Hammer's final Dracula film wisely eschewed gimicky settings and returned to the familiar trappings of the nineteenth century, in China(?)
|One of the alternative titles for this Hammer-Shaw Bros co-production.|
It's the one hundredth entry on Phasmatodea, so I'm marking it with an ending. Here is the final instalment of 'Count Down' - the very last Hammer Dracula film.
Famously this is the one which Christopher Lee took a rain-check on, but I'd have to conclude that he missed out on a lot of fun. The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires is a frenetic farewell party to mark the end of this decades-spanning film series, throwing everything into the mix including a drag act! (John Forbes-Robertson's rouged, dubbed and woefully inadequate substitution as the Count is frequently compared to a Queen, rather than King, of vampires whose makeup has run.)
|Mascara of Dracula|
Hong Kong martial arts cinema was huge in the early 70's - everybody really was Kung Fu fighting, so why not Peter Cushing in his final performance as Van Helsing? Well, perhaps not quite, but the ageing star doesn't stint on the surprising physicality which he's always brought to the role, and whirls a flaming torch around as if he really means it.
|A brilliant comic adaptation appeared in House of Hammer magazine. |
This spread shows Cushing's exposition scene at the beginning of the film.
Tying in with the continuity of the previous two films, this is the same Lawrence Van Helsing who later dies in a mutually assured destructive struggle with Dracula on a runaway coach in Hyde Park. That makes his son Leyland from this film the father of Lorimer Van Helsing, the hero of those preceding features. Exactly how 'J' Van Helsing (his first name is never given, but I'd go with 'Jasper', 'Julio' or 'Jehosaphat') of the original Hammer Dracula fits in has never been ascertained.
For once, Michael Carreras's attempts to inject something new into the Hammer formula seems to
have worked - despite the much-missed absence of Lee this film is rickshaw-load more fun than the previous stodgy effort. The plot is never anything more than a coat-hanger for a series of genuinely exciting martial arts set pieces, strung between the trek of a surprisingly coherent party of Hammer and Hong Kong action stars to the cursed village where the undead hold sway. En route, Cushing naturally sports a pith helmet while Scandinavian starlet Julie Ege uses a bodice ripping-attack by one of the vampires as an excuse to strip down to a more practical vest top.
|British colonialism, the Western genre and Hong Kong cinema collide in a single still|
- and not even any sign of vampires yet
Lets not forget that amidst all the genre mashing this is supposed to be a horror film and thankfully we do get some genuinely effective scenes as the zombie-like victims of the vampire cult claw out of their graves to pursue our heroes. In an authentic Chinese touch which might have perplexed director Roy Ward Baker, many of these skull-headed extras hop up and down when massed as an army, weirdly enhanced by the jittery music accompanying these scenes.
|Here they are - but don't let their tatty appearance fool you: these cats are 'fast as lightning'.|
From Buffy to Blade and Underworld all modern vampires seem to pop out of their coffins with a comprehensive knowledge of martial arts, so the Seven Golden Vampires was actually very prescient in it's own way. Alas, like their excellent Captain Kronos film, this blending of traditional horror and swashbuckling action failed to save Hammer, but would have been right at home in today's cinemas.
And so the saga which began 26 years ago with a young actor deemed too tall for leading roles and an already experienced television star draws to a close once more with a pile of dust and a signet ring scattered on the floor of a remote mountain castle.
We've moved from Transylvania in the 1880's, to Victorian London, the swinging '70s and finally 19th Century China. Starlets have been discovered, careers launched, reputations cemented and a studio which provided immeasurable income and employment for the British film industry has risen and fallen.
But most of all, an indelible, instantly recognisable icon was created - with all considerable due respect to Messers Lugosi, Carradine, Palance, Langela and Oldman - Sir Christopher Lee, pale of face and red in tooth and eye will always be the definitive Dracula. Regardless of sparse and sometimes even non-existent dialogue, and despite Lee's own later disdain for the role, any future interpretation will forever strain to escape his exceedingly long shadow.
During the filming of Francis Ford Coppola's magnificently-overwrought 1993 version of Dracula, Gary Oldman insisted on an elaborate 'man-bat' costume for the scene in which the heroes confront the Count at Carfax Abbey, because he insisted he wasn't credibly able to frighten them without it.
Christopher Lee would have had no such difficulty.
PostscriptAlthough we've finally come to the end of the Hammer Dracula series, Lee played the Count in at least two other films. Dracula pere et fils (father and Son) - a 1976 French comedy; and Spanish-Italian-German production Count Dracula (1970) directed by Jess Franco.
The latter was the very first time I ever saw Lee as Dracula, playing the role in a whiskery and verbose fashion more in keeping with Bram Stoker's novel. As such, It has a special place in my heart, so I will also be covering this film at some point - if and when I can track it down.
|Christopher Lee's two non-Hammer appearances as the Count.|