Okay, okay ... there's been some massively heavy-duty score releases over the last month or so (complete presentations of Maurice Jarre's Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, for instance, and both Outland and The Edge from Jerry Goldsmith, as well as James Horner's Star Trek III and David Arnold's Independence Day), all of which I want to cover - so why have I plumped straight for James Bernard's relentlessly driving and inordinately intense music for one of Hammer's least revered offerings? Well, after enjoying Eureka's Blu-ray of the studio's psycho-drama Paranoiac (see separate review) I found myself falling head-over-heels in love with Hammer Horror all over again. And it just so happens that Bernard's trademark score for 1974's The Legend Of The 7 Golden Vampires has just been released in a terrific package from BSX that presents the complete score for the first time ever.
A strange film, Golden Vampires is Hammer's ninth and, indeed, final outing for Dracula. It exists in various cuts around the globe, with the US version having been the most viciously truncated of the lot. As well as being Hammer's penultimate feature, this would be the last film that Peter Cushing would make for them. When his wife fell ill with the emphysema that would eventually kill her, the devoted Cushing left the production of the abysmal To The Devil ... A Daughter (1975) which followed on from this, to be replaced by a clearly unhappy and very confused Richard Widmark, but his profound loyalty and dedication to the studio who had made his a household name meant that 7 Golden Vampires would have a large measure of dignity in the middle of its crazy combination of blood-sucking, black magic and manic chop-socky.
Written by Don Houghton and directed by Roy Ward Baker, the film was produced by Hong Kong's Vee King Shaw, of Shaw Brothers fame in a brave attempt to catch hold of the Kung-Fu trend that was sweeping through cinemas thanks, mainly, to a certain Bruce Lee. Everybody was “Kung-Fu Fighting” it seemed ... even Count Dracula. Cushing is, once again, the valiant vampire-vanquisher, Professor Van Helsing, who has travelled to the Chinese province of Chungking to lecture students in, ostensibly, anthropology - but, in reality, superstitions, legends and all the vampiric knowledge that he has attained throughout his years in pursuit of the creatures of the night across Europe. He has been drawn to the Orient for the specific legend of the seven golden vampires who are alleged to have been terrorising a distant village that they hold in their terrifying thrall. Gaining the confidence of a band of seven brothers and their one sister - all extensively skilled fighters - he agrees to make a pilgrimage to the haunted village, the ancestral home of this band of warriors, and help them put an end to this ghastly reign of evil. Aiding them in this quest are his own son, Leyland (Robin Stewart) and the voluptuous Vanessa Beren (Julie Ege), an extremely wealthy widow with a thirst for adventure, and David Chiang, The Shaw Brothers' own studio-groomed Bruce Lee, as the heroic leader of the sibling skirmishers. Plagued almost every step of the way by bandits and then by an army of the undead, commanded by the 7 Golden Vampires, Van Helsing deduces that their overall master is actually none other than his age-old nemesis, Count Dracula, now in the guise of the dark priest, Kah (Chan Sen), and so it seems that a final confrontation half-way around the world is on the cards for these two single-minded enemies.
