Saturday, December 5, 2009

Looking At: Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires

I know I'm supposed to be in "editing Hell" - and I am, though I am enjoying the hell out of it - I figured I should post a blog after taking a break from it over Thanksgiving. I find it also helps me warm up for a full day of writing and editing.

So the other night I watched a movie that, as hard as it may be to believe, I had never seen or heard of until a couple of weeks ago. I apologize if I get this wrong, but I'm pretty sure I first discovered it thanks to the spellbinding pulp comic artist Francesco Francavilla. And later I read a review of it somewhere, but I can't find it now.

For those who don't know, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires was a 1974 collaboration between Hammer and the Shaw Brothers. The immortal Peter Cushing reprises his role as Van Helsing, doing the lecture circuit in late-Qing Dynasty (early 20th century) China, when he encounters a legend of a bunch of kung-fu vampires that terrorize a remote village. He, his son, and a wealthy Swedish heiress/noblewoman team up with seven kung-fu brothers to find the lair of the vampires and save the town.

So right away you can see that I had to see this movie immediately.

The other night, I filled a goblet full of my favorite cheap red wine, lit a cigar, and buckled the fuck up for what I expected to be one of my favorite movies of all time. As the opening credits rolled, I was practically twitching with anticipation. Fortunately, the wine steadied my nerves.

In retrospect, I probably expected too much from this movie. Because what it actually was, was a big disappointment and a huge missed opportunity. I don't think it was unfair of me to expect and amazing mix of British Gothic Horror in a Colonial Hong-Kong style, though. In my head I could see all my favorite aspects of the Hammer films - lurid colors, amazing costumes, Cushing - mixing well with the Shaw's old-school kung fu and timeless Chinese film world where it's always sometime just before Mao, where men still wear long gowns with fedoras, motorcars ramble through streets past vendors hawking their wares, and dudes hang around in frog jackets and tee-shirts playing dice and drinking wine and, of course, beating the hell of each other.

What L7P ended up being was more like a forgettable Shaw Brothers movie with more white people in it than usual, a plate of warmed-over lo mein from last night with a dash of brown sauce on it.

All the elements were there, but put together wrong. Instead of being directed like a Hammer movie, with its tension-building, plodding style, it was Shaw direction, zooming in and out and looking like it was made for a dollar. In fact the whole movie is more properly a Shaw film with a couple of actors borrowed from Hammer studios. The scenes that get closest to the Hammer experience - the almost-unnecessary prologue in Transylvania, Van Helsing's lecture at the beginning, the after-party at the Swedish lady's house - seem more like Shaw trying to copy the style, a Hong-Kong knockoff rather than the real thing. Peter Cushing is very tired by this point, and his Van Helsing doesn't have a lot to do, in fact if he weren't there it wouldn't have made a whole lot of difference to the story, or at least what his business there is supposed to be isn't illustrated for us clearly enough.

The basic plot - 7 golden vampires terrorize a town and only Van Helsing can help - would have made more sense without the 7 kung-fu brothers, all masters of a particular style or weapon. Or at least not so many of them. The repeated sevens, the brothers who are all the same except their unique talents, point to a deeper Chinese folk culture that never really gets explored. Worse, while we get some characterization on the brothers through their kung-fu styles, just barely, the 7 vampires are almost completely identical. They seem to have about three costumes between them and it's almost impossible to tell them apart, except for the lead vampire, Kah, who is actually being posessed by the spirit of Count Dracula (played by a fellow doing his best, but still doing a bad Christopher Lee impression for all of his five minutes of screen time).

The plot of the film is straightforward, which is not a big deal for a film like this, but again it leaves our gwai-lo without much to do when a kung-fu showdown is going on. And since the film is fight scene after fight scene, that's a failure. What exactly the unique talents of Van Helsing and his extesnvie experience with Count Dracula are supposed to be doing to help isn't clear. Do they really need him to help mount the climactic defense of the town, can only Van Helsing kill Dracula for another time? I kept wondering why the hell the 7 brothers hadn't just set out on their own, they seemed like they could've pulled it off to me. For that matter it isn't clear why Kah, who is some kind of evil monk, has to travel to Transylvania a hundred years before the start of the film for Dracula's help. This is told rather than shown, he just says that the vampires have somehow lost their mojo and control of the town and only Dracula can help.

As far as the kung-fu in the film goes, it's rather below the Shaw standard. None of the actors really seems to be able to fight with conviction and make a fight look good. And with seven brothers all fighting, the action gets confusing and no one really gets a chance to have a good, solid kung-fu fight for any length of time, so even if one or two of the Chinese leads could have carried a fight scene, they never get a chance. No doubt some of this isn't helped by the pan-and-scan in the copy I watched but I don't think even widescreen would've been any improvement.

And during the fight scenes the white folks generally just stand around - though Van Helsing's son Steve (okay, it's Leyland, but he seemed more like a hapless "Steve Van Helsing" to me) gets close to handling himself. I could've sworn I caught him doing a little Bartitsu, but again the fight scenes get too confusing. Meanwhile Van Helsing and the Swede just stand around looking bewildered, which, while an interesting if unintended visual metaphor for white people encountering Chinese culture, looks lame on film if you aren't doing it on purpose (viz. Big Trouble in Little China, natch.)

Overall the film is a huge missed opportunity. I got the impression that this was a film that desperately wanted to be made, hell, HAD to be made, but in search of a reason for its existence. Bad choices throughout combined with a definitive lack of a mission make this film a total mess. Maybe I'm being too hard on it but I don't think it's any accident this movie has been lost in time and wasn't that great a success at the box office when it came out. Sure, you might argue it got made too late - by '74 Hammer's style was out of fashion, Cushing was really damn old - but those are just excuses. It is just not that good.

Which is sad. The story is a powerful idea and one that could really be done justice by someone who loves kung-fu, Hammer movies, British and Chinese culture and their weird mix in Hong Kong. One of the few movies I've seen that really deserves a remake with a blazing-hot screenplay.

Ahem. Just saying.

I'd still say it's worth seeing just because if you are remotely interested in the idea of this movie, you'll want to see it anyway. But unless you're in its narrow cult-movie demographic it's not really worth it, and even then I think like me you'll come away from it wondering what could have been.

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