Saturday, March 3, 2018
LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES (1974)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical, sociological*
LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES had a couple of "firsts" to its credit, in that it was the first collaboration between Hammer Studios and Shaw Brothers, and the first British attempt to meld the elements of their horror-films with elements of the kung-fu genre. (The latter might not be much of an accomplishment, since earlier in the same year, Hammer had released a horror/swashbuckler, CAPTAIN KRONOS VAMPIRE HUNTER.) However, the film's "lasts" may prove more historically significant, since it was the last Hammer film of the original period to feature either Dracula specifically or vampires generally. And LEGEND was one of the very last films made by Hammer before its 1970s demise (its later reincarnation being a separate matter).
Hammer films were never known for being scrupulous about internal continuity, and LEGEND follows the same pattern. The film begins with a prologue set in 1804, wherein Dracula has been, for vague reasons, confined to his castle. For once, Hammer's Van Helsing can't be blamed, for it's 1885 when the vampire-hunting doctor encounters the king bloodsucker in HORROR OF DRACULA, so this particular Van Helsing can't have been alive in 1804, unless he was remarkably well preserved. In fact, the continuity of HORROR and its sequels seemed flatly contradicted by the following events. A Taoist monk named Kan enters Castle Dracula, asking for the vampire-lord's help. It seems that for some time a group of vampire-lords, the Seven Golden Vampires (so called for their golden masks) have existed in rural China. However, the Seven have fallen into deep slumber and need aid from the master of vampires. Dracula (John Forbes-Robertson) arrogantly rejects the simple request for help, but apparently sees in Kan an escape from his imprisonment. Over the monk's objections, Dracula possesses Kan's body-- certainly a vampire-talent never before revealed-- and in that form journeys all the way to China, where he joins the Seven and terrorizes the Chinese, often kidnapping young women for blood sacrifices, more Taoist than Transylvanian in nature. To the hardcore continuity-bug, this makes it impossible for Dracula to be in either Transylvania or England in 1885-- for when the prologue ends, the film proper starts in 1904.
A version of Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) lectures on vampire legends at a Chungking university. It will later come out that this Van Helsing knows all about Dracula, though there would seem no way that the two could have met, even though they seem to know one another at the conclusion. The doctor also knows about the stories of the Seven Vampires of China. Though this Van Helsing doesn't seem to be busy tracking down any undead, he clearly believes that they're real. The audience of skeptical Chinese students don't hold any faith in old legends, not even when Van Helsing regales them-- and the film's audience-- with a highly detailed narrative about a humble farmer managing to steal a magical talisman from the Seven.
One listener, Hsi Ching, believes Van Helsing, and asks the scholar to join a quest to root out the evil of the Golden Vampires. Hsi Ching brings along his six brothers and one sister, who are all kung-fu experts, while Van Helsing brings along his grown son Leyland and a beautiful young widow, Vanessa.
Once the expedition begins progressing through the Chinese countryside, any resemblance to the British style of heavily-plotted drama vanishes. The film was jointly directed by Roy Ward Baker and Chang Cheh. But since only the latter had experience in handling kung-fu scenarios, it seems likely that he influenced the bulk of the film's action-scenes. There are some minor emotional subplots, such as a blossoming interracial romance between Hsi Ching and Vanessa. which was somewhat daring for a 1974 British horror-film. But most of the film is just one attack after another by the Golden Vampires and their zombie-like hordes, followed by the heroes' counterattacks. Dracula/Kan doesn't have much to do, and the Seven Vampires are even more routine as villains than Hsi Ching and his siblings are as heroes. To be sure, Layland and Vanessa are not well-developed either, so it seems likely that Shaw Brothers realizes that Cushing's Van Helsing had to be in the forefront to help sell the film in the West. The action-scenes are good fun, though there's something of a sameness about them. Van Helsing has a final face-off with Dracula, who once more assumes his Transylvanian form, and while it's just an average fight-scene, it does have the distinction of being Hammer's final battle between the two characters-- even though one could argue that these aren't "the real ones."
I assume that the visual motif of "masked evildoers" stems from Chinese folklore and/or popular fiction, since four years later, Chang Cheh used this motif in one of his biggest hits, THE FIVE DEADLY VENOMS.