This bizarre kung fu/horror hybrid dates from the early 1970s, when Hammer Films saw their traditional gothic cycle petering out and looked to cut the formula with elements from other exploitable genres. Having flirted with sexploitation in The Vampire Lovers and modern-day action in Dracula AD 1972, the company formed a pact with Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers, masters of the then-flourishing martial arts movie market. The plot finds an excuse to send such Hammer staples as Dr Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) and his arch-enemy Count Dracula (with John Forbes-Robertson replacing Christopher Lee) to China, where they are mixed up in an extremely weird rerun of the Magnificent Seven in which the Hsi family, martially-skilled siblings, are sworn to protect a remote village from the periodic ravages of the eponymous golden-masked Eastern bloodsuckers and their zombie hordes. Made well before the cycle of ‘hopping corpse’ films (Mr Vampire, etc) established a distinctively Chinese variation of the vampire movie, Legend recklessly stirs Eastern and Western myths into one big stew – Van Helsing explains reasonably that while a European vampire cringes at the cross, an Eastern fiend will be repelled by a statue of Buddha. Director Roy Ward Baker handles what little plot there is, including a couple of interracial relationships between blonde heroine Julie Ege and kung fu fighter David Chiang and Van Helsing’s callow son (Robin Phillips) and Hsi sister Shih Szu, while fight choreographer Tan Chia handles the lengthy battles that take up much of the running time. In its eagerness to cover all the bases, the film throws in the topless maiden victims of the vampires who are drained into a big vat and a streak of tear-jerking tragedy (when Ege becomes a vampire, the hero impales her and himself on the same stake) but it boils down to yet another confrontation between the indomitable Cushing and an arrogant, soon-to-crumble cloaked Count.
Pat Black and Hereward Proops once interviewed me about Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. Here’s the Q&A
- The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires is an oddity – how do you think it fits in with Hammer’s previous output, and how far can we lament the fact that Pterodactyls vs Zeppelins and Nessie were never made?
Kim – certainly, Hammer were going through a try-anything period in the early 1970s. I’d love to see Zeppelins vs Pterodactyls, though that project evolved into something called The Primevals (I think) which was worked on for many years by the animator David Allen and only abandoned with his death. I know Kali – Devil Bride of Dracula was scripted by Chris Wicking (a friend of mine) as a follow-up, which would have been a Hammer-Bollywood mix. I now think there were quite a few neat ideas floating around in Hammer’s output at that time and even some that were prescient – Legend and Captain Kronos and a few others (including Amicus’s The Beast Must Die) pioneered a meld on monster and action film (with a comic book feel) which is now commonplace (in the Underworld or Blade series, for instance) but was fresh in the ‘70s. I quite like imagining the great unmade films – I’ve done whole novels that do that.
- Devil’s advocate: It’s not a great kung fu movie and it’s certainly not a great vampire movie. Fair assessment?
Kim – That’s what I felt when I first saw it. I was disappointed by how simple, even when compared with other Hammer films, the plot was. At that time, kung fu films were only just showing up in the UK but I was well aware that the action wasn’t on a par with Bruce Lee’s best. I’ve warmed to it over the years, because it’s so full of ideas (if skimpy on characters), but still think the battle scenes could be less scrappy and the third act could do with more than just Dracula stepping out from behind a curtain.
- Cushing gives another terrific performance: how does it rank among his other 1970s efforts? The book is slanted towards its star, and examining the continuing cult of Cushing – how would you rate him as an actor, regardless of his material?
Kim: It’s not true that Cushing never gave a bad performance – his doddery old Doctor Who is misjudged (and he did it again in At the Earth’s Core) – but he was always committed. Here, he’s revisiting a role – though, strictly, one he’d only played in the prologue of Dracula AD 1972, which is irreconcilable with what happens in Legend in that it has Lawrence Van Helsing dying decades before his trip to China … and the romantic sub-plot raises the question of why the Lorrimer Van Helsing of AD 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula doesn’t seem half-Chinese. He never walked through a film the way Christopher Lee did if the material was beneath him or camped it up as Vincent Price did if not restrained, but he did get a lot of roles with little going for them – which he felt obliged to improve with bits of business or a personal connection to the role or even enjoying the circumstances of the project. I have a sense from his 70s work that he enjoyed foreign travel – he perks up a lot in Horror Express, Legend and even The Devil’s Men. At his best, Cushing was one of the great British screen actors (including television).
- Another oddity: different Draculas. John Forbes-Robertson and Shen Chan take up the cloak and fangs, but would it have enhanced the movie if Christopher Lee had reprised the role (perhaps it would have allowed greater distribution)?
Kim: The role might seem perfunctory in Legend, but Lee’s face alone would have raised the game. Lee doesn’t get much to do – and doesn’t add much to it – in AD 1972 or Satanic Rites, but I like those films more than Scars of Dracula, in which he has a lot of material. I think Legend is the better for having Dracula in it (the opening scene is cool) though I wish he’d been better integrated into the plot rather than an add-on. Because it’s a bit part, Hammer used a bit part actor who doesn’t really fill the cloak properly … I think they could have found other star Draculas to replace Lee if their Dracula series had continued. Peter Wyngarde, Robert Powell or John Neville might have made sense … or they could have used future Draculas like Klaus Kinski, Jack Palance or Louis Jourdan. They talked about Yul Brynner for their Vlad the Impaler project, which might have been interesting.
- It seems ripe for a remake – or at least improved upon. Taking remakes, reboots and belated sequels as a given in today’s cinematic landscape, is this a good idea, or should we leave well alone?
Kim: I’d always rather see an original than a remake, though of all Hammer’s properties this might be the most tempting in that a) the original was ahead of its time (even Hong Kong hopping vampire movies like Mr Vampire came later) and b) offers room for improvement. I’d love to see Jet Li as a vampire … but replacing Cushing as Van Helsing would be different since no one is really associated with the role at present (Rutger Hauer was good casting in the weak Argento Dracula, though – and Hugh Jackman seemed to be playing Captain Kronos).