The films of Hammer, that small family-run film studio by the Thames, have such an enduring appeal that even forty-odd years after the original company’s last movie, there is still a myriad of books, podcasts, documentaries, magazines and articles devoted to them. And among those, more essays feature words like “by the 1970s, the once-great Hammer was in trouble…” than there are actual Hammer films.
Anyway, by the 1970s, the once-great Hammer was in trouble. Their output looked tame and old fashioned against more graphic and salacious American and European imports. The company had been hit by internal strife resulting in chairman Sir James Carreras selling up to his son Michael, after it was revealed the senior Carreras was planning to flog the ailing firm off to rival organisation Tigon. With Sir James gone, the financial backing of Britsh company EMI (run by James’s friend Bernard Delfont) also vanished. In addition, many of Hammer’s key players had drifted away when the company left its spiritual home of Bray Studios for the more impersonal soundstages of Elstree.
Michael Carreras had been with Hammer on and off since 1943, when it was little more than a distribution company founded by his grandfather. Carreras’s career would be regularly overshadowed by the fractious relationship with his father, Sir James. Michael had served variously as producer, writer and director, excelling at the first role but frankly being a bit erratic at the other two. Once in charge of the company Michael, who was never a fan of Hammer’s reliance on Gothic horror, didn’t really know what to do instead.
Facing dwindling interest in their flagship Frankenstein and Dracula series, the company tried throwing in new elements, often at the insistence of the American studios bankrolling the films. Whether it was remaking the 1957 classic The Curse of Frankenstein as a comedy, or teaming Dracula up with hippies and Satanists, nothing seemed able to stop the decline. Christopher Lee finally made good on almost a decade’s worth of complaining, and refused to reprise his role after 1973’s The Satanic Rites of Dracula. Up until then, Sir James had always managed to convince Lee to reconsider, but now Sir James was gone.
Even without Lee, Hammer couldn’t let the franchise go since Warner Brothers in the US were interested in a further sequel. Like the undead corpse of the main character, Hammer kept trying to revive it. But blood-drooling rubber bats, 70s pub rock and Caroline Munro in thigh boots did little to keep the Count alive for long. Carreras and company needed to look elsewhere for inspiration.
They found it almost six thousand miles away, in the then-British colony of Hong Kong. One of the genres Hammer was up against at 70s fleapits was kung fu, which had exploded with Bruce Lee and was permeating everything from TV and disco to comics and Saturday morning cartoons. Warner Bros. had successfully partnered with Hong Kong company Golden Harvest for Lee’s* magnum opus Enter the Dragon (1973), so Hammer agreed to team up with another famous family business, the giant Shaw Brothers studio.
The four Shaw brothers had been theatre owners in Shanghai, who moved into production — and to Hong Kong — in the 1930s. In the postwar years they switched from making Cantonese-language films to more ‘prestigious’ Mandarin productions, to fill demand from their own chain of cinemas. In 1958, as Hammer was striking big with their first Dracula movie, Shao Yifu, a.k.a. Run Run Shaw, took over the running of the company. Run Run had a firm belief that the old-Hollywood studio system was the model to emulate, embarking on an ambitious expansion programme of the company’s facilities.
The result, completed in 1961, was Movietown, a vast integrated studio complex on Clearwater Bay Road in Hong Kong. By the time Hammer got there, Movietown held a large backlot of thirty outdoor stages including standing sets and a lake, twelve sound stages, processing laboratories, a dubbing studio, training facilities, canteens and dormitories for workers and apartment blocks for actors and directors. The studio ran day and night, with over a thousand employees working in shifts to make hundreds of films covering martial arts, swordplay, drama, horror and sexplopitation. Surely an ideal fit for Hammer.
Don Houghton, who had scripted the two modern-day Dracula films for Hammer, was married to British-based Chinese actress Lim Pik-sen. Through her father, a successful business mogul, she knew Run Run Shaw, and was able to broker an introduction. The resulting deal covered two films, both written by Houghton; another Dracula, this time with exciting kung fu elements, and a contemporary thriller. Shaw Brothers would cover 50% of the budget with Hammer and Warner Brothers making up the rest, with the films to be shot entirely in Hong Kong by British and local crews.
Peter Cushing, who unlike Lee complained about very little, signed on to star in both. In this phase of his life, Cushing would take any job as a distraction from the still-raw death of his wife a few years earlier. Thus Hammer’s cast and crew, who rarely went further than nearby Black Park to portray foreign parts, decamped to another continent and an entirely different magnitude of studio.
