Thursday, July 03, 2014

NYAFF ’14: The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires

At a time when Hollywood has contracted “co-production fever” in hopes of pandering to the Chinese market, it is worth re-visiting the granddaddy of all co-productions. The fusion of the Hong Kong-based Shaw Brothers’ kung fu and mysticism with Hammer’s gothic British horror was a true Reese’s peanut butter cup of a film. It was also a flop, but it is a highly entertaining flop. As a revered media titan well into his centenarian years, Sir Run Run Shaw (1907-2014) was more accustomed to turning out hits. Still, Roy Ward Baker’s The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (co-directed by the uncredited Chang Cheh) is a distinctive and only slightly eccentric choice to screen as part of the sidebar tribute to Shaw at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Prof. Van Helsing is visiting early Nineteenth Century China to research the eastern variations in vampirism, armed with knowledge of the Ping Kwei legend. According to the story, the villagers were constantly terrorized by a cult of seven vampires and their minions, until one peasant finally reaches his breaking point. Heroically, he kills one of the seven, but at the cost of his life. Everyone attending Van Helsing’s lecture assumes he is a crank, except Hsi Ching. He happens to be a descendant of the brave Ping Kwei farmer, who has come to ask Van Helsing’s help in liberating his village from the remaining six.

Showing remarkable cultural sensitivity for a British colonialist in a 1970s film, Van Helsing stresses his inexperience facing China’s undead and the specific traditions and morays that make them different from the Euro-vamps. However, he cannot refuse a plea for help. Indeed, he becomes rather anxious to get out of town when his twit of a son Leyland shows up the local triad boss when putting the moves on a Scandinavian heiress. The adventurous Vanessa Buren is also eager to fund the expedition, so she joins the party over the professor’s objections.

Of course, before they can face the undead hordes, they will have to hack their way through a small army of triads, but that will not be a problem for Hsi, his six brothers (each with a specialized weapon of choice), and his sister, Mei Kwei. However, there is another European visitor to Ping Kwei, whom Van Helsing is well acquainted with—cue ominous thunderclap.

Everyone seems to love to pick on this film, just because it is admittedly an oddball concept. Yet, it deserves considerably more love. Action director Lau Kar-leung stages some very cinematic (and surprisingly bloody) martial arts sequences, presumably in collaboration with Chang. Perhaps inspired by the Hong Kong production, Peter Cushing brought his A-game as Van Helsing, as determined and authoritative as ever, but also protective of the youngsters and smart enough to know what he doesn’t know. In fact, Cushing looks quite comfortable and collegial with Shaw Brothers leading man David Chiang, who has all the right action chops for Hsi Ching and nearly makes his phonetic English dialogue sound natural.

Shih Szu (who almost broke out during her time with the Shaws, becoming more of a cult figure instead) is also impressively steely and sensitive as Mei Kwei. Former Miss Norway and Penthouse Pet Julie Ege gives Buren a bit of an edge and a backbone too. Unfortunately, Robin Stewart’s Leyland Van Helsing comes across like Hugh Grant’s ineffectual forefather. Frankly, it is hard to believe he could live through the first act.

As if that were not enough, Golden also holds the distinction of being the only Hammer Dracula film in which Christopher Lee does not play the Count. Let’s just say he was missed. However, Cushing, Chiang, Shih, some cool fight scenes, and a full dose of Hammer atmosphere make up for his absence. Recommended for Hammer Horror and Shaw Brothers fans, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires screens this Friday (the Fourth of July) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of the 2014 NYAFF’s tribute to Sir Run Run Shaw.