Legendary British horror studio Hammer was struggling in the 1970s – so it decided to mix Dracula with a kung fu film.
Hammer was almost dead and buried, and not for the first time. The golden era of Britain’s foremost horror movie production company had come and gone, and while it would be iconic for the monster movies it produced since the 1950s, before the mid-1970s the company was in its dying days.
Founded by comedian William Hinds in 1934 before entering bankruptcy and liquidation in 1937 after producing five films, none were of note outside of The Mystery Of The Marie Celeste (1935) featuring original Dracula star Bela Lugosi.
Before the outbreak of World War II, the studio was revived as the film production arm of Exclusive, the distribution company that Hinds founded with cinema owner Enrique Carreras in 1935. Exclusive had survived the closure of Hammer.
By 1972, however, the hard times had returned as movie goers found their horror thrills in the more sophisticated spine chillers coming out of the US. Long gone was the success of The Curse Of Frankenstein (1957), The Quartermass Xperiment (1955) and The Horror Of Dracula (1958), within 20 years the company was adapting TV sitcoms such as On The Buses and its two sequels.
The company’s final production, in 1979, would be the Elliott Gould and Cybil Shepherd-headlined remake of The Lady Vanishes that proved the last nail in the coffin before its latest resurrection that would ultimately produce updated horror fare such as The Woman In Black (2012).
However, few would argue that before it ceased production in the 70s, it produced one of the oddest entries in British cinema when it co-produced the vampire kung fu movie, The Legend Of The Seven Golden Vampires (1974).
This final Dracula movie followed two attempts to bring the evil Count into the modern age with Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972), which surely features on of the most distinctive scores in any horror film ever made, and the direct sequel, The Satanic Rites Of Dracula (1973) which proved to be the final straw for lead actor Christopher Lee in the main role.
Lee however would be convinced to return for one more movie, albeit without a cape, starring in the adaptation of Dennis Wheatley’s To The Devil, A Daughter (1976).
“I stopped making them in 1971 because in my opinion the presentation of the character had deteriorated to such an extent, particularly bringing him into the contemporary day-and-age that it no longer had any meaning,” said Lee while discussing his reasoning during the documentary Hammer: The Studio That Dripped Blood (1987).
In another interview he would complain about the writing for the role, saying “the problem was, and I said this at the time, that a story was written and then someone would say; ‘well where shall we put the character in?’ There are precise moments. And it got to a point where I was only required to appear from time-to-time from a dark corner or something like that and do very little else.”
With neither movie faring well outside of the UK, Hammer’s distribution partner, Warner Brothers chose not to release the former at all in the US for several years. Dracula, it would seem, had finally been consigned to his coffin.
However, Hammer was not a company that rested on its laurels and continued to look for new movies to make that might reach an audience and found a potential answer in an unusual place; kung fu movies, which had found a surge in interest at the box office.
Warner Brothers had just scored a hit through its partnership with another production studio, Golden Harvest, to distribute Bruce Lee’s seminal Enter The Dragon (1973) and it was keen to capitalise on that success.
Fortunately, an introduction was made to a Chinese-based film production company, Shaw Brothers Studio. The writer of the previous two Dracula features, Don Houghton, was married to actor Lim Pik-sen. Her father was palm oil millionaire Lim Cheng-Teik, who in turn knew Run Run Shaw, of Shaw Brothers. The resultant film would be Houghton’s only production as a producer, having only held executive producers on The Satanic Rites Of Dracula (1972) the year before.
In the Encyclopedia Of Hammer, Michael Carreras, the son of the founder Enrique and an executive with Hammer at the time, explains why the opportunity of this partnership was an attractive one: “The stretch to Seven Golden Vampires was really out of desperation to try and find something ‘new’. Plus I was excited by what I saw as a potentially lucrative partner in Run Run Shaw. I mean, here was a man who had resources and market to make a hundred films a year if he wanted to.”
Shaw Brothers, which was a competitor to Golden Harvest, would go on to produce over 1,000 films, mostly Chinese-language including titles such as Five Fingers Of Death, Venom Mob and Butterfly Lovers. The high level of productivity was due to its building of Movietown at Clearwater Bay in Hong Kong, which included a backlot of 12 soundstages, dubbing studios and also apartment blocks in which the actors and film crew would stay during production, meaning work could continue around the clock.