Problems were quickly apparent to The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampire’s (1974) director Roy Ward Baker. Baker’s long career in film began at the venerable Gainsborough Pictures in the 1930s. He’d worked his way up from errand boy to editor (he worked as a 2nd assistant editor on Hitchcok’s The Lady Vanishes, 1938). As director he’d made successful pictures in both the US and UK, including 1958’s A Night To Remember; a still-impressive retelling of the sinking of the Titanic. But after subsequent theatrical failures, Baker found steady work directing episodic television including The Avengers and Department S.
Hammer brought Baker in to direct the third and best of their Quatermass adaptations, Quatermass and the Pit (1967). He was then asked to take over The Anniversary (also 1967) due to his friendship with Bette Davis, who was unimpressed with original director Alvin Rakoff. Baker’s films for Hammer were either twists on their traditional horror fare (The Vampire Lovers, 1970, Scars of Dracula, 1970, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, 1971) or atypical projects like comedy (The Anniversary) or sci-fi (the aforementioned Quatermass, Moon Zero Two, 1969). He was seemingly an ideal choice for a fusion of horror and martial arts.
Baker was horrified to discover that Hong Kong studios didn’t shoot sync sound. Their films played multiple territories so, much like films from continental Europe, they were shot without an audio track and dubbed into different languages later. Since the studios weren’t soundproofed, a constant hubbub — crews chatting, sets being built, other films shooting, airliners on the terrifying approach to Kai Tak airport — was ever-present.
Baker wasn’t afraid of taking his unhappiness with the working conditions out on the local crew, to the point where Hammer continuity legend Renee Glyn went so far as to brand him racist (though in the same interview she also said all was later forgiven). Michael Carreras, having even bigger problems on the second film, Shatter, complained that Hong Kong looked like a slum. Neither co-production has a great reputation these days. Since the overwhelming majority of writing on Hammer has been from the western side, critics and film historians have a tendency to accept opinions like Carreras and Baker’s at face value, and blame the films’ shortcomings on the Hong Kong side.
This is, I contend, nonsense. The crew working with Hammer were among the finest actors and filmmakers the territory had to offer. A quick glance down the filmography of Chang Cheh, who was drafted in uncredited to direct Vampires’ action scenes, reveals a list of stone-cold classics most directors would cut off their sword arm for. Golden Swallow (1968),** The Heroic Ones (1970), The Anonymous Heroes (1971), Boxer from Shantung and The Water Margin (both 1972), to name but a few, had already been helmed by the director by the time Baker and co. arrived. He worked with David Chiang and Ti Lung, who would co-star in Hammer’s films, so regularly and successfully that they were nicknamed ‘the iron triangle.’
Similarly, the action choreographers tasked with adding the fights to Hammer’s horror were among the best in the business. Lau Kar-leung was a kung fu traditionalist who could trace his mastery of the Hung Gar style directly back to the fabled Wong Fei-hung himself. Lau was an expert in intricate, complex fight scenes and weapons, and saw film as the perfect outlet to promote the history, philosophy and artistry of traditional kung fu. Lau’s regular collaborator, Tong Gaai, was a student of Simon Yuen Siu-tien, a legendary actor, Peking opera performer, and father of Yuen Woo-ping. Where Kar-leung was the traditionalist, Gaai had a flair for wild swordplay and fantasy. Having worked on films such as the seminal King Hu classic Come Drink With Me (1966), Lau and Tong became the choreographers of choice for Chang Cheh.
You could take any of the aforementioned Chang films as excellent specimens of what this team was capable of. 1971’s The New One-Armed Swordsman is another fabulous example. A reworking of Chang’s 1967 breakthrough hit One-Armed Swordsman starring Jimmy Wang Yu, and sees the director, choreographers and studio at the top of their game.
The new briefly two-armed swordsman in question is David Chiang as Lei Li, a cocky young fighter in the martial world, whose prowess with twin blades brings him to the attention of ‘Hero’ Lung (veteran character actor Ku Feng). Lung, like a Han Dynasty alt-right politician, accuses others of the crimes of which he himself is guilty, then ‘nobly’ defeats them in combat to the delight of his idiot followers. Lung uses a trick version of the sanjiegun or three section staff, a traditional Hung Gar weapon often featured in movies by Lau kar-leung. Lei Li is defeated, and bound by his oath of chivalry cuts off his own arm in defeat.
