The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires

Hammer Films, 1974
Directed by Roy Ward Baker

Chung King, 1904: Professor Van Helsing addresses the faculty of Chung King University, and describes the horrific legend of a small Chinese town beset by seven golden vampires. Van Helsing is there to request the aid of local scholars in researching Chinese vampirism. To his dismay, however, his proposal is greeted with derision. These University historians are all skeptics, who dismiss such tales as the outmoded superstitions of ignorant peasants.

Only one young man in the audience believes Van Helsing. For this young man, Hsi Ching, is from the very town that is beseiged by the seven golden-masked vampires. He has come to Chung King in hopes of enlisting Van Helsing's aid to free his village from the dominion of the Undead.

SoVan Helsing undertakes an expedition through the Chinese wilderness, accompanied by a motley crew including Hsi Ching; his Kung Fu siblings; Van Helsing's plucky, mop-headed son Leyland; and the daringly "modern" heiress Vanessa Buren, who is traveling the world without the encumbrance of husbands or chaperones.

Little does Van Helsing suspect that this journey will lead to a final confrontation with his arch-nemesis, Dracula, who in fact is the leader of the local vampire cult.

Virtues and Vices
This last movie in the Hammer Dracula series is an unholy hybrid, a kung fu-vampire movie coproduced in Hong Kong with Run Run Shaw. Though helmed by a capable director, Roy Ward Baker, this must rank as the weakest entry in the series for a number of reasons. Among the defects are the woefully  inadequate makeup effects, rudimentary development of the supporting characters, and fight scenes that are a real yawn. It's a reminder that the excitement of Hong Kong fights depends as much on dramatic filming and editing as on stuntwork. In any case, this was all filmed long before the likes of Crouching Tiger, so don't expect any amazing wirework. 

Another limitation is the absence of Christopher Lee from the Dracula role. Even in scripts where he had few or no lines, Lee always made a larger-than-life impression. For this film, John Forbes-Robertson essays the role with more mundane results. 

On the plus side, the film offers the last chance to see Peter Cushing playing Professor Van Helsing. He makes a far different impression in this film than he did in Horror of Dracula. Sixteen years after cutting such a dashing and energetic figure in the first film, Cushing had become elderly, frail-looking and gaunt, almost skeletal. Fortunately, this look works well for a character who has spent his life fighting the Undead. And the Cushing's qualities of intelligence, intensity and absolute conviction are still there in full force. There is also something charmingly quaint about seeing Van Helsing in a pith helmet. 

Tangled Threads
The story's continuity with the rest of the Hammer series is a bit unclear. In the prelude, identified as Transylvania in 1804, Dracula is evidently trapped in the crypt beneath his castle. Thus he says "I need to walk this earth again, free from these walls, free from this mausoleum." Yet in the 1890's-era Horror of Dracula, the Count ventures forth freely from his castle.

Also in the prelude, Dracula and Kah appear to merge into a single being with Kah's appearance, who returns to China. However, while Kah is still in China in 1905, Dracula has meanwhile been slain in Bavaria by Van Helsing in the 1890's. So for around a hundred years, Dracula was apparently alive in two forms: as the original Count in Transylvania, and under the guise of Kah in China. Small wonder that Van Helsing refers to him as "the arch-vampire"!

Changing Times
The most significant time-shift, however, is betwen 1958 when Horror of Dracula appeared and 1974 when this film was released. Elements of a 60's-New Age sensibility have crept in by this point. Thus, Van Helsing professes to a sense of Deja Vu that is suggestive of reincarnation, and also to psychic premonitions that were not noticeable in the original Van Helsing character. The film also plays off the growing popularity of "Eastern" thought, and of Chinese martial arts, recently introduced to American audiences by Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon. The fearless and independent Vanessa Buren character is, of course, a sop to feminist sentiments. Another notable development is that the romances in the story are both interracial: between Buren and Hsi Ching, and between Van Helsing's son and the ass-kicking, blue-pajama clad Mai Kwei. (Van Helsing senior seems surprisingly complacent about these developments, for a man of his era.) Finally, Robin Stewart as Leyland Van Helsing sports a tousled haircut that makes a distinctly Beatles-esque impression! 

Vampire Lore
From the start of the story, Van Helsing expresses doubts about whether Chinese vampires have the same properties as the European variety. Certain factors seem to be culturally influenced. Van Helsing says: "They abhor anything that bears a holy significance. They fear the word of the Lord. In Europe, the vampire walks in dread of the crucifix. Here, it would be the image of the Lord Buddha. These are our protection." The holy powers of Buddhism are illustrated when one of the vampires attempts to take a golden amulet from a seated Buddha at a shrine. The vampire's hand is struck by electric-looking sparks, and he quickly bursts into flame and expires.

When questioned on the best way to destroy the vampires, Van Helsing says: "A wooden stake, driven deep into the heart. Or better still, a silver shaft." However, he casts doubt on the efficacy of fire: "Not in Europe. In the East, perhaps. I don't know."

Not all vampires are created equal. Dracula, it seems, is tops: "The arch-vampire. Lord of the Undead," as Van Helsing says; or, in the words of the Count himself: "I am Dracula, Lord of Darkness, Master of the Vampires, Prince of the Undead, Ruler of the Damned!" When Kah, the priestly servant of the seven golden vampires, needs help in reviving them, he travels all the way from China to Transylvania to ask Dracula's help. However, Dracula, as always in this series, remains completely free of any  redeeming or sympathetic qualities: "Wretch!" he cries, "I do not grant favors. I do not accede to the requests of minions. Know you not, Dracula commands, even from the confines of this miserable place?"

The seven golden vampires are also clearly special. Their golden masks and amulets, their temple, and the presence of a priest who provides them with sacrifices of young women, all suggest a good deal of power. Unlike the European vampire, however, they are horrifically ugly: wrinkled, decaying and definitely a bit senile-looking. The golden masks are perhaps not just for style, but also an expression of embarassment. The seven also remain silent throughout, so perhaps have lost the facility of speech.

Yet they are clearly a cut above the next class of beings: hordes of zombie-like creatures that arise from their graves at the vampires' bidding. These creatures have faces that look like cheap Halloween skull masks. No one brings victims to them; they are used more like an army to assault the heroes' encampments. They show no signs of personality and little of intelligence, seeming to act as mere puppets under the control of the golden vampires. Of these unfortunate beings, Van Helsing says "They are [the seven vampires'] victims: the Undead. Their slaves throughout the ages."

It was established earlier in the series that Dracula can be reincarnated by the black rites of his devotees. In this movie, it is stated that the seven golden vampires can also be reincarnated after they are slain. However, to reincarnate any one of them, it is apparently necessary to have access to the golden bat-shaped medallion that the vampire wore.

Another singularity of the golden vampires is that they keep a large vat of blood at the center of their temple, and their victims lie on tilted slabs that drain into the vat. It is not clear for what unholy purpose this resevoir is kept.

The vampire taint in China may be faster-acting than the European variety. One character becomes a vampire within moments of being bitten. (By contrast, recall the scene in Brides of Dracula where the creepy old lady waits by the graveside at dusk for the dead girl to rise again.)

Dracula's Demise - Spoiler
After taunting Kah/Dracula to reveal himself in his true form, Van Helsing dispatches him rather easily with a spear. It seems that Dracula needs to learn a lot more about how to dodge long pointy objects, especially when they are wielded by elderly professors of theology.

A nice touch, as Dracula's body distintegrates, is that his skull can be clearly seen to have fangs.

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Background pattern from Owen Jones, The Grammar of Ornament

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