Although much maligned by critics and not really cherished by fans, I actually adore this hokey film. The widescreen image from John Wilcox and Roy Ford is well-composed and the film is wonderfully lit with a mixture of garish filters. The infamous “hopping undead” make for a truly bizarre image, and the use of slow-motion and the sight of some vampires riding into battle on horseback seem influenced by The Blind Dead series. It is also worth mentioning that Ralph Bakshi seems to have become smitten with the frightening cavalcade of the rotting army of the dead surging towards their victims, as the rotoscoped Orcs in his animated Lord Of Rings adaptation duly testify. The fighting is terrific, if obviously dated. Two brothers symbolically link arms to fight, and their joint death is actually quite touching and poetic. The choreography doesn't even seem to jar with the trappings of Hammer's more languid visual style. Julie Ege is enormously attractive, especially when flashing a bit of thigh from beneath her period designer-wear. The sacrificial blood-font is a great idea, the sight of the seven kidnapped beauties arranged upon their altars around a bubbling central cauldron actually reminding me of the crew of the Nostromo in their hypersleep chamber in Ridley Scott's Alien. And there is even plenty of the studio's notorious gore splashed around as well as few spicy instances of nudity - the Golden Vampires like to rip open the tops of their nubile young maidens before making off with them. The story is merely excuse for lots and lots of action and it is a rather blatant steal from Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven, but this is the sort of departure that Hammer needed to make. It is easy to say that now, of course. At the time, however, the studio was falling hugely out of favour and lagging behind the true horrors of the time, such as Night Of The Living Dead, The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, all films that made the old Hammer ethos look like kindergarten stuff. That they at least tried to broaden their horizons and their appeal is commendable. The previous year had seen them conduct another unusual foray into the now-stale vampire mythology with the awesome Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter (DVD and CD reviewed separately), proving that such genre-blending had already been on their minds. But the lack of success that their undead swashbuckler received should have taught them that such crossovers and merges where either ahead of their time, or just too alienating for core fans who still preferred their Hammers cut and dried, and conventional.
Those intimate with Hammer will recognise the shrill, shocking and highly distinctive vigour of the score. The film may have stepped outside the usual Gothic box of tricks, but composer James Bernard was the trademark linchpin. There really isn't much that can be said about this score in terms of variety, scope and thematic range because even if Bernard manages to find the perfect balance of exotic instrumentation, wild brass, pummelling percussion, frenzied strings and warped energy almost from the very start, he isn't given much of a chance to experiment with a screenplay that just wants to show endless battles. And indeed, with Roy Ward Baker and the Shaw Brothers ensuring that the film is never more than ten minutes away from another ferocious martial arts melee, Bernard sees no reason to tamper with what is a brilliantly energetic and pulse-pounding arrangement that just surges on and on. Without a doubt, this is is the composer at his most bombastic and dynamic.
Gentle woodwinds and the apprehensive plucking of a harp or a cello open the score. And then a slyly deceptive religious motif can be heard in Track 1's Who Dares To Disturb, as the villainous Kah wanders the Transylvanian mountains in search of Castle Dracula, Bernard subverting the sight of a Christian shrine with Kah's evil grin as he spies the looming edifice of his quarry's realm in the distance. Such eerie harmony is then turned on its head as piccolos squirrel away in scampering trills, brass rises in waves of ominous ascension and Bernard embarks on one of his customary crescendos. Kah awakens Dracula and puts his case to him, but the fangmeister doesn't do requests and, seeing a chance to get away from the gloom of the castle and the mountains, opts instead to possess the oriental priest's body and assume command of the Golden Vampires and their virtual blood-cattle of trapped villagers. For Dracula's Metamorphosis, Bernard unleashes a furious squall of circular strings, shimmering cymbals and timpani as Dracula embraces the traveller in a soul-snuffing grip and then the Count's thunderous theme gallops in-tandem with a variation of Van Helsing's old motif and a new 8-note oriental hero motif of wildly pulsating ostinato for woodwinds. This becomes the film's main title theme, and is now the template for much of what follows - a violent collision of themes and motifs that battle relentlessly for dominance.
What is nice is that the Dracula 3-note motif that the composer wrote way back in 1958 for the Count's classic first outing - literally DRAC-u-laaaaa! - and then utilised in every score that he unleashed for the blood-sucker since then, is still at the forefront, totally establishing that this is the Prince Of Darkness, all right. The Count may top and tail the film with the face and voice of John Forbes-Robertson (Christopher Lee had well and truly given up the cape by this stage), and spend all of the interim in the guise of Chan Sen's oriental nut-case, Rah, but Bernard keeps the continuity flowing with this distinctive and bludgeoning statement. And with the old Van Helsing theme reworked and integrated into the score, too, this further cements the fact that this is the same old conflict no matter how odd the setting, the style and the supporting characters. In fact, the point should be made that whilst Cushing and Forbes-Robertson/Shen seem more like supporting characters, themselves, this time out, James Bernard insists on maintaining the old status quo. To this end, he weaves these motifs around one another with growing intensity.