Post-amputation, Lei Li is typical of Chiang’s role in Chang Cheh’s films, his beautiful face etched with sadness and melancholy. Ti Lung, who joins the plot a little later, plays Hero Fung, a genuine good guy and another twin sword expert. Fung is also a classic Ti Lung/Chang Cheh character, all heroic swagger and easy smile. The chemistry between the two actors is wonderful, and it’s plain to see why their pairing was so popular.
There’s nothing too inventive about the film’s plot, including Lei Li’s constant abuse at the hands of assorted heavies who he could flatten with one hand, but has chosen to put the martial world behind him. But Chang’s fluid camera propels the narrative along at a cracking pace, following characters through the elaborate Shaw Brothers stages and the villain’s lair, a large exterior set complete with pagoda, bridge and fortress. Chang also captures the expansive action beautifully: both Tong Gaai’s large-scale battle scenes, such as when Lei Li massacres Lung’s entire army, and the intricate one-on-one fights designed by Lau Kar-leung.
Typically of Chang Cheh’s films, action is brutal and bloody. This film features a character being hacked in half in a spray of red that would cause even 70s Hammer to blanch. The climax, on a bridge littered with corpses, features Lung being run through, losing his own arm (which is nailed to the railing next to him for good measure) then thrown to his final fate on the rocks below. It’s a terrific piece of work, and yet The New One-Armed Swordsman isn’t even considered among the iron triangle’s greatest films. Yet it was all accomplished by actors and artisans that the British contingent considered to be ‘primitive’ and ‘a step down.’
The problem more than anything seems to have been a lack of common ground between the British and Asian crews. Roy Ward Baker understandably didn’t see the point of having a different director shoot the action scenes, even if that director was Chang Cheh. Hong Kong directors had a unique approach to fighting on film. This combined long takes where the camera tracked with the performers, highlighting their skill and ability, with constructive cutting for moves where trick shots (such as Lei Li juggling swords with his remaining hand) were required. The results speak for themselves.
But Baker had a western filmmaker’s understanding of action. He’s probably correct that if Chang had shot the fight scenes, the difference in styles would have been jarring. But Baker’s assessment of the results of his version, reproduced by Wayne Kinsey from an interview in Little Shoppe of Horrors #4, is unfortunate:
“…those kung fu sequences are more effective than the average kung fu sequences in the average Chinese picture, because they’ve been better photographed and better directed and the camera being in the right place at the right moment, and the cuts are set to a pattern. They hadn’t thought of that – they wouldn’t even admit it. Their idea is everybody mills around for twenty minutes with three different cameras and people waving hands and they throw it all into the cutting room and the editor sticks it together as best he can.”
Kinsey was content to reproduce this passage without rebuttal, but few fans would hold up the fights in The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires as classics of the genre. ‘As best he can’ in the case of Hong Kong action films is often very, very good indeed. Baker may have been pleased with his camera positioning but the resulting fights suffer accordingly. The superb stunt performers playing the heroes (including Kar-leung’s brother Lau Kar-wing and familiar Hong Kong face Tino Wong) are poorly served by a succession of static long and medium shots that do little to add any excitement. It’s to the performers’ credit that even filmed in such a half-arsed, high-handed manner, the action still looks pretty good.
More than any clash of cultures, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires isn’t very good because, well… it just isn’t very good. Peter Cushing is ever reliable as Van Helsing, and David Chiang is appealing given that he’s speaking an unfamiliar language (having started out as a stunt player, Chiang also looks great in the action scenes). But John Forbes-Robertson, replacing Christopher Lee as Dracula and in all of two scenes, is hampered by a poor makeup job and the ignominy of being revoiced by David de Keyser. As with so many Hammer films, the juvenile leads are uninspiring, both Van Helsing’s drippy son (Robin Stewart) and an adventurous widowed heiress (Norwegian playmate Julie Ege, whose decolletage is deeper than her performance).
Houghton’s screenplay starts the action in 1804, as Dracula takes over the body of a Chinese follower, Kah (Chan Shen, another familiar face from Hong Kong movies of the day). But when the film cuts to China, it’s a hundred years later, so Van Helsing’s insistence that he’s tangled with Dracula throughout Europe is somewhat shaky. Did Dracula only pretend to be a Chinese Satanist on weekends? Or was there some sort of franchise arrangement? And precisely why do the Golden Vampires need to drain the blood of maidens into a big, bubbling cauldron? Wouldn’t it be more efficient just to drink it? Or would that negate the need for a bunch of pretty Chinese girls to writhe around topless while strapped to tables?
