The Blaculas of the world aside, the 1970s were not a safe time to be a vampire film fan. Horror? Absolutely. But vampires? Not so much. As a rule, vampire films were saved only when they went off the deep end and reveled in their ineptitude and incompetence, a criterion which, admittedly, takes us more often than not into the nether-realms of South European soft core erotica horror, a sub-genre of film that is absolutely worthwhile for wholly unintended reasons. But today our subject is the mac daddy of all modern vampire film franchises, the Hammer Films Dracula franchise, which began with a re-invigorating explosion in the late 1950s and damn near herded in a new age of serious horror filmmaking a far cry from the pesky atomic-age kitsch-fests of the 1950s.
Over time, of course, the company fell into artistic melancholy and economic disarray, but then, with a title like “The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires” sending off their tail end, you already knew that, didn’t you? All empires must fall, and Hammer withered away for a decade or so before finally giving in. But not before one last unspeakably weird, fluttery, must-see gasp of doing what movie studios do best on the edge of destruction: throwing a dart at a map with their eyes closed and grasping out at whatever random and completely unrelated cultural or cinematic trend was making the rounds at the moment, and wheezing desperately as they shoe-horned their own style into an untamed, unknown Frankenstein’s monster of parts carted in from all over film land.
In this case, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires found Hammer in its death throes. At least one particularly exuberant spasm landed the company’s still-lurching corpse into the far-off regions of martial arts cinema, at which point someone felt the crawling autumnal dread of Hammer’s Grand Guignol was a perfect match for the flamboyant side-show martial arts films that masqueraded as genuine cultural exports from the Far East in that time period. Charitably speaking, the melding was misguided, to say the least. The end result is cadaverous, as far as quality goes, but the messianic meeting of minds is so off-base with good taste it can’t but attain an accidental life of its own.
For propriety’s sake, it is best to ease in to the water. Dracula is on the run to China in Hammer’s newest concoction, and Peter Cushing’s ever-reliable gentleman-anthropologist turned vampire hunter Dr. Van Helsing is afoot after him. Trouble, it seems, is brewing when a cadre of vampires (seven to be exact, and golden too, or at least the title begs us to agree) terrorize a rural village. Although one vamp runs afoul of Chinese mysticism before Ching (David Chiang), a student who attends one of Van Helsing’s lectures (the elderly man having taken to the layman’s life of learning in midst of his ever-present hunt), informs the good professor of the situation. Van Helsing, along with Ching and his seven siblings, not to mention Van Helsing’s son Leyland (Robin Stewart) and a woman of adventure named Vanessa Buren (Julie Ege), are off to do in the vampires in messy style, and presumably to end Dracula’s reign of terror in the process.
What unfolds is a frenetic, under-confident, almost unexplainable mass of dropped sub plots, wandering exposition, shifts in tone that erupt out of nowhere, and ignoble tomfoolery of the most vexing order. Which says nothing of the fact that the film doesn’t feature Christopher Lee, a flare in the night sky that something is off-balance about the production. Perhaps he glanced the sickly yellow lighting and ran off, but he left in his place an also-ran of an actor who does not have the charisma inherent to Lee’s left jowl. Perhaps the new actor underperformed as a result of seeing the mince-meat he was thrown into, along with the relatively simple fact that Dracula is barely in this film at all. Another possibility is that the script was altered to reduce Dracula’s time due to the actor’s inabilities. The same, by the way, goes for the decision to recast him early on in the film in the body of an Asian actor. Not that it much matters; after an introductory sequence, the character makes only passing appearances before one final victory lap at the end. Maybe someone didn’t give him the memo there was nothing to celebrate, and that a defeat lap was unbecoming.
Unless, of course, you are the sort that enjoys the sight of a film ruinously crashing and burning.
And why not? Cushing certainly seems to. For his part, he invests a good deal of his energy into the act of looking on in bemused fancy, not so much partaking in the action as attempting to comprehend its existence. Ever the benefactor, he is giving us clues as to our plan of action as the audience. The film even makes a point of depicting some of the adventurers simply staring on at the TV-dinner fights masquerading as the real deal. This is a studio stuck in toil and trouble. So much toiling and troubling, in fact, that the lid blows off and a most arbitrary, unholy fungal concoction spools out onto the floor. It is a useless mass, yes, but so outre that you can’t help sit back in awe milling over the ingredient list.
So how good is it really?: 1.5/5 (there are worse films, no doubt, but Hammer isn’t giving up the good fight to hit rock bottom)
But how “good” is it?: 4/5 (very “good”, if you must ask; the film earns the sheer daffiness of the idea in the end)