One of the seven is already destroyed before the main action begins. And that, in capsule form, sums up the problem with this film. It's an international production (Hammer and Shaw, two fine studios) starring Peter Cushing as Van Helsing. It has good production values. It's set mostly in China, so we get a different feel to the usual Gothic castle/London particular stuff. The cast is good to excellent, providing Cushing with a solid crew of martial arts warriors plus a hitherto unsuspected son (yes, Van Helsing junior). And Dracula appears, right at the start, played with aplomb by John Forbes-Robertson (though voiced by the uncredited David de Keyser).
But none of it really works. It's great to see Cushing in a pith helmet, it's fun to see vampires and their undead minions engage in close combat with assorted good guys, and there are some genuine surprises here and there. It's not a formulaic vampire flick or a standard Hong Kong historical action movie. Unfortunately, it doesn't really find it's own identity and instead you get the feeling everyone was doing their level best with a story that's all over the place.
It all kicks off when a Chinese chap turns up at Chez Dracula to ask the count for help. For generations the villagers in a remote part of China have provided lovely maidens for the seven titular vamps to feast upon. But lately one courageous peasant, in a desperate attempt to rescue his kidnapped daughter, took out one bloodsucker. So Kah (Chan Shen), a Taoist monk, asks Dracula to contribute some expertise to restore the six survivors' mojo. Dracula, who is trapped in his castle my some kind of curse, agrees on the condition that Kah lets him possess his body. Thus Dracula is 'in' the entire film despite only actually appearing at the very beginning and then in the final few scenes.
Which is cheating, and not even cheating very well. We cut to a university in China a century later (no, I don't get this time shift either) where Van H. is lecturing a group of scholars of the legend of the seven etc. They laugh him to scorn and leave, which must a first for the prof and again, just doesn't feel right. However, one person believes him. Hsi Ching is descended from the heroic peasant from the flashback and wants Cushing to join his kung-fu force to go and cleanse the temple where the vamps reside.
This whole bit is like a dozen other films, notably Horror Express, where we meet a group of colorful characters in a historical setting. It's okay. Julie Ege is a wealthy widow who finances the expedition. Van Helsing's son Leyland (Robin Stewart) tags along to look after dad. Leyland is charmed the one female member of Ching's team, lovely but deadly fighter Mai (Shi Szu). Meanwhile the vampires are attacking the village again, galloping around on horses, kidnapping girls, and generally acting like bandits in a non-supernatural movie.
Things jog along as the goodies head into the countryside and we get some nice cinematography. Cushing is a comforting presence, and I found myself wondering how much he tinkered with Don Houghton's script. There is a lot of exposition. Then three of the the vampires launch a pre-emptive strike, appearing as bats while the party are resting in a cave. Bats. In a cave. In China. Oh well. The puppet bats are a bit naff. The Golden Vampires themselves are not great because they have ravaged, scabby faces and perma-fangs. The make-up is unconvincing, which is a pity given how good the costumes and sets are.
Anyway, the vampires make the mistake of attacking piecemeal and suddenly there are only three left. But they have a grave-bursting army of zombie-peasants armed with pitchforks etc so the final fight is still quite a big one. There is a Convenient Horse incident i.e. when a goodie manages to leap onto a slain baddie's steed and gallop in pursuit of the surviving baddie. The last of the vampires cops it big time but the white hats are almost wiped out, some being 'turned' instantly by vampire bites - again, not convincing. Finally, after the last Golden Vampire perishes, Dracula manifests himself and Van Helsing encounters him - perhaps for the first time? I mean, we're told Drac's been in China for a century, so... Help me out here, professor!
No, that makes no sense. Unless this is a parallel universe when the original Dracula story never happened. Oh, I give up. Watch it yourself. It's a nice movie in many ways. It fails as a vampire horror flick. But you do get Mr. Cushing.
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