With a deal agreed to make a new Dracula picture as well as a second film back-to-back as a co-production, Shaw Brothers – fresh off the success of King Boxer – would take on half of the budget of The Legend Of The Seven Golden Vampires , with the rest coughed up by Hammer and Warner Brothers between them.
Shaw also had a distribution deal with the Hollywood studio and the British crew flew to work there alongside their soon-to-be Chinese colleagues.
The movie would become to be known (outside of the US anyway) as The Legend Of The Seven Golden Vampires and was once again written by Houghton who would also pen the second film, Shatter, as well.
That would, as with a number of other Hammer regulars, prove to be his last contribution to the studio.
While Lee would not return to the franchise, his fellow lead and long-time friend Peter Cushing would agree to appear for the fifth time as another Van Helsing.
Cushing signed on to appear as the lead in the film, and also agreed to film a few scenes for Shatter as well. This period fell after the death of Cushing’s wife a couple of years prior and saw him work extensively in order to mask his grief.
Cushing would portray yet another Van Helsing, Professor Lawrence Van Helsing, having originally played Doctor Van Helsing in the first two entries in the series. His work was followed by his descendent Professor Lorrimer Van Helsing in the entries prior to The Legend Of The Seven Golden Vampires .
Talking about why he would repeatedly take on the role of Van Helsing while being interviewed by Dick Vosburgh for ‘Peter Cushing: A One-Way Ticket to Hollywood’ he would state “fans like it – it’s the triumph of good over evil which I think in this day and age is so important. Although Dracula keeps popping up, so does the Devil, he’s everywhere. You’ve only got to add a D to evil and take an o out of good and you’ve got God or the Devil, the two greatest antagonists time will ever know.”
On the character’s original description in Bram Stoker’s source novel, he added “in the book he is written as a little, old gentleman who almost literally speaks double-Dutch. When I was first cast I said to Tony Hines you ought to get a little double-Dutcher and he said ‘no, I think the thing is to play him as you, for all sorts of reasons, so it became almost one of my parts’. It’s always a fascinating character to play.”
The shoot for The Legend Of The Seven Golden Vampires would take place entirely on location in Hong Kong with a mixed Chinese and British production crew between October and September in 1973. It would be far from easy, with culture clashes reportedly causing a great deal of friction. These would be spoken about when the troubles of the production surfaced.
Hammer turned to its veteran director Roy Ward Baker for this one, a man best known for the much-lauded drama A Night To Remember, who had filmed major successes such as Quartermass And The Pit and The Scars Of Dracula for the studio.
Yet he especially would find the difference in film making culture to be extremely difficult. He was surprised to learn that the actor’s dialogue was not usually recorded during the shoot, but overlayed later in postproduction. It meant that the crew would talk and build sets noisily while the actors tried to film their scenes, and that wasn’t how he was used to working.
There was also consternation around the shooting of the action scenes that The Shaw Brothers had built its reputation on. These would be the most memorable elements of the movie, featuring the vampires, local villagers and the undead.
Ward Baker explained that “the difficulties were enormous. The Shaw Brothers told me that they wanted their own director to shoot all the kung fu scenes ‘because we do it a certain way.”‘
“I said, ‘that’s all well and good, but I’m the director and I’ve got a little experience in action, thank you.’ Shooting in Hong Kong sounds like a wonderful idea … if you’ve never been to Hong Kong.”
The film would be co-directed by the studio’s own reliable hand Chang Cheh, who is said to have overseen the action scenes without Ward Baker present, although in the documentary on the history of The Shaw Brothers – Fist Of Fire – there’s behind the scenes footage from the making of the film including some of the fight scene choreography.
In that footage, Ward Baker is seen directing one of the major fight scenes in the desert.
Other members of the cast to join the European/Chinese production included The Shaw Brothers star David Chiang, who would discuss learning some acting tips from Cushing while on set. During Fist Of Fire he’s seen learning elocution tips from the actor with co-star Julie Edge standing next to him, commenting of Chiang “he speaks better English than I do after teaching it for two weeks using nursery rhymes.”
On the re-released Blu-ray of the film, Chiang would say of Cushing that “I learned different ways of doing things already on the first or second day of shooting. In Hong Kong we would shoot our movies shot by shot. In the UK they would do one long master shot and then push in for the close-ups afterwards. As for lines, we would go line-by-line and they would do the whole scene in one take. My English was limited.”
However, one major ingredient was still to be solved.
