hile I always try to keep the focus off of myself and on the subject I’m discussing, if you’ve been following my writing over the years, you’ve probably gleaned a few personal details about me: some broad details about my childhood and education; the sort of horror movies I like; my unabated fascination with redheads and goth girls; and, perhaps most defining of all, my Anglophilia. It’s telling that, in my discussions of non-US horror films, I’ve covered English productions in equal measure to Japanese movies; that I’ve traveled multiple times to England for the purpose of my horror writing; that I wrote a biography of English actress Vanessa Howard; and that my dream office at FANGO HQ includes a credenza where I could keep a full tea service set with which to entertain visitors (you reading this, Jess?). I’ve always clicked with English culture, and, in my interactions with Britons and travels abroad, they’ve always clicked with me. There’s something about the English character and mindset that I seem to inherently get -- my wife jokes that it’s genetic memory from a Mancunian great-great grandmother. All that said, there’s a terrible confession I must make, one which I hope doesn’t result in a very polite mob waiting for me at Heathrow next time I touch down: I’m not super fond of Hammer movies.
This isn’t to dismiss the entire studio’s output with one broad stroke, or to deny its importance to English horror cinema. I fully recognize that they laid the groundwork for and defined the horror genre for multiple generations of English horror fans, and their place in history is both earned and undeniable. There’s just something about the DNA of the films that, unlike so much else about English culture and even English horror cinema, has never made a great impression on me. I’ve struggled over the years to put my finger on why, but I’ve never come up with an answer I found to be wholly satisfactory. I’d considered that it was perhaps because so many Hammer productions came out of a “tamer” era of cinema, whereas the films I tend to enjoy are a bit more for-the-jugular, but then I realize I also like plenty of other films of a similar vintage that have a similarly soft touch approach to sex and violence. I’ve considered that maybe it’s because I’ve seen so many productions about Dracula and Frankenstein — two of Hammer’s stock-in-trade characters — but then I’ll realize I still enjoy Bram Stoker’s Dracula, as well as some of Hammer’s own Dracula tales (most notably Dracula AD 1972, which only confuses things more, since that movie has earned the loathing of a fair number of Hammer die-hards). On paper, all the ingredients are there for movies I’d theoretically love: horror; Englishness; period clothing. Why, then, do I find myself invariably drawn away from Hammer and towards more independent fare (not to mention its rival, Amicus, who is terribly underrated, by the way).
That was the question on my mind recently when I treated myself to a Hammer Double Feature courtesy of my friends at Scream Factory: The Devil Rides Out and Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (the latter of which was introduced to me by friend, horror junkie, and professional stuntman Jimmy Lui). Two radically different films, I think that, cumulatively, they served to finally provide me with an answer: When Hammer was on, they were on but, if they didn’t bring their absolute A-game, the results tended to be a little more than underwhelming.
Devil was the first feature of the evening, and the one I was admittedly more excited to see. I’d long read about the movie’s notorious reputation for injecting some hardcore Satanism into 1960s England, at about the same time Rosemary’s Baby was making a similar splash Stateside. So it was that I went into the film hoping for a taste of the sort of English subversion I’d enjoyed in such productions as Goodbye, Gemini and Girly. After all, when the British decided to buck social tradition in the ‘60s, they bucked social tradition, and the results are often shocking even from the perspective of 2019. Devil … not such much.
The film concerns the efforts of the Duc de Richelieu (Christopher Lee) to rescue his friend, Simon, from the clutches of a sinister Satanic cult led by the Crowleyan figure Mocata (Charles Gray). Things actually get off to a pretty intriguing start: Richelieu is introduced in media res arriving at a lush estate while elliptically outlining his purposes to his befuddled driver; upon entering the house, he quickly connects with Simon, who seems flustered and nervous that his buddy has crashed what appears to be an otherwise sedate Friday night soiree. Who is this guy? Who are these people? What do they want? Why does Simon seem so eager for Richelieu to leave? In its opening moments, Devil recalls the best parts of Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, promising a slow burn and progressive reveal of its characters’ backstories, motives, and plot. All that goodwill quickly vanishes, though, when we abruptly jump into fourth gear and subtext becomes text: They’re Satanists; they want to induct more people into their numbers; and Richelieu’s presence throws off the numerology of the number of attendees.
