I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

“These are difficult times”: The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires

by Anthony Galli
May 26, 2014

Run Run Shaw died on January 7, 2014. He was 106 years old, although some sources estimate his age to be 107 (!). After a long and successful career at the forefront of Chinese media, Run Run was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1977, making him “Sir Run Run.” However, Shaw had already been immortalized in 1964 when a new asteroid was discovered in Chinese skies and christened “2899 Run Run Shaw” in honor of the billionaire filmmaker and philanthropist. As such, he will always be “2899 Run Run” to me.

Despite Shaw’s groovy celestial accolades, rivalled only by musical mastermind Frank Zappa’s posthumous 1994 asteroid naming (“3834 Zappafrank”), he was better known, along with his brother Runme Shaw, as one of the most prolific film producers in cinema history. From their first films in the 1920’s, to the productions of Shaw Brothers Ltd. from 1958 to 1985, Run Run and Runme Shaw have created over an estimated 1,000 films, and in 1999 sold their 760 film catalog for over $600 million. The Shaw Brothers did not only produce their films, they owned the studios where they were filmed, they owned the theaters where they were shown, they made their films for the least amount of money possible, and then they distributed them through their own company. If this weren’t enough, in 1967 Shaw Brothers founded Television Broadcasts Limited (TVB), Hong Kong’s first commercial television station, and yet another venue for Shaw Brothers to show their films.

Run Run Shaw is noted in American cinema for being a co-producer for 1982’s Blade Runner, but especially as singlehandedly introducing Kung Fu to American movie screens. Their 1972 Five Fingers of Death was made for $300k, but grossed over $8 million worldwide.  The Kung Fu epic was such a new concept to American audiences (despite Bruce Lee’s kicking some royal ass as Kato on television’s The Green Hornet in 1966) that Time Magazine had to explain it to their readers in 1973:

Five Fingers is a kind of chop-suey western exploiting Kung Fu, one of the Chinese martial arts of man-to-man combat. Instead of six-shooters, the actors use their hands, feet and heads to show who is the fastest draw in the East. Besides kicking, jumping and batting their heads together, they like to yell and grunt a lot.

Time Magazine, simplifying and perpetuating racial and cultural stereotypes for the American public since 1923.

The global success of Five Fingers of Death unleashed a tidal wave of martial arts worship in the United States that continued unabated until disco, or some other trend, took over in the late 70’s. Without Five Fingers of Death, who knows, we might not have had the Kung Fu TV show, or the Billy Jack movie, or the “Kung Fu Fighting” hit single, or the Hong Kong Phooey cartoon. In the mid-70’s Kung Fu was everywhere.

Enter Hammer Films.

Throughout the 1950’s and 60’s, Hammer Films was recognized for its particularly British horror films. If one saw Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee in a Frankenstein or Dracula movie in the 1960’s, chances are it was in a Hammer film. Hammer horror was colorful, bloody, and earnest. Since Hammer employed some of the most creative film people in England, their films always maintained a high level of quality despite the low budgets. By the 1970’s, though, the horror genre began to turn away from the gothic qualities that seemed so shocking just a decade before, and Hammer, uncertain of which direction to take, began a slow, precipitous decline.

Hammer Film’s standing in the world of horror is echoed in The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires when the British Consul’s opening speech to Professor Van Helsing’s son concerning his father, the fearless vampire killer, declares, “I fear he is becoming somewhat unpopular with the university people.” The Consul is suggesting that Van Helsing’s ideas are obsolete and outdated, perfectly suited for another time, but irrelevant in today’s world. This is the same position Hammer films found itself in during the mid-1970’s.

Even one of Van Helsing’s young Chinese students questions Van Helsing’s current legitimacy during a lecture. “These monsters may find sanctuary in the imaginations of the peasants of Transylvania,” student #2 chides the good professor, “but China has a sophistication that has flowered and bloomed over the course of 3,000 years.” Student #3 adds that the “devil monsters” and “grotesque beings” of the European’s past fail to speak to the university students of the present. In essence, the students are telling Van Helsing, “We need something new,” and Van Helsing, in his infinite Colonial wisdom refuses to listen. Is Van Helsing actually Hammer Films?

Enter Shaw Brothers Ltd.

What better idea could there be than to mix horror with Kung Fu, right? Kind of like putting your chocolate in my peanut butter, or something equally delicious. Enter The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, the only collaboration between Hammer Films and Shaw Brothers, however, not the only co-production the Shaw Brothers would involve themselves in. For example, there was 1973’s Italian Kung Fu hybrid Supermen Against the Orient (original title---Crash! Che botte strippo strappo stroppio), as well as 1973’s Lee Van Cleef Kung Fu spaghetti western El kárate, el Colt y el impostor. There was 1975’s Blaxploitation in Hong Kong Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold, and also 1981’s sci-fi alien baby classic Inseminoid, a movie so baffling to British censors that it received an X-rating, due to scenes of “profanity, nudity, violence, rape and gore.” 2899 Run Run says “Check it out.”

The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires was probably the first of its kind, and it is awesome. First, the fight scenes are everything one would want in a Kung Fu movie, and it has been suggested that they were directed by Shaw Brothers house director Chang Cheh in conjunction with Shaw Brothers martial arts coordinators Chia-Liang Liu and Chia Tang. If one is a fan of arrows through the neck, arrows through the wrist, blood spitting, sacrificial virgin hot pots, European vampire killers stumbling into campfires, and the ripping of a man’s throat out with one’s bare hands, then wiping the blood on his shirt before he crumbles into a dead heap, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires is your kind of film.

After Golden Vampires, Hammer only made one more horror film before the studio went dark for virtually 30 years. One could sense Hammer’s resignation as soon as the British Consul in the film confides to Van Helsing’s son, “Unfortunately, I cannot pick and choose my guests these days,” as if the collaboration with Shaw Brothers was based on economic necessity rather than creativity. As such, there is an inordinate amount of attention given to money, or its lack, by the English people throughout the film, perhaps echoing the dire financial straits Hammer had found itself in by this point.

Ironically, it is the regal Vanessa Buren who finances Van Helsing’s quest for the 7 Golden Vampires. Miss Buren is introduced by the British Consul as a widow who is “well provided for,” yet he does not approve of her travelling alone. Does not approve.  Vanessa Buren’s autonomy is questioned as she is later disparagingly referred to as “a totally emancipated female,” and as a woman with “a will of her own.” Naturally, by the end of the film she must be destroyed. We already knew that.

And, despite the Chinese doing all the heavy lifting and being the true heroes of The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, it is the European Van Helsing who is left standing at the end of the film, victorious and alive to vampire fight another day. It was, of course, only a temporary victory.

Despite doing respectable business in Hong Kong and Europe when it was released in 1974, the film wasn’t presented in America until 1979, when it was shown at drive-in theaters in a confusingly edited version that cut 20 minutes out of the film, and then rearranged all of the scenes haphazardly. Some of the scenes were even repeated in the edited version two or three times, sometimes backwards. As a result, the film remained a lost classic until it was restored for DVD release in 1999.

It’s a shame about those bats on strings, though.

Anthony Galli currently lives in Athens, Georgia. He shares a birthday with his black cat, Magic, and they both claim Wings of Desire as their favorite film. Anthony has published two books of poetry, Amnesia for Insomniacs and Invisible Idiot.