But the crucial aspect of this score is the new theme that he develops for the both the seven brothers (and sister) and the 7 Golden Vampires - this blistering 8-note momentum of almost unstoppable force. Coming to represent both factions simply because it overrides and dominates every action scene in the film, this is a staggeringly aggressive piece. The next two tracks, Temple Of Evil and The Hunt Of Death cover Van Helsing's relating of a folktale that tells of one villager's desperate attempt to revenge himself upon the Vampires for their continued degradations. Seen in flashback in the film, this is a literal tour de force of ghastly imagery and pure dread. Bernard sets in motion a frightening tableau of glimmering xylophone, ocean-deep low brass, scything, seesawing strings and exotic percussion as the lone vigilante treks out of the village gates and makes his way to the Vampires' temple, whereupon he sees his own daughter amongst the victims about to be drained of blood and attempts a doomed rescue. Menacing brass flurries move across a bed of driving 3-note trumpet and xylophone clusters. A vague respite comes in the form of a return of the religious motif, this time accompanying the vision of a Buddhist shrine that the enterprising villager, who has managed to prise off the golden bat emblem from one of the Vampires, leaving a smoking hole in the creature's chest, will use to aid in the fabrication of a trap. Bearing down upon him, to the nightmarish signature of this unholy cadence, comes the army of the undead, called forth by Dracula/Rah from their graves with the banging of a gong. Their slow-motion “hop”, grungy earth-caked makeup and sheer charge, en-masse, is truly bloodcurdling, but Bernard's use of the religious motif becomes a vital stopgap in this musical bombardment. Although surrounded and slaughtered by the Vampires, the heroic villager springs his trap when the bereft Vampire foolishly tries to reclaim his emblem from the holy shrine and ends up a melting mess on the ground. One of Bernard's descending “decomposition” themes heralds his gruesome demise, brass juddering down and down as chimes and triangle shimmer in exultant death-throes.
Another theme is brought in with the resolutely oriental-composed “Introducing Vanessa Buren”. This is a sweet Chinese pastoral for exotic woodwinds and soft percussion. It comes as a complete turnaround from all that we have heard so far, and rather mischievously, James Bernard won't allow us to hear it again after this incredibly lilting and lyrical passage. Heard only in brief snatches in the film (a spot of travelogue here, a campfire lull there) and often accompanying the growing romance between not only the Scandinavian heiress and David Chiang's Hsi-Ching, but also Leyland's blossoming love with blade-mistress Mai Kwei (Shi Szu), this full rendition is positively gorgeous and to Bernard's credit it sounds culturally authentic and not just a clichéd Western interpretation. Such a tranquil and beatific passage is a real tonic in-amidst all this chaos.
But it won't last long, though.
Bernard's next cue is the breathlessly insane Ambush, Track 6. In the film, this cue is heard fairly early on when Leyland and Vanessa are attacked on the streets of Chung King by the thugs and assassins of a local crime lord who feels affronted by the heiress' dismissal of his advances at a formal function. Springing out of the shadows to the rescue, however, come the heroic brothers who make short work of the attackers and whisk the would-be victims off to safety. This is the battle music that will absolutely devour the rest of the score in what amounts to a seamless line-up of bold and strident action. Commencing with some terrific short violin plunges, the incessant banging of a Chinese drum, and then smashing headlong into stabbing brass and rolling timpani, this theme becomes the hefty and extremely exciting pulse of the score at large. A pitched-battle on the plains between the heroes and the mob boss's vengeful army of brigands, montages of the Vampires going about their despicable business, a fight in a cave when these oriental bloodsuckers prove Van Helsing wrong about the undead's ability to transform into animals (they arrive for battle in the form of bats), and the final last stand defence of the village - all these sequences benefit from this utterly ferocious symphonic mugging, the result leaving you pummeled, shaken and somewhat disorientated.