From there, Devil doesn’t so much have a plot as a whole bunch of stuff happens in a variety of set pieces of varying effectiveness. Richelieu rescues Simon and Tanith, another cult novice who’s getting cold feet; Richelieu does battle with a demon, whom he defeats by throwing a cross at it; Richelieu sneaks into a black mass, where he witnesses the devil being conjured and defeats it by … throwing a cross at it; Richelieu and friends survive a night of harrowing black-magic attacks, culminating in the appearance of The Angel of Death. It’s all completely random, and much of it completely contextless. We never learn, for example, why Richelieu knows so much about Satanists, or why he’s so well-versed in the dark arts himself (rather than throwing a cross at it, he repels the Angel of Death by reciting an ostensibly reality-shattering incantation). Nor do we learn of the cult’s ultimate goals: The plot itself focuses on what seems to be the small-fry indoctrination of Tanith, providing the story with a convenient romantic/damsel in distress hook, but the early going makes it clear that the cult has bigger aims. They freaking summon Satan in the second act, though. Doesn’t that tend to be the endgame for most cults in these movies? (A very cool looking Satan, I’ll admit, and one whose presence briefly won me back to the movie — before he was annihilated by Christopher Lee and his flying cross, a defeat which should’ve made the cultists seriously reconsider who they threw their weight behind).
The real-world explanation for the film’s clunkiness seems to be that it was adapted from a novel (Dennis Wheatly’s 1934 book of the same name), which itself was the second in an ongoing series of works featuring Richelieu. It would appear, then, that much of his backstory — as well as the cult’s motivations — was left out in the adaptation process, along with contextual information and connecting sequences that would’ve made more sense of what we see onscreen. For example, the climax revolves around what’s either a reincarnation, possession, or both, depending on how you look at it, fueled by a spell whose rules the audience is never made privy to and culminating in the offscreen death of a major character. Most damningly, though, Richelieu (and consequently Lee, who along with Gray is one of the few positive things about Devil) disappears for long stretches of time, ostensibly engaged in research we never get to see, consulting people we never get to meet, and generally doing stuff that would make a lot more sense of things. I personally like to think that on his shooting days, Lee would show up, film his five minutes of screen time, and then rush out back to jump into a car with a waiting Peter Cushing and high-tail it to the pub.
Devil’s biggest sin then (heh heh) is that it’s a movie of ideas, and actors, and concepts, none of them ever seen through to their fullest possible potential — a sin I realized was committed by a number of other Hammer films as well. Often, there are elements that shine (usually a performance by Cushing, Lee, or one of Hammer’s other stock players like Michael Ripper), but the film itself rarely coalesces into a perfect whole. To paraphrase Frasier Crane, too often, Hammer movies are like perfect meals that have one big flaw you spend the whole night picking apart.
Far be it for me to damn (heh heh) an entire studio’s output, though — as I said above, when Hammer was on, they could be on, such as the criminally underrated Vampire Circus (which features both a captivating performance by Lynne Frederick and an early appearance by David “Darth Vader” Prowse as a homicidal bodybuilder); the contributions of Tudor Gates; and my second feature of the evening, Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires.
Vampires makes clear another of Hammer’s big flaws: their willingness to fall back on the same stories and themes without updating them or doing anything new or unique with the source material. Indeed, reviewing their output for this article, I realized that the films I like least are those most reliant on extant properties, while the productions that really shine are those that demonstrate a high level of originality, forward-thinking, and originality. Case in point, Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires. In execution, it’s sort of the opposite of Devil: We begin very unpromisingly, with a borderline comical sequence in which an evil Taoist priest, Kah, awakens Dracula and asks him for help in reinvigorating the titular coven which he serves. In short order, Dracula possesses Kah, after which he all but looks into the camera and tells the audience he’s not Dracula now, he’s Kah, and that’s what we’ll call him for the rest of the movie. It’s the sort of sequence that seems tacked onto the film to try and draw in fans of another franchise, like the infamous “monkey prologue” included in some releases of Tombs of the Blind Dead.
After that, though, things abruptly get … well, cool. We join Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) in China, as he desperately tries to convince a group of scholars not only of the existence of vampires, but that he believes such a creature has taken up residence in their own country. Though he’s rebuffed by most of them, one in particular — Hsi Ching (martial arts legend David Chiang) — approaches him later and calmly informs him that he is the descendant of a sort of Asian Van Helsing figure who did battle with vampires generations ago — vampires that continue to terrorize his native village to this day. He further informs Van Helsing that he and his siblings — all of them martial arts masters with specialized weapons skills -- have been waiting for someone more well-versed in vampires to come along and provide guidance on how they might at last rid their homeland of the scourge. With the financial assistance of a rich widow (Norwegian model Julie Ege) eager for an adventure and the sharpshooting skills of Van Helsing’s nephew, Leyland (Robin Stewart), the ersatz group of vampire hunters set off on a perilous trek across turn-of-the-century China.
