While Hammer Studios has been in business since 1934, it was between 1955 and 1979 that it towered as one of the premier sources of edgy, gothic horror. On top of ushering the famous monsters of Universal’s horror heyday back into the public eye, resurrecting the likes of Frankenstein, Dracula and the Mummy in vivid color, the studio invited performers like Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Ingrid Pitt and so many more to step into the genre limelight. Spanning a library housing over 300 films, Hammer Studios is a key part of horror history that until recently has been far too difficult to track down.
In late 2018, Shout Factory’s Scream Factory line began to focus on bringing Hammer’s titles to disc in the US, finally making many of the studio’s underseen gems available in packages that offered great visuals as well as insightful accompanying features. Over the course of this column, I will focus on these releases, gauging the films in context of the Hammer Studio story as well as analyzing the merits of the release. It’s time to highlight the power, impact and influence of Hammer Studios and ignite new conversation surrounding some forgotten classics.
Welcome to the Hammer Factory. This month we dissect The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974).
By 1973, the end was drawing near for Hammer Studios. Anthony Hinds had resigned several years before and now James Carreras was stepping away, leaving the studio without its founding fathers. Still, despite James’s attempt to sell the studio without his son Michael’s knowledge or consent, Michael Carreras managed to hastily arrange the purchase of the company himself. So it was that the studio changed hands amidst bad blood between father and son, all the while barely bringing in enough income to keep the studio afloat.
With fiercer competition, a dramatically changing genre landscape and American distributors pulling out of UK productions, Michael Carreras found himself at the head of Hammer during its darkest hours. Determined to keep the blood pumping through Hammer’s veins, Michael ventured to Warner Brothers Studios, their previous American distribution partner, with prepared pitches for thirty projects— all of which were rejected. Warner’s interest in Hammer rested solely in the Dracula property and, even then, only if the producers could present a new spin on the classic monster that appealed to the ever evolving trends of the world market.
At the same time, Kung Fu was skyrocketing in popularity. Bruce Lee’s Fists of Fury (1972) and The Chinese Connection (1972) had made the actor an international star, and even Warner Brothers had contracted him for Enter the Dragon (1973). Television too had adopted the new trend with the advent of the popular show Kung Fu (1972-1975), and Michael Carreras was taking notice. Turning his sights on Hong Kong, Carreras met with Run Run and Runme Shaw of the Shaw Brothers Studios to discuss a potential project. What they came up with was a wholly different approach to the vampire mythos, merging eerie gothicism with the more bombastic, stylized elements of the Kung Fu subgenre.
Warner Brothers agreed to the deal with the addendum that Dracula be present in the story, specifically requesting that Christopher Lee reprise the character. While Lee turned the role down flat, Peter Cushing agreed to come aboard once more as Van Helsing and, as a result, the money fell into place. The film would be shot at the Shaw Brothers Studios in Hong Kong and director Roy Ward Baker was brought on to helm the production. Having already made Quatermass and the Pit (1967), Scars of Dracula (1970) and Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971) for Hammer, Carreras felt confident that he could handle the sort of budgetary and creative constraints making a movie of that sort would undoubtedly conjure. With Don Houghton onboard to produce and write the script, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974) was put into motion.
Due to poor planning and collaboration, no one from the crew was aware that the Shaw Brothers’ sound stages fell under large tin sheds and were not sound proofed at all. Between the cacophony of the countless stray dogs and the roars of the nearby airport, it became clear that the bulk of the film would have to be produced silent with all sound being dubbed in post-production. Add to that Roy Ward Baker’s frustration with his Hong Kong crew, a lack of willingness to attempt to communicate and a poor ability to choreograph elaborate fight sequences, and it seemed the film was doomed from the start.
The Shaw Brothers brought on legendary filmmaker Chang Cheh in an uncredited role to help ensure the action sequences were up to standard. The production ended up finishing late and over budget, leaving Hammer’s producers, particularly Carreras, despondent. However, both Warner Brothers and the Shaw Brothers were happy with the end result and the film seemed poised to have a successful run at the box office. While this held true in Hong Kong and the UK, it was ultimately their American counterpart that doomed the film to obscurity.