Subtle variations add greater nuance - commencing with a faster tempo, a higher pitch, say, or bringing in the woodwinds and the timpani a little later on, or extending a passage for bowel-rumbling brass - but this is a musical wrecking-crew that just won't give-in or back down. Fluttering reflections of the vampire hunter motif - that combination of Van Helsing's theme coupled with the new oriental “Brothers” theme - and the Dracula motif occur to add colour and texture. The effect, overall, of this wall of sound is amazingly energetic, the musical equivalent of a battering ram. Monotonous, yes, but this is Gothic action-ambience, the orchestral answer to the dense synthetics of Hans Zimmer or John Powell. Track 8, The Battle Rages, moves out of this blitzkrieg for a spell, as the various Brothers fall to the unending hordes of the hopping dead and a couple of last-minute twists take place as unexpected goodies get vampirised. The furious beat is allowed to retreat, or rather to sink beneath to the strings to an almost subliminal level as tragedy and shock eat away at our heroes, each member of the clan forced to undergo his or her own individual skirmish, and various Vampires succumb to the avenging zeal of the Seven (well eleven actually) and are left dissolving to dust and corruption. But Bernard then returns the beat to its former fury as percussion and timpani strike back with renewed rage. The lurching brass momentum gropes out of the air at you, almost physically pushing you back. Knuckles of xylophone punctuate the intimidating stampede and the three-track sequence reaches another dramatic crescendo - the epitome of the Hammer/Bernard ethos.
The score album then delivers us the brief End Credits which, of course, is the Dracula motif of old, pure and simple. Stark, unapologetic and full of grand intimidation. Ironically, this is how they always seem to end - with Dracula's theme and not the heroic one for Van Helsing, or whoever has dispatched him this time. Which, of course, is a musical statement declaring that you can put the Count down, but you can't keep him down.
The score proper then climaxes with two cues that are out of chronological order with the rest of the soundtrack. The Seven Brothers Meet, Track 10, is actually the film's proper climactic set-piece. With Van Helsing and the surviving champions taking the fight to the Vampires' temple - Mei Kwei has now been abducted - the final showdown takes place. Rah, the high priest is revealed to be Dracula and, of course, Bernard heaves that famous motif at us once more as he and Van Helsing do battle. Naturally, the duel between these two genre heavyweights is a rather lacklustre affair after all the combat that we have enjoyed until this moment (but Peter Cushing, despite his advancing years, still moves with surprising alacrity), and the film ends rather too brusquely - although this was always the Hammer way with their horror finales. Crashing cymbals and shivering high strings celebrate another Dracula dissolution and, despite every other attempt at vanquishing him being reversed come the start of yet another movie, 7 Golden Vampires has, to this date, been the last time that he has risen from the grave.
The second out-of-synch track is The Call Of The Undead, an extended and isolated cue for Dracula's gong-bashing rallying-cry to raise his zombie army from their tombs. In the film, this is actually different again, as it features the full bone-rattling cacophony of percussion, brass and sadistic strings that we have heard in full effect elsewhere on the album. Here, we just have the chilling beat of a solo gong that gradually builds in intensity until the end of the track. This cue then rounds out James Bernard's full score for the film.
But this is not the end of the presentation.
