises him from the dead. And we’re off to the races. Here’s where the first hiccup is, unfortunately though… It’s not Christopher Lee playing Dracula. Which to some might not be that big a deal, but for me it is. Peter Cushing is playing Laurence Van Helsing. Where’s Christopher Lee? You can’t have one without the other. The new guy, John Forbes-Robertson, isn’t necessarily the worst thing that’s ever happened but he’s not Christopher Lee. This instantly feels like if you were going to make a Lethal Weapon movie but not have Danny Glover come back. The entire time you’d be wondering who Danny Glover pissed off, right?
The film progresses from there and we are told that a village that is being terrorized by vampires needs Van Helsing’s is help. Soon we’re introduced to roving band of kung-fu wielding Chinese vigilantes. Coincidentally, they’re seven brothers and a sister, just like the films third alternate title. Weird how that works right?
After some kung-fu fighting and Peter Cushing being cool they discover that Dracula is heading up a group of seven vampires. Cushing and the team of kung-fu siblings/aficionados take to the warpath and we get loads of cool action and vampire death.
Unfortunately, the film lacks some of the ambiance and majesty of the pervious installments in the storied franchise. Not all of the Hammer movies are good. Some are far from it. But they all have a strange, nascent sense of poise and sophistication about them. It’s hard to put your finger on it. All the purple velvet curtains and neon red blood/paint should be lame, but it’s not. It’s really cool in its own self-contained, internally logical way. It’s something you might have to just witness for yourself.
Let’s compare the Dracula deaths from Taste the Blood of Dracula and Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires. In Taste the Blood of Dracula, the titular vampire is slowly and suspensfuly ripped into shreds by Van Helsing strategically breaking windowpanes, just after sun up. Thus, destroying the monster bit by bit. The sequence is both thrilling and terrifying. It’s great its amazing. In Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, Van Helsing just stabs him in the heart and then he decays into ash. Not as cool. Not by a longshot.
And that’s kind of the feel of the movie. Van Helsing leading a roving band of super badass kung-fu warriors should be cool and totally worth the price of admission, right? Well, it’s not really. Mostly because Dracula isn’t even Dracula for the majority of the film. He takes the form of a Chinese man who looks not dissimilar to Fu Man Chu. It’s lame.
By far my favorite sequence in the film, aside from some kung-fu fighting here and there, is a scene where Dracula, in the form of the Not-Mandarin, conducts a dark rite and eats some virgins. It’s pretty awesome. And I say that not only because of the nudity but because of the fact that the guy who’s playing Not-Dracula has a jaw that is apparently double jointed. The dude opens his mouth, to show of his fake fangs and it’s like staring down a subway tunnel. It’s amazing.
Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires could have been my favorite movie of the entire franchise. The idea is amazing. However, the fact that Christopher Lee isn’t in the film and that Dracula isn’t really even in the film really hold it back.
I like my Dracula in the black suit and cape. I feel this way almost across the board. I don’t like it when Marvel brings him back with armor. I don’t like when the Guy-From-Prison-Break plays him in a plunging V-neck t-shirt and puka shells in Blade Trinity. I don’t like when he’s an Asian dude in Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires. Some things are just better left alone. Don’t put him in black leather. Don’t try and give him an iPod. Just give him his old weird not-tuxedo thing and call it a day. Dracula works. Leave it at that. And that’s one of the many things that Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires did wrong. They tried to reinvent something that worked fine. It would have sucked if they used the guy-who-replaced-Christopher-Lee more than two minutes, but it wouldn’t have sucked as much as only using him for two minutes.
Another really strange element of the movie is Peter Cushing. He looks uncomfortable throughout the whole thing. I don’t know what was happening off screen but I’m sure it was weird cause homey looks like he’s ready to leave the set. He also looks old. And I don’t mean that in a Peter-Cushing-has-wrinkles-and-grey-hair kind of way. He’s always had that. Peter Cushing came out looking old. No, he seems fatigued. Weary. He seems ready to not be doing this anymore. Sure, there’s a few scenes where he tries. He runs, he jumps, and he yells his obligatory dialogue about the talisman or the amulet or whatever the supernatural McGuffin is in this installment. But he just seems over it. And who can blame him? He’s played this part, maybe better than any other actor ever. And he’s done it multiple times.
Overall, Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires leaves the view wanting more but not in a good way. It leaves the view wishing for Christopher Lee, a better story, and more kung-fu. In a movie where Dracula has an army of vampires why is there no supernatural kung-fu? Really? There was no money in the budget for just one I’m-gonna-run-up-this-wall-and-kick-a-vampire-so-hard-their-head-explodes scene? Really? Well, fine. Ok. I guess not.
Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires is an injustice that must be witnessed. It is a train wreck that must be consumed. The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires is a phenomenally good idea for a movie with subpar execution. And for me? That’s enough. Barely. But it’s enough.