Tuesday, 15 September 2015

The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (4½ Stars)

Christopher Lee appeared as Count Dracula in seven films made by Hammer Film Studios from 1958 to 1973. He was unhappy with the last two films, both set in modern day London. He said the scripts were poorly written. When he was asked to star in "The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires" he turned it down without even reading the script. That was unfortunate. It was the best film in the Dracula series since 1958, the only weak point being the actor who played Count Dracula, John Forbes-Robertson. He simply wasn't big enough to step into Christopher Lee's shoes. But then again, was anyone?

If I describe the film to anyone who hasn't seen it it might sound like a parody, but it's a serious film with an original, ground-breaking plot, lifting it above the previous films in the series. The background to the film being made was ominous, and it could easily have ended in disaster. In the early 1970's Chinese martial arts films were becoming popular in England and America. This was due not only to Bruce Lee, there was a flood of Chinese kung fu films being shown in the West. Hammer's films had been sagging at the box office, so the studio bosses thought they could cash in on the kung fu craze. "Why not send Dracula to China?" That sounds like an atrocious idea. It's amazing that it worked out so well. The main factor that contributed to its success is that it was a co-production of Hammer and Shaw Brothers. It was filmed entirely on location in China.

The film's prologue is in 1804. A Chinese monk called Kah (Shen Chan) travels to Transylvania to seek Dracula's help. Kah is the priest responsible for seven Chinese vampires, but their power is fading, and he thinks Dracula can restore them. Dracula possesses Kah's body and uses it to travel to China.

100 years later Professor Lawrence Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) is a guest lecturer at Chungking University, speaking about vampire legends in Europe and China. One of the students, Hsi Ching (David Chiang), comes from a village called Ping Kwei, which is being terrorised by the seven vampires. Together with his sister and six brothers he has come to Chungking to escort the professor back to Ping Kwei. At first Van Helsing refuses, saying the trip would be too expensive, but the rich widow Vanessa Buren (Julie Ege) offers to finance the trip, as long as she can come along.

On the way to Ping Kwei there are attacks by bandits and supernatural forces, but Professor Van Helsing is protected by Hsi Ching and his family. They're all skilful martial artists, each one specialising in different weapons: swords, daggers, spears, axes, maces and arrows. Only Hsi Ching himself uses no weapon, relying on his fighting skill with his bare hands. He was played by David Chiang, one of Hong Kong's most popular actors who had already starred in more than 50 films.

Julie Ege, the beautiful Norwegian actress who had a short career in English films in the 1970's, plays a typical anti-damsel-in-distress. This was a common archetype in the old expedition films: "an intelligent, highly educated woman who loudly proclaims women's independence, but becomes weak and helpless as soon as a strong man confronts her". I hope it really was only the old films. Despite its quaintness through repetition, it was a horribly sexist way of portraying women. It gives the message that women want to appear strong, but they're only pretending, they're really weak and need men to protect them. Please tell me that we've moved on from that today.

Peter Cushing puts on an excellent performance, as always. It would be incorrect to call him a great actor. He could only play one role, that of a grumpy old man, but he did it so well. He found his niche and he stuck to it.

The film was a great success at the box office. Deservedly. The critics were polarised. There was no middle ground. Some called it ridiculous, while others called it the best Hammer horror film of the 1970's. I share the latter opinion. It was a masterpiece. If Christopher Lee had been in it I would have given if five stars, but I'll deduct half a star due to his replacement, who I won't even acknowledge with a photo in this post. Luckily he only appears briefly in the film, at the beginning and the end. For most of the film Dracula is occupying Kah's body.

Here's one last photo of Dracula, in Kah's body, enjoying a Chinese meal. Delicious!

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