In a great move, BSX augment what is, in fact, quite a small score - lasting only about thirty-five minutes - with the film's story narrated by none other than Peter Cushing, himself, with the accompaniment of Bernard's music and a few assorted sound effects. This was part of the initial soundtrack album, so it is nothing that hasn't been heard before, but it is a splendid way to appreciate the atmosphere in a more cosy, fireside spook-tale arrangement. The opening and closing chapters, confusingly, are actually narrated by somebody else - the same bloke, presumably, who lures us into several Hammer other films and trailers, I think, with similarly uncredited voice-overs. Now, although in the 6-page fold-out booklet of liner-notes Randall Larson states that there is no extra music in this story album composed by James Bernard, there does sound like a few new cues and elements that I don't believe are purely down to the new arrangements of the original score from Philip Martell who, incidentally, arranged and conducted the main album recording, as well. Nothing special, I should add, merely a little more ethnic flavouring and atmospherics here and there. Track 12, the first cue on the story album, entitled Legend Of Ancient China, is a marvellous regal treatment of the oriental theme that Bernard wrote that actually sounds very, very similar to the type of library music that the Shaw Brothers would use in their own films. This is a great inclusion for this release, culled from the original soundtrack record that was released in 1974, with highlights from Bernard's score on Side A and the story on Side B, copying the style of a release of Dracula, with Christopher Lee narrating the tale.
Hammer scores aren't all that well represented on disc, unfortunately. But you can get your hands on Benjamin Frankel's wonderful music for The Curse Of The Werewolf, Franz Reizenstein's for The Mummy, Bernard's for Taste The Blood Of Dracula, Mike Vicker's for Dracula AD. 1972, the aforementioned Captain Kronos from Laurie Johnson and several compilation albums. And alongside those notable orchestral barrages, this is wonderful stuff. Granted, it may not be all that diverse and the battle music is insanely repetitive, but there is much vigour and dark energy to compensate. The score starts in overdrive and just gains momentum from then on in. But we've also got that beautiful oriental pastoral that does its best to break up the raucous and bloodthirsty discord.
An excellent disc that Hammer fans should not pass up, especially as it gives us the opportunity to listen to the great Peter Cushing narrate the story, as well. This release is limited to only 1000 copies worldwide.
Full Track Listing
1. Who Dares To Disturb (3:20)
2. Dracula's Metamorphosis (3:09)
3. Temple Of Evil (5:28)
4. The Hunt Of Death (2:37)
5. Introducing Vanessa Buren (3:14)
6. Ambush (4:01)
7. The Siege Begins (4:59)
8. The Battle Rages (3:27)
9. End Credits (0:50)
10. The Seven Brothers Meet (3:04)
11. The Call Of The Undead (0:55)
THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES - Story Album (Narrated by Peter Cushing)
12. Legend Of Ancient China (1:09)
13. Prologue (8:37)
14. The 7 Golden Vampires (3:28)
15. The Chinese Embassy Party (1:48)
16. Street Fight / Martial Arts (4:21)
17. Legend Of Ancient China (1:04)
18. Preparation For The Trek (3:53)
19. The Lovers (2:42)
20. The Vampires Attack (4:06)
21. Romance Blossoms (1:10)
22. Destruction Of The Vampires (3:33)
23. The Lovers' Death (0:24)
24. Dracula's Disintegration (6:09)
25. Epilogue (0:51)
26. Legend Of Ancient China (1:11)
Keep Hammer alive with this remorseless, take-no-prisoners score from James Bernard. He may seem to get stuck in a loop with Dracula's diabolical motif and his endless battle music, but this is wildly bravura stuff even coming from a composer who specialised in such material. Bernard's style works in the same way as so many monotonous ambient scores we get these days, by becoming deliberately hypnotic, almost a mood piece - if that mood was a remorseless orchestral tempest, of course. BSX produce a quality sounding album that gathers up one of the most potent and pulsating scores that the composer delivered for the studio that dripped blood and package it with the original storyteller album narrated by Peter Cushing - quite simply, this is something that Hammer-fans can not afford to pass up.
That immediately recognisable DRAC-u-laaaa! motif, a splendid oriental pastoral and some of the most nerve-shredding action cues from the period make for a thunderous listening experience. Lock the doors, batten-down the hatches and grab your crucifix ... but you'd best brush up on some martial arts real quick if you want to take on The Legend Of The 7 Golden Vampires!
A terrific release that is available from the usual online speciality suppliers - Intrada, FSM (SAE) and even Amazon. Kick ass with James Bernard and Peter Cushing!
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