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Fandom can take you to some terrible places, can't it? Just as every really enthusiastic Doctor Who fan eventually ends up watching stories like The Twin Dilemma or Warriors of the Deep, knowing full well that they are terrible, because they love the series as a whole so much, it seems that sooner or later the avid Hammer Dracula fan finds themselves face to face with The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. I've gone down this road once before in my life, and had hoped to avoid ever retreading it. But now that I've got the idea in my head of trying to make the entire Hammer Dracula franchise fit together into a single coherent canon, it had to be rewatched. ms_siobhan was kind enough to accompany me in the endeavour, fortified in her case by the prospect of some Peter Cushingy goodness. I, alas, had no such comfort, since Christopher Lee was noticeable only by his absence - but even as a massive fan of his Dracula, I have to admit that he called this one right.

The film is a co-production between Hammer and the Hong Kong-based Shaw Studio, filmed entirely on location in Hong Kong, which attempts to marry up the '70s kung-fu craze with the successful Dracula franchise for Much Box Office Win. Apparently (according to this book about Peter Cushing from which ms_siobhan emailed me some relevant details), Shaw insisted on the Dracula character appearing within the film, even though Christopher Lee has refused to do it, as they believed it would pull in the audiences. I guess Hammer weren't so convinced, as Dracula isn't actually mentioned in the UK release title (The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires), but he was in some of the foreign release titles (e.g. the USA, Singapore).

In my view, the Hungarian title, Van Helsing és a 7 aranyvámpír, is actually what the film should have been called everywhere (with appropriate translation, obviously), because essentially that's what it is - a Van Helsing adventure which takes our man to China, rather than any kind of Dracula film. I found myself opining in a comment on my Brides of Dracula review that although personally I'm glad that Hammer (mainly) used Dracula as the thread to link their sequels together after the first film, as far as story potential goes it would have been equally valid to do the same with Van Helsing. That's essentially what Brides of Dracula does, in spite of its title, and it's also what The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires does, in spite of including a character called Count Dracula. ms_siobhan's book also reports that a further film entitled Kali, Devil Bride of Dracula was planned for after Legend, and presumably this would have been much the same, but this time taking Van Helsing to India. Indeed, Google informed me that Hammer got as far as mocking up promotional posters for this film, and Peter Cushing is certainly on them.

In Christopher Lee's absence, and with a production partner insisting that Dracula should be in the story, a replacement had to be found. Dracula is played by John Forbes-Robertson but dubbed by David de Keyser, which already doesn't say much for anyone's commitment to the character. He is also completely side-lined for most of the story, appearing only in a pre-credits sequence set in Transylvania in 1804, and then again at the very end of the film. The set-up is that in the 1804 sequence, a Chinese traveller named Kah comes to his castle, explains that he is the high priest of a band of seven Golden Vampires, but that they have fallen 'asleep' (why is never explained), and that he wants Dracula's help to wake them up again and get them back to terrorising the local village. Dracula replies that he is not in the business of helping people, but since he is trapped in the confines of his miserable castle (why and how is again never explained), he will take possession of Kah's body, go to China and lead the Seven Golden Vampires himself. For most of the film, the chief villain is then Kah-possessed-by-Dracula (essentially just Kah as a vampire), rather than Dracula himself, who only reappears at the very end when Van Helsing turns up. At this point, he decides to abandon Kah's body and transform back into his normal self in order to confront him - for all of about one minute, that is, before he is disappointingly easily killed with a silver spear, and the film ends.

This is a godforsaken mess, both for this individual story and for the whole Hammer Dracula franchise. Within the story, Dracula is a big camp cliché with terrible make-up, who comes across as nothing more than a parody. All he really does is distract from and confuse the main story, which would have been quite coherent and compelling if it had just cast Kah as the evil high priest of the Seven Golden Vampires in his own right, and focused on Van Helsing's mission to put an end to their village-terrorising ways. Meanwhile, beyond the story, we're suddenly confronted with the idea that Dracula was off having a jolly in China from 1804 right up to 1904, thus missing the events of the original Dracula (which is explicitly set in 1885), Prince of Darkness (which is explicitly set ten years later) and the coach-top fight in Hyde Park at the start of AD 1972 (which is explicitly set in 1872). I'm going to tackle all of these problems separately and in fuller detail in what I think is now going to be a whole series of posts on canon and continuity issues in the Hammer Dracula films, but suffice it to say for the present that I think the best way of rescuing Hammer from their own mess here is to say that the character shown in this film isn't the same vampire as Christopher Lee's Dracula at all, but some other vampified member of the really quite extensive Dracula family. It's really the only humane way of dealing with the problem.

The sad thing is that if you ignore the bodged-on Dracula bookends, the Van Helsing film in the middle actually isn't that bad. Peter Cushing is certainly as excellent as ever in the role, and transferring Van Helsing to a setting where he is outside of his usual comfort zone gives him some good character moments. There is quite a lot of emphasis on the idea that his knowledge of European vampires can only take him so far, that he needs help from Chinese experts to understand the peculiarities of their local vampires, and that he must acquire new knowledge and face new challenges in order to prevail. This is actually very much in keeping with the first two films in the series, where he is also portrayed as still learning new things about vampires even as he fights them - e.g. from Jonathan Harker's diary in Dracula, or when he asks Marianne Danielle to write down every detail of her experiences at Chateau Meinster in Brides. It's easy to forget this aspect of his character, as we tend to think of him mainly as the fount of all vampiric knowledge, but he would get pretty dull pretty quickly if that was all he was. Giving him a son (Leyland Van Helsing) whom he can be worried about, exasperated with and occasionally proud of is also good value - just as it was with the character of Jessica in AD 1972 and Satanic Rites.