Houghton’s script is also full of risible dialogue. Take the moment Van Helsing the younger sees Ege for the first time. Having made a token attempt at progressive attitudes by having her be an independent, ‘strong’ woman, Houghton immediately blows it; commenting on her emancipated status, Van Helsing’s companion mutters “they’ll be wanting the vote next.” “Well, she’s certainly got mine!” replies the smitten twerp.
The dodgy makeup on the vampires probably does have to be laid at Shaw’s door, though I suspect this is in part down to the European vampire tradition being unfamiliar to the Asian crew. Local talent would be more used to the hopping corpse variety seen in Mr. Vampire (1985), and indeed there are scenes where the extras playing the bad guys’ zombie army (and who sport much better prosthetics) throw in a few half-hearted hops, possibly out of habit.
On the other hand, Shaw’s facilities lend the film a quality mostly missing from other Hammer films. This is, so far as I can tell, the only Hammer Gothic with night scenes actually shot at night instead of the familiar bright-sunlight-with-blue-filter approach. Plus the sets — a lifesize pagoda, a Chinese village, a city street — are very impressive.
There’s a sense that Baker was looking at non-Hammer films for inspiration. The horseriding vampires and their zombie pals movie in exaggerated slow motion at times, looking for all the world like Amando de Ossorio’s resurrected Knights Templar from Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971). Roy Ford and John Wilcox’s extreme lighting veers into Bava-esque primary colours and is all the better for it. Noteworthy too is the application of physical effects to Dracula for the first time, as he rises from his coffin and floats down some stairs with the help of the special effects department. Presumably Lee would have been having none of this but Forbes-Robertson was more accommodating. He’s also a lot more verbose than the prickly Lee, speechifying at almost Tomb of Dracula levels of pomposity.
Houghton deserves a little credit for pushing interacial taboos. Ege’s character has a brief romance with Chiang’s, while Van Helsing Jr. turns his attentions to the kung fu brothers’ sister (Shih Szu, another terrific performer from the heyday of Shaw Brothers). The progressive attitudes don’t extend to the men helping Szu with the washing up, despite her holding her own in the fight scenes, but I guess it was still the 70s.
The second co-production in the deal ended up in a worse state than even The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. Shatter started out directed by Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop, 1971), who left the production after falling behind schedule. He blamed the Hong Kong crew, who were being shared with other productions. Michael Carreras took over the direction himself, with Don Haughton once again responsible for the screenplay. The end result is a turgid, poorly-plotted mess of an espionage thriller. Stuart Whitman stars as the titular hitman, who for some reason kills his targets with a gun hidden in a camera while wearing a welder’s mask made of carpet.
Whitman’s portrayal of Shatter is easily the most unlikeable hero since Joe Don Baker’s Mitchell (1975). Ti Lung is wasted on a nothing role as the kung fu instructor Shatter hires as his bodyguard. Ti is always watchable, but is saddled with playing a Bruce Lee-style badass, which doesn’t suit him at all. Presumably this is what prompted film historians Tom Johnson and Deborah Del Vecchio to decry Ti’s “lack of screen presence [which] ruled him out as a Bruce Lee successor.” I guess Ti had to suffice with winning the Golden Horse for best actor in John Woo’s seminal heroic bloodshed epic A Better Tomorrow (1986). Lack of screen presence indeed.
Ti at least gets to show off his genuine skill at wing chun style kung fu in a few fight scenes, even if the camerawork here is even more shoddy than in Vampires. Lovely Shaw star Lily Li and occasional Hammer player Anton Diffring have little to do. A deliciously smarmy cameo by Peter Cushing as a British spy is really all that recommends the film.
The team-up between studios failed to halt Hammer’s slide into obscurity. A success in Britain and elsewhere, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires nonetheless lacked all-important US Distribution after Warner Bros. lost confidence in the results. It was eventually leased to Max Rosenberg’s small time outfit Dynamite Entertainment as The 7 Brothers Meet Dracula, a truncated version that didn’t see the light of day until 1979. Shatter fared slightly better in this regard, only having to wait until 1976 before Avco-Embassy dumped it into cinemas. The bad blood between Hammer and Shaw Brothers, plus the logistical nightmare of shooting the two films, put paid to further collaborations.