This was still meant to be a Dracula picture, but there was no Christopher Lee to take on the iconic role. Step forward John Forbes Robertson who had recently played supporting roles in Nicholas And Alexandra (1971) and The Vampire Lovers (1970). He would take on the role which would bookend a story that would open in 1804 and see an Asian-man named Ka travel to Transylvania in search of Dracula.
Upon resurrecting the count, Dracula takes over his body for the next 100 years. A century later, while lecturing in China, Van Helsing is persuaded to help seven kung fu trained siblings reclaim their ancestral mountain village, which is ruled over by seven vampires and their army of the undead.
Of the story, critics have pointed out the lack of logic in how Dracula can possess the form of Ka and still have battled Van Helsing during that period, as stated by the character in the movie.
It’s perhaps a sign of the lack of care placed into the production values, which rarely reach the standard of the original movies in this series. The ability to take over the form of other people was taken from a deleted sequence in The Satanic Rites Of Dracula, which Houghton chose to reintroduce here.
Caked in ludicrous pale make up with bright red lips and Lee’s cape, this Dracula is certainly no match for the menace of Lee. John Forbes Robertson’s first scene sees him rising out of a coffin engraved with the letter D, to stand in front of Ka, prostrate. It’s not a strong start for the film.
His voice would also be dubbed by David de Keyser, much to Robertson’s chagrin. “When I saw the Seven Golden Vampires, when you first see him [Dracula] as he rises out [of the coffin] I believed it completely and I believed utterly and completely that I was Dracula,” commented the actor some years later.
“When I appeared out of the coffin, they put a plank behind me and I came up straight, I thought ‘Jesus, God, he does look like a spectre.”
Forbes Robertson explained another difference in expectation between the cultures within the production crew which was explained to him by Cushing. “He said to me – I was after a stand in- and he said to me ‘oh John, they don’t have stand-ins here you know. Don’t worry about it but that’s the way they are over here.”
And in talking about his experience with the director, who he would describe as “a lovely director” he adds: “he had taken his own approach which they found standoffish, and he wasn’t standoffish at all.
“When I got there, I heard that he had stirred up the Chinese [crew]. Lovely, warm director but very professional. He wouldn’t have suffered fools gladly.”
Other noticeable cultural influences alongside the kung fu action include the vampires being harmed when touching a statue of a Buddha and the ability to kill them using silver swords.
An advert, developed by agency Ogilvy and Mather for the UK Dairy Council was shot in Hong Kong during production too. It showed behind the scenes shots of Cushing, co-stars Robin Stewart and Edge, and director Ward Baker drinking milk on set and featured the slogan ‘Pick up a pinta – stay on top’
“I can’t remember what we were drinking during filming of Seven Golden Vampires, but it certainly wasn’t milk,” revealed Stewart who also performed the voice over for the advert.
Crew members including special effects lead Les Bowie and script and continuity head Renee Glynne admitted to making The Legend Of The Seven Golden Vampires and Shatter simply for the chance to visit Hong Kong.
Glynne remembers Cushing as having spent more of his free time in his hotel room painting water colours, which was one of his various hobbies. “When his scenes in Shatter [were done] he was very pleased to be flying home on Christmas Day because he would be in the sky and closer to [his late wife] Helen.”
The Legend Of The Seven Golden Vampires was ultimately not a success. It came in at 89 minutes, and was initially debuted in Hong Kong on 11 July 1974 followed by the UK on 29 August 1974. It would open in Japan that November. It would not open however in the United States until some years later, after Warner Brothers declined to distribute the film.
Only once it had been sold to Dynamite Entertainment and re-edited to cut out 17 minutes, the film was eventually released in the US in 1979 as The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula.
On the performance of the film, Michael Carreras would comment that “it opened well here in the West End, but the fact that it made more money outside the Orient than it did inside seemed to defeat the purpose as far as I was concerned. It should have worked, and to this day I’m still puzzled about what went wrong.”
One final curious element of the film is the release of its soundtrack, which features clips from the movie alongside James Bernard’s score and is narrated by Peter Cushing himself.
In the aftermath of The Legend Of The Seven Golden Vampires, Count Dracula – for Hammer, anyway – was finally laid to rest. This would be Cushing’s final contribution to the movies, making an appearance some years later in The Silent Scream (1980) as part of the television anthology series, Hammer House of Horror.
Surely, with its amateur make up, walking dead action scenes and inter-racial romances which was unusual for cinema at the time, there will never be a movie made quite like The Legend Of The Seven Golden Vampires again…
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