Warner Brothers shelved the film for years. After changing hands several times, the film’s US distribution rights fell into the hands of Amicus Studios co-founder Max J. Rosenberg. Notorious for title changes and severe edits, Rosenberg renamed the film The 7 Brothers Meet Dracula and removed more than 20 minutes of the film’s already brisk 89 minute runtime. He rearranged sequences in an attempt to make the film more exciting and even repeated action sequences throughout the film to pad out the length.
The result was a nonsensical mess of a film, far removed from the inventive, kung fu, vampire hybrid that performed so well overseas. And, in the five years that passed while the film languished, Hammer Studios found itself ever deeper in mounting debt. Indeed, the same year as the wounded version of their kung fu vampire epic hit American screens, Hammer released its final produced film and was forced to close its doors for good.
Whether or not a Warner Brothers backed wide release of The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires would have saved the studio from its fate is impossible to say. And yet, the film flies in the face of most of the criticisms lobbed at Hammer Studio’s output in their latter years. It’s a film unafraid to reinvent and provide fresh context to those tropes and genre leanings Hammer was most known for, engaging with its past and potential future audience by tapping into the zeitgeist and letting new ideas permeate their traditional approach.
It may not have been able to undo a decade of poor performance and mounting bills, but perhaps it could’ve served as a reminder that the studio’s relevance wasn’t as inconsequential as it may have seemed. After all, as the decade to follow would shortly prove, fun, action oriented genre hybrids were exactly what audiences were hungry for.
“The legends of ancient China have their roots in the mists of time. Some are awesome and terrifying in their implication. Some are real and have their foundation in truth.”
An old, Taoist monk makes his labored way up a path of dirt and stone in Transylvania at the turn of the 19th century, leaning heavily on his bell clad cane. His destination is an old castle, its dungeon bathed in otherworldly green light, housing an enormous stone tomb imprinted ornately with the letter D. The tomb opens and a man rises from within: Dracula. As the monk lowers to knees, begging for the ancient vampire’s aid in an effort to gain power by resurrecting the seven golden vampires so feared and mythologized by his people, Dracula scoffs. Instead, Dracula assumes the visage of the old monk in a swirling cloud of smoke, ready to venture back out into the world, resurrect the golden vampires and seek his vengeance upon mankind.
One hundred years later, the film finds itself occupying a bustling street in Chung King leading to a University where Peter Cushing’s consummate Van Helsing addresses a room full of students and faculty. As he recounts the tale of the seven golden vampires and the sole farmer who took a stand against them in an effort to rescue his captured daughter, the events manifest onscreen. Monstrous creatures, their bodies grotesquely decayed, their eyes dark slits in their deadened skin surrounded by golden masks, the vampires not only wreak havoc on the small village they neighbor, but control an army of the dead, which rise from their graves in the darkness when called upon by their masters.
Within minutes, The Legend of The 7 Golden Vampires establishes itself as being unlike any Hammer vampire film that’s come before it. Everything from the location to the physicality of the vampires themselves to the inclusion of the mindless walking dead informs the viewer that they’re in for something new, despite the fact that the Dracula series is on its eighth iteration. It’s an energetic, visually engaging ride that lets go of the franchise paradigm in an effort to embrace Eastern culture and the martial arts while staying true to the Hammer vampire’s gothic roots.
The film’s runtime moves swiftly, never stopping in one location for very long and providing enough fight sequences and vampire mayhem to satisfy multiple features. As though in response to some of Hammer’s earlier, more reserved pictures, Legend puts the creatures on full display from the very beginning, providing scenes of half-naked blood sacrifices, slit throats and burning vampires down to bone and ash before Van Helsing even sets off on his quest to find the titular creatures.