It’s worth noting that Vampires was a co-production between Hammer and the Shaw Brothers — an attempt by both studios to break into the others’ market and achieve relevance with new audiences. The Shaws’ involvement no doubt accounts for much of the freshness of the film. There’s stuff here that you won’t find in any other Hammer production, notably the complex and visually arresting fight sequences, which make up the bulk of the film. Indeed, the movie comes across as the perfect fusion of Hammer, a ‘70s chop-sockey production, and one of the better Indiana Jones films. There’ll be an expository sequence in which Cushing-as-Indy explains something about vampires, or has a discussion with Ching that moves the plot along; the group will be ambushed by some threat, either human or vampiric; Ching and his siblings will engage in a martial arts throwdown against them; the heroes will regroup; repeat. It sounds formulaic, but the results are enjoyable, coming across as equal parts horror movie and 1930s action serial (Cushing even turns up in jodhpurs and a pith helmet, which he freaking rocks).
The film is also strangely progressive for its time and has aged considerably well even by the standards of 2019. A real sense of respect and cultural deference comes through in every frame: Cushing dominates his dialogue scenes, with the Asian actors allowing him to deliver a sunset performance as his beloved Van Helsing; meanwhile, Cushing himself literally steps back and watches the martial artists take center stage for the fight scenes. It’s clear that Cushing respected and admired the skills of his costars and vice-versa. Similarly, the characterization of Ching and his brothers never delves to the level of stereotype: There’s even a cool scene where, after they save his life, a humbled Van Helsing admits he doesn’t know everyone’s names, leading Ching to introduce him to each of his siblings and prompting Van Helsing to voice his admiration for Chinese culture. The film is likewise progressive in its gender politics: One of Ching’s siblings — and one of the best fighters of the bunch — is his sister, Mai, who becomes the subject of one of the film’s two interracial romances when she falls for Leyland. Even more audaciously, the second romance finds Ege’s widow romancing Ching himself. The pairing of a Nordic actress with an Asian actor is something still frowned upon in a contemporary Hollywood obsessed with particular racial pairings; for a 70s film to posit an Asian man as a viable love interest for a white woman was nothing short of revelatory.
Similarly unique is the film’s approach to vampires, who belong more to the Blind Dead school than Hammer’s previous gothic interpretations. Inspired by the Jiangshi, or “hopping vampire”— a mute, putrefying ghoul unique to Asian horror culture — the vampires here are skeletal, rotting, silent, and fast. Some ride horses while others run into battle, with a few extras even attempting to actually hop into combat in deference to their inspiration. Though the makeup has aged somewhat, it still looks pretty gnarly, and the special effects employed when they die — which involves their heads sort of deflating and melting — recall the SFX from Hellraiser. Consequently, they come across as a real, unique menace. Although the final battle ultimately comes down to Cushing and Dracula — conveniently white and European again, lest audiences feel they’d been cheated out of a proper showdown — it’s a cop-out that’s been earned, both by the film itself and by Cushing’s career as Van Helsing. He’s not so much putting a stake in Dracula one last time as he is tipping his hat and saying goodbye to the character, and he deserves the final, albeit perfunctory battle he receives.
The Devil Rides Out and Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires are master classes in trying, and trying your best; doing what you know and doing new things; and why Hammer is at once a legendary powerhouse and a studio whose films aren’t more widely known among American viewers. For me, at least, this experience has enhanced my appreciation for the Hammer movies I already enjoy and made me want to keep digging into their catalogue to see if there aren’t a few more along the lines of Vampires.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a very polite mob to face down at Heathrow.
Preston Fassel is an award-winning author and journalist whose work has appeared in FANGORIA, Rue Morgue Magazine, Screem Magazine, and on Cinedump.com. He is the author of "Remembering Vanessa," the first published biography of British horror star Vanessa Howard, printed in the Spring 2014 issue of Screem Magazine. From 2015 to 2017, he served as the assistant editor of Cinedump.com. Since 2017, he has served as staff writer for FANGORIA magazine. His first novel, 'Our Lady of the Inferno,' was the recipient of the Independent Publisher Book Award for Horror and was named one of Bloody Disgusting's 10 Best Horror Books of 2018. Twitter: @PrestonFassel