Renowned vampire hunter Professor Van Helsing is giving a lecture in China when some villagers persuade him to travel to their remote village and help them fight off seven vampires which have cursed their village. Unknown to Van Helsing, the head vampire is in fact his arch nemesis, Count Dracula, who has assumed the body of one of the Chinese vampires.
I'm not usually a big fan of martial arts films on their own but when combined with other genres (i.e. Big Trouble in Little China), it makes for interesting viewing to say the least. The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires is no exception. The last of the Hammer Dracula films, this was always going to be up against it after Christopher Lee swore he would never don the cape again....and I don't blame him after Dracula A.D. 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula.
Just as they had done after the first film when Lee didn't to reprise the role, Hammer decided to turn Professor Van Helsing into the main character of the series. Given that Van Helsing was always played by Peter Cushing, that's welcome news to me. It was also during this time, that Hammer was on the verge of financial collapse so they obviously saw a market for kung fu (thanks to the popularity of Bruce Lee) and decided to try and cash in on it. Combining Hammer's classic Gothic horror approach with Hong Kong's legendary production company Shaw Brother's appreciation for mysticism and martial arts, this is one unique trip from start to finish although the two genres never fully mesh together.
The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires tries valiantly to get around the lack of Christopher Lee, but in all honesty, Dracula's presence is not really needed and he seems like an after thought, book ended into the film with brief throwaway sequences either side of the martial arts mayhem. This works far better as a Van Helsing-driven film where he sets off to confront more vampires across the globe. In reality the film is little more than a series of martial arts set pieces as Van Helsing and his group head off to the remote village, encountering bandits along the way before finally coming face-to-face with the vampires. It may not be structured very well but it's never dull.
There is plenty of nudity and gore courtesy of Hammer as various topless females are stripped and bitten by the vampires in their ceremonial chamber, the fresh blood flowing into a large bubbling vat in the centre (reasons for the vat remain unknown but it looks cool). We get people being impaled on large wooden poles. There's also lots of spouts of blood during the martial arts scenes as various sharp implements are driven into and slashed across their unlucky victims. As for the traditional Hammer atmosphere, it is evidently lacking here. There are a few decent moments of inspiration including the scene in which the vampire's undead army rises from the ground. It's all done in slow motion to give it some sort of otherworldly feel. But there is no overall atmosphere or tone like previous films. The Gothic vibe is sorely missing here.
As for the rest of the film, Cushing is on top form as usual (how many of his films have I said that about?) and the Van Helsing character is his own. Despite the absurdity of everything around him, Cushing keeps the film firmly grounded with another excellent performance. Christoper Lee opted not to resume the cape of Dracula and instead some lesser known Brit tries his hand at the Count - thankfully he's not on screen for long because he's awful and looks rather like a drag queen wearing the worlds worst vampire make-up. They get over the lack of Lee by having Dracula assume the form of a Chinese traveller early in the film so for the rest of the running time, he's played by a sinister-looking Chinese actor. For once though, this isn't totally Cushing's show.
The real stars are the Asian martial arts actors who accompany Van Helsing to the village. Each of the brothers who assists Van Helsing has their own weapon - and this is the only thing we have got to distinguish them from one another. They get little characterisation (only the older brother and their only sister get anything near to characterisation or meaningful dialogue). But once they get down to dishing out some kicks and fists, they don't need to speak. The martial arts scene are pretty crude for their day and if you've ever seen a more choreographed, stereotypical and obligatory massive martial arts battle than the fight with the bandits, please let me know. But the fight scenes do the business they need to do - it isn't meant to be a pure all-out martial arts film after all and what we get is just enough to make the film work. Besides which, the film boils down to another confrontation between Van Helsing and Dracula and we know who always wins those fights don't we?
The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires is a really enjoyable but bizarre mix of genres which sometimes meshes, sometimes doesn't. It's not perfect and has plenty of faults but it's one of the best of Hammer's Dracula series and finishes the series on a reasonable, if somewhat silly, high.