Roy Ward Baker serves as an adept director, working with cinematographer John Wilcox to bring a striking sense of style and mood to those scenes involving the legendary creatures. When the dead rise from the grass, the scene is bathed in green. When Van Helsing faces off against the vampiric menace, all is blood red. Their uses of filters and stark, contrasting light, elevates the intensity and provides a comic-book-like sensibility to the bombastic goings on in the film that make it feel all that much more entertaining.
While Van Helsing fails to convince the university that it should invest in the vampire hunting business, he does land a companion in Hsi Ching, handsomely played by David Chiang. Ching is the descendant of the farmer in Van Helsing’s story and is determined to wipe out the vampiric threat which has plagued his village for so many generations. Despite a real life language barrier, Chiang stands as an earnest and compelling comrade-in-arms for Cushing’s Van Helsing, delivering on the level of impressive physical prowess the martial arts sequences require as well as the key character moments driving the narrative.
Along for the journey is Van Helsing’s son Leyland, played by Robin Stewart in a well performed, if not slightly dull, turn and wealthy widow and benefactor Vanessa Buren, portrayed with the necessary amount of striking charisma and command by Julie Ege. While her interest in Van Helsing’s work serves the plot, it’s her chemistry with Hsi Ching that propels their scenes together and adds no small degree of weight to the peril the characters find themselves in during the final act.
The cast is filled out by Hsi Ching’s six brothers and one sister, all experts in the martial arts and equally focused on destroying the golden vampire threat. While the bulk of Ching’s siblings are given little to do other than fight in impressive ways, his sister Mai Kwei, played with a sense of grace and power in equal measure by Shih Szu, stands out amongst the rest. While much of her character boils down in the end to being a woman in duress that Leyland Van Helsing needs to rescue, she is instrumental in fleshing out Hsi Ching’s relationship with his siblings and the dedication to family and community that they all have.
The fight choreography in the film is fun and thrilling, made all the more outrageous given that the martial artists spend their time combatting the bloodthirsty undead. Much of this is due to the inclusion of director Chang Cheh who was brought in to help Roy Ward Baker put together and properly block the film’s various melees. As a result, there is a frenetic energy to each battle, in the cinematography as well as the physical scope. Whether it be in the bright, sunlit desert landscape, the dark, dreary cavern of a hidden cave or within the aged walls of an ancient temple, these sequences stand as the perfect representation of the action-kung-fu-horror hybridization that this film is attempting to construct.
Dracula appears in the film as an afterthought, in design and execution, being added to the film only to assuage concerned producers. Having declined to reprise the character, the studio had to proceed with John Forbes-Robertson in lieu of Christopher Lee in the role of the Count. Despite a poor, overdone make-up job, the prominent television actor certainly carried some gravitas to his small amount of screen time at the film’s beginning and end, bookending the film with a sense of importance that afforded his final confrontation with Cushing’s Van Helsing a surprising degree of consequence.
The film is convoluted at times, its general story serving as a thinly veiled vehicle to travel from one martial arts extravaganza to the next. However, the action composition, horror elements and Peter Cushing’s always reliable turn as Van Helsing anchor the sillier and more outlandish aspects of The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, allowing the whole affair to feel more amusingly imaginative than forgettably hollow.
The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires may not contain the high-minded headiness of some of Hammer Studio’s classic work, but it’s a wonderful example of the kind of entertainment that the studio was capable of crafting even in its declining years. Anything but more of the same, the film serves as proof that Hammer was willing and capable of changing with the times, pushing the boundaries of genre to unexplored territories in ways that would echo through the decades that followed.
As is the case with most Hammer movies with “Dracula” in the title, the film ends with the Count’s gruesome fate in a scene that stands as a true testament to how far practical effects had come since Dracula (1958) some sixteen years before. Van Helsing is once again left to face the terrible fruits of his labors and contemplate the implications of the legends, myths and truths which comprise a reality that he’s often left to defend as if it were his and his alone.