So ended Hammer’s Dracula series; mostly without Dracula, definitely without the actor known for playing Dracula, and without much fanfare. Plans for a further sequel to be shot in India came and went. The idea had been around for a few years, mostly to access production money frozen in Indian banks. But with Hammer running on fumes and the financial issues eventually resolved peacefully, Kali, Devil Bride of Dracula never came to pass. Thus we were denied the sight of Peter Cushing cutting a rug with Zeenat Aman while Amitabh Bachchan punched out Christopher Lee. Or at least punched out John Forbes-Robertson.
While Hammer flailed, Shaw Brothers went from strength to strength, at least for a while. Lau Kar-leung persuaded Chang Cheh away from from the ‘lone fighter seeking revenge’ plots he often relied on, towards the myths and traditions of the Shaolin temple. This led to fantastic films like Men From the Monastery, Five Shaolin Masters and Heroes Two (all 1974).
However director and stuntman had a falling out and Lau became the first action choreographer to move into the director’s chair, beating Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Yuen Woo-ping et al to the literal punch. That film, 1975’s Spiritual Boxer, also has a pretty good case for being the first kung fu comedy, beating out… well, you get the idea. Undeterred, Lau went about making and starring in some of the best martial arts movies ever, including The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Heroes of the East (both 1978), My Young Auntie (1981) and Legendary Weapons of China (1982).
Chang Cheh wasn’t phased by the split either. Chang embarked on a new series of films at Shaw Brothers beginning with The Five Deadly Venoms (1978). The huge success of this film led to a number of increasingly fabulous and bizarre works with a semi-regular team of martial artists and opera performers dubbed the Venom Mob. If you want your kung fu served with large amounts of homoerotic bonding, weird physical ailments, gold lamé ninjas and dudes tripping over their own intestines, Chang Cheh has you covered with the likes of Crippled Avengers (1978), Kid with the Golden Arm (1979), House of Traps (1981) and Five Element Ninjas (1982).
Tong Gaai had less success as a director, but his esoteric and bonkers action style led to a regular collaboration with Shaw’s maddest fantasy director, Chor Yuen. Contract stars like Ti Lung and David Chiang left the studio in the late 70s, but continued to work. Chiang turned to directing his own films, as well as starring in independent action flicks like The Challenger (1979) and The Loot (1980). Lung had a more difficult path until A Better Tomorrow. When period kung fu had a renaissance in the 1990s he co-starred with Jackie Chan in the remarkable Drunken Master II (1994), directed in part by Lau Kar-leung.
But as Hammer found, successful trends are swept away eventually. Shaws failed to move with the times and by the mid-eighties, rival studio Golden Harvest and their top star Jackie Chan had redefined martial arts cinema with modern-dress stunt extravaganzas like Police Story (1985). Shaw Brothers switched to TV production and Movietown became TV City.
The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires was a film ahead of its time; two decades later, every vampire hunter needed a crash course in kung fu, whether it was Buffy the Vampire Slayer (starting in 1997 and running until 2003) or the Blade franchise (1998, 2002, 2004). Many of the stunt personnel who worked on these productions — Donnie Yen, Jeff Pruitt, Sophia Crawford — learned their craft in Hong Kong movies.
Like many of the later, dodgier Hammer films, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires is warmly regarded by modern fans as much for its failings as its strengths (Shatter remains a harder sell). Those strengths are as much down to the Hong Kong talent as the British side. Both have legacies worth celebrating.
*Bruce, not Christopher, though I would have paid cash money to see Dracula fight Bolo Yeung.
**Golden Swallow eventually went out in the UK as The Girl with the Thunderbolt Kick, on a double bill with Hammer’s Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter (1974) while the Hong Kong films were in production.
Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography, Johnson, Tom & Del Vecchio, Deborah, 1996, McFarland & Co
Hammer Films: The Elstree Studio Years, Kinsey, Wayne, 2007, Tomahawk Press
Hammer Films: The Unsung Heroes, Kinsey, Wayne, 2010, Tomahawk Press
A History of Horrors: The Rise and Fall of the House of Hammer, Meikle, Dennis, 2001, The Scarecrow Press, Inc
Last Bus to Bray: The Unfilmed Hammer Volume 1 – The Glory Years – 1950-1970, Compiled by Davies, Glen, 2011, Little Shoppe of Horrors
Little Shoppe of Horrors #32, article “Black Belts Vs Black Magic: The Making of Hammer-Shaw Bros The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires,” Hallenbeck, Bruce G., 2014
Planet Hong Kong, Bordwell, David, 2000, Harvard University Press