Some pretty good value is got out of Chinese vampire lore, too. The basic premise, as it had always been with Dracula, is that China's legends of vampire-type creatures are true, Van Helsing realises this even when more sceptical authorities scoff, and of course his willingness to believe the unbelievable is vindicated and indeed shown to be an essential survival tool by the end of the film. ms_siobhan and I particularly enjoyed the depiction of the jiangshi, or 'hopping vampires', who were apparently the former victims of the Seven Golden Vampires, but behaved more in line with we would expect from zombies - rising up out of their graves and shuffling / hopping along in a big horde (complete with pitchforks and axes) at the behest of their vampire masters.

That said, the film is probably quite a lot easier to enjoy if you like chop-socky action sequences - which frankly, I don't. I spent quite a lot of time looking at my watch and waiting for the latest tedious extended fight sequence to finish, so that we could get on with some actual plot and characterisation. It's also disappointing that while the European characters are (for a film of this type) relatively well-characterised and given plenty of dialogue, the majority of the Chinese characters are essentially non-speaking roles. I felt particularly annoyed about this on behalf of Mai Kwei, the sister of the seven human brothers who enlist Van Helsing's help to fight the Seven Golden Vampires. It's very clear from the fight scenes that she is the equal of her brothers in martial arts, but after she has become a mutely demure object for Leyland Van Helsing's romantic intentions, and he expresses admiration for her ability to both fight off vampires and look feminine, she finally gets to speak for the very first time in the film, only to voice the hesitant enquiry "Is it please you?" Ugh! Still, she fares a lot better than the multiple anonymous girls whose job in the film was to get attacked by the Seven Golden Vampires, have their breasts exposed, and scream a lot, which felt very exploitative indeed.

It is not like the only European woman in the film gets to be a feminist icon either, though. Early on, we meet Mrs. Vanessa Buren, a Scandinavian lady whose husband died a couple of years earlier, and who is now travelling the world as an independently wealthy widow. There is a lot of dialogue early on about how emancipated and well-read she is, but it's all a smoke-screen really - the character is partly a tropish object lesson in how women would be better off keeping in their place, and partly a convenient plot device. Exactly like Jessica Van Helsing in Satanic Rites, she says she wants to come along on the vampire-hunting expedition to Ping Kwei because it will be such a ripping adventure, all the men tell her it's too dangerous for her, she insists on coming anyway, and sure enough she ends up screaming and being attacked a lot, and eventually getting turned into a vampire and causing lead brother Hsi Ching to die in the course of destroying her. Even worse, though, the entire expedition is funded by her, and it seems a lot like that's basically the main reason she is in the film in the first place - as a convenient source of money for the male characters to draw on.

I think a few elements in the plot were probably (somewhat half-hearted) nods to The Seven Samurai, although of course because I haven't seen that, they looked to me like nods to The Magnificent Seven. Certainly, the basic idea of villagers seeking a skilled outsider's help against local terrorists is the same, although Van Helsing is only one person, and it's the villagers instead who are represented this time by a band of seven (brothers). There are also some training and fortification-building scenes in the village which looked a lot like their equivalents in The Magnificent Seven, as well as budding romances between villagers (Hsi Ching, Mai Kwei) and outsiders (Vanessa Buren, Leyland Van Helsing). Apart from the obvious links with previous Hammer films, ms_siobhan and I also noticed that Dracula's castle at the beginning had an implausibly-long curving staircase a lot like the one in Carfax Abbey in Dracula (1931), and that he also rose straight up from his coffin just like Count Orlok does on the ship in Nosferatu (1922). But that is all just part of this Dracula being a hideous screaming cliché, so rather than giving the film extra resonances by acknowledging its roots, it just made this Dracula look all the more like a poor shadow of his illustrious predecessors.

OK then - so I'm properly done with watching and reviewing every possible entry in the Hammer Dracula franchise. Next to ramp up the geekiness yet another notch while I rake over their in-story canon and continuity in immense and obsessive detail.... *rubs hands with anticipation*

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Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
parrot_knight
Feb. 8th, 2014 02:11 am (UTC)
There's a lot to be said, I think, for an idea of British screenwriting in the 1970s (at least) as a sort of male-only smoking room with a cockeyed view of 'women's lib' which was an excuse for all sorts of dubious indulgences.

It's over twenty years since I saw ...Seven Golden Vampires, but my thoughts were less developed ones along your lines. Thank goodness Kali was not made.
strange_complex
Feb. 8th, 2014 12:30 pm (UTC)
I don't know - in the same way that this one isn't bad if you ignore Dracula and think of it as a Van Helsing Adventure, I think Kali could've been kind of cool as well. I mean, just like this one it would have been tropish and prejudicial where non-Europeans and women are concerned, but Van Helsing vs. a demonic Indian goddess? Hell yeah!
parrot_knight
Feb. 8th, 2014 01:22 pm (UTC)
Doesn't grab me in the same way, I confess!
ms_siobhan
Feb. 8th, 2014 02:35 pm (UTC)
You know me, I'll watch anything with the divine Mr Cushing in. I enjoyed it in a well shonky dreadful kind of way but I did love the hopping vampires.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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