It’s in that timeworn temple that the film leaves us, all at once ancient in its cultures, customs and superstitions and modern in its welding of genre and tone. A rousing horror adventure that traverses genre tropes old and new, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires may not be one of Hammer’s most celebrated pictures, but it is certainly one of the most fun. After all, when a film involves Dracula-to-monk body transmogrification, vampire kung fu experts and a very serious Peter Cushing bathed in green, red and blue gel lights, it’s hard to argue with its entertainment value.
The Special Features
This release comes equipped with a new 2K scan from the original film elements from Shout!, presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Contrast is well maintained with colors popping and consistent clarity. The DTS-HD Master Mono track is solid as well, accentuating sound effects in particular to ensure that every action packs a punch. All in all, Shout! Factory’s presentation is easily the best the film has looked or sounded since its release and more than worth adding to your collection.
Audio Commentary, by Bruce G. Hallenbeck
(New: 2019, produced by Shout Factory)
Film Historian Bruce G. Hallenbeck provides a detailed account of the production, its release and the long term effect the film had on Hammer as a whole in this incredibly informative track.
Hallenbeck begins by discussing the behind the scenes turmoil in the house of Hammer, covering the rift that had grown between James and Michael Carreras, leading to significant financial woes and a desperate attempt to gain foreign financing and relevance. He discusses the many Hammer players involved in making the film as well as its elongated and subsequently butchered US release, leading to lackluster returns and, ultimately, the company’s demise.
The track is the film’s best feature and its most illuminating, providing viewers with a detailed account of the film’s past, present and future.
Alternate US Theatrical Release – The 7 Brothers Meet Dracula (1:14:58)
The heavily edited and rearranged US version of The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, this infamous cut of the film plays as a barely coherent iteration of its progenitor.
With more than 20 minutes of the original’s runtime excised, this version actually reuses footage multiple times throughout the feature to pad out its dwindling length. While the feature is an interesting artifact and its inclusion here is appreciated, it is barely a shadow of The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, worth seeking out if only to quench one’s morbid curiosity.
Kung Fear: Rick Baker on The Legend of The 7 Golden Vampires (19:39)
(New: 2019, produced by High Rising Productions & Shout Factory)
Author and film critic Rick Baker provides a brief history of Kung Fu movies and their short-lived collision with Hammer horror, all through his own personal lens of having been a young fan at the time of these films’ inception. He talks about the advent of Bruce Lee as an international star as well as the sheer power and influence of the Shaw Brothers Studios. He discusses the melding of filmic styles that occurred in The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires and the unfortunate way it was edited for US audiences. His enthusiasm and personal anecdote of being turned away from the theater due to his age when the movie was released is charming and infectious, making for a sweet and informative interview that’s worth seeking out.
Interview with Actor David Chaing (6:38)
(New: 2019, Severin Films)
In an interview excerpt that was extracted from documentary footage, actor David Chaing fondly recalls his time on set during The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. He talks about his mantra of always learning on set and how Peter Cushing facilitated this by meeting with after hours to practice his lines and tutor him on every word, as the actor’s English was limited. He describes how Cushing would have him start from a random page, rather than the beginning of the script, which is something Chaing still uses to this day. He discusses working with renowned action director Chang Cheh, learning from him the “romance of choreography” and finally mentions how he considered signing with Hammer and moving to the UK. It’s a quick handful of minutes with the actor, but a delightful reflection on the film and its legacy.
TV Spot (0:31)
A woman fans two swords as green text appears, as read by an announcer: BLACK BELT AGAINST BLACK MAGIC.
The text continues: IN THE GREATEST BATTLE OF ALL TIME. Quick, successive shots of vampires and martial artists fly by as they battle across the screen, concluding with the promise that you will, “See the 10,000 year old monster disintegrate before your eyes!”
The 7 Brothers Meet Dracula Trailer (2:36)
A stone lid slides off of an ancient coffin marked with the letter D. Bats fly.
BLACK BELT AGAINST BLACK MAGIC.
Skeletons rise from the ground and we’re told that seven brothers and their one sister will meet Dracula. Necks are sliced and naked women scream as the announcer promises, “you haven’t seen Kung Fu until…”
The eight siblings fan out in a desert landscape as a group of black-clad marauders face them down. They run at one another and commence battle. Vampires lurk in caves. Peter Cushing appears and shouts, “You must destroy her!” Finally, the words, “Die Dracula, Die!” followed by “See the 10,000 year old monster disintegrate before your eyes!” as though Dracula were in the film far more than he actually is.
The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires Trailer (2:54)
The eight siblings assemble in the desert as the camera tracks across their determined faces, each preparing their weapons for battle. We’re told it’s from Warner Brothers, “who crashed the action barrier with Enter the Dragon” as well as from Hammer and the Shaw Brothers joining forces “to create the first martial arts horror action spectacular ever created on film”.
Zombie-like creatures rise from the earth, bathed in green light and Peter Cushing appears, saying, “The whispered word is vampire… the horror is very real and very close”. Bats flitter about in a cave. Golden masked vampires with craggy skin leap forward and engage in swordplay. The title appears: THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES.
The faces of the film’s various players fly by as the actors and actresses are introduced and it concludes by reiterating the Hammer and Shaw Brothers involvement, promising a spectacular event experience.
Still Gallery (6:26)
A collection of international posters, lobby cards, on-set photography, advertising materials, newspaper ads, magazine covers and drive in flyers, this slideshow provides a wonderful time capsule of the film’s overall impression on filmgoers at the time.
When he ventured to Warner Brothers Studios in the early 1970s, Michael Carreras was determined to forge new contracts and a new path for Hammer Studios that would carry them through their financial turbulence and into a new era of genre filmmaking. Instead, he returned home empty handed, his only glimmer of hope lying in the tried-and-true Hammer vampire cycle that he had been so determined to evolve beyond.
Rather than mining more of the same, Carreras partnered with the Shaw Brothers in Hong Kong, crafting a feature that attempted to meld the modern Kung Fu epic with the classic gothic horror elegance that Hammer had spent so many years perfecting. Combining Hammer’s proven stable of talent with the Shaw Brothers’ expert class of martial artists and creatives, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires was born.
The result was a film that lived up to the “martial arts horror action spectacular” that its trailer so energetically promised. It was a movie that combined the mythologies spanning the prior decade of Hammer horror and beyond with the kinetic, action-packed style and story of the ever expanding Kung Fu subgenre. Fun, fresh and fast-paced, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires was exactly the sort of genre retooling that could spare Hammer from its impending fate.
Scream Factory delivers this movie on disc uncut with wonderful picture and sound, providing an essential commentary track that serves as a satisfying history and dissection of the film as well as several complimentary interviews. Add to that the butchered US cut of the film in The 7 Brothers Meet Dracula along with a slew of promotional materials, and this release stands as the most comprehensive edition of the film to date.
Sadly, instead of finding an audience in the US market at the time of its creation, the film languished on a Warner Brothers shelf for years before falling into a distributor’s hands. It hit theaters in 1979 just as Hammer was closing up shop, edited to oblivion and a shadow of the film it was intended to be.
It would be many years before US audiences would see the uncut version of The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires on VHS, coming along in the mid-1980s, a decade that would see audiences go on to embrace the compounding of genres and breeding of contrasting styles and tones in film. Ironically, almost a decade before, in the waning years of the studio’s life, it was Hammer that attempted to harness that same amalgam of form when few other studios were willing.
Ultimately, Hammer Studios failed to change with the times, so many of their awkward cinematic attempts to modernize standing as oddities which plagued their final years of movie-making. But, amongst the missteps, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires stands as a successful venture into adaptation and, although left closed, illuminated a doorway to a different path for the studio that might’ve led to an altogether different future. As it was, the fate of the film— and perhaps the studio itself— was sealed by the short-term thinking of the system they were so desperately attempting to appeal to.