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Dr Blood’s Rising Golden Vampires


I recently watched three old genre movies. Which shouldn’t be a surprise, given what I do and all, but actually is quite a rare event for me. One of the downsides of concentrating on new horror films is that I have very little time to watch old ones. The few 90-minute gaps I get inbetween my day job at Leicester University, the demands of my family and writing this nonsense once a month are generally just enough to catch up with the latest UK horror indie or something from my it-never-gets-any-smaller TBW pile. Only very rarely do I get the chance to sit down and enjoy an old movie nowadays.

      Thank goodness then for the Festival of Fantastic Films (see blogs passim). Whereas most film festivals are primarily devoted to brand new movies, sometimes with a retrospective strand on the side, the FFF – celebrating its 25th year – has always been a retrospective event with a few new titles to vary the mood a wee bit. This year saw the world premiere of Georg E Lewis’ sexy poltergeist cheapie Nocturnal Activity (probably the first British horror feature shot entirely in Loughborough) and also the first UK screening of The Zombie King, an unfortunately misjudged British picture with token Yank name value in Edward Furlong and Corey Feldman which has to date only been released in Germany. And sadly, I could see why.

      Among the oldies, competing for programme time with an impressive selection of guests, I managed to catch three features, one each from three separate decades. So I thought I would cast my critical, retrospective eye over them for you here. The oldest, and easily the worst, was the 1960 film Dr Blood’s Coffin. I recall seeing this many years ago, probably on TV, and I also recall it being not very good. Which it isn’t.

      In his indispensable survey of British indie horrors X-Cert (published by this 'ere very boutique), John Hamilton says of Dr Blood’s Coffin: '[The director] seems content to allow the visuals to unfold onscreen without the need to build tension and, like the victims, the film struggles to overcome an inherent lethargy.' While Jonathan Rigby in English Gothic called it 'sub-Frankenstein shenanigans [which] are clearly modelled on Hammer’s success in this area, but carry none of the Baroque flamboyance of Hammer’s approach.' Both are being overly kind. Dr Blood’s Coffin is rubbish. And what is worse, it’s as boring as sod.

      You’ve probably seen the iconic image of a rotting-faced cadaver, as used on the poster and featured in plenty of stills. But this, the closest thing the film has to a ‘monster’ (sometimes used to justify shoehorning the film into a list of zombie pictures), is only in the last five minutes of the movie. Most of the film is simply people standing around in Cornwall talking.

      People have been disappearing from a little Cornish village and the local bobby is puzzled. The local GP’s son, who is also a doctor, comes back from studying at university and falls for the young widowed nurse who works for his dad. The younger Dr Blood (there’s nominative determinism for you!) has got this idea that he can bring the dead back to life by transplanting hearts from living patients. And since they won’t let him do this in Vienna (as depicted in a prologue) he chooses the next best option, which is an abandoned tin mine near his dad’s surgery

      The subject is never addressed, but tin mines not being the best lit of places, presumably he has lugged in there a generator and a supply of petrol, only it’s one of those magical generators which produces neither noise nor fumes. Very big in the early 1960s they were, until they were all bought up by the same shady cartel that held back the electric car. Probably.

      The only glimmers of interest in Dr Blood’s Coffin come from some nice photography of the Cornish coastline (courtesy of camera operator Nicholas Roeg!) and a few surprisingly nasty surgical scenes. The world’s least interesting mad doctor uses curare to induce paralysis in his unwilling patients, whom he selects because they’re ghastly working class folk who make no contribution to society, a socio-political theme which goes entirely unexplored. The whole thing is just tedious, the sort of rubbish that would interest people if it was made by Hammer but without that hook is relegated to reference books and late night screenings.

      Not that it would have been any better if made by Hammer, it would just be written about and discussed to a greater extent. Even the most obsessive Hammer fanboy has to admit that the company was capable of turning out some crap amid the gems, as evidence for which I offer my second film of the weekend: The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires.

      Listen, I love a good Hammer horror as much as the next man. Furthermore, I’m an absolute sucker for 1970s Shaw Brothers chop socky flicks, and not in an ironic way either. Badly-dubbed Chinese guys kicking each other to a funky sub-porno guitar riff is my idea of cinematic excellence. So, on paper, this 1974 Hammer-Shaw co-production should have been the best film ever made. But it ain’t.

      Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires reminds me very much of a track called ‘Love Song’ by Madonna. Are you not familiar with that particular Madge ditty? It’s a track on Like a Prayer, one of the best-selling albums of the 1980s, and it’s a duet between Madonna and the similarly uni-monickered Prince, two of the biggest, most successful, most iconic artists of that decade. Whether or not you’re a fan of Ms Ciccone and/or Mr Nelson, you would expect a song which they wrote together, performed together and produced together to be something special. And it’s not. It’s an utter failure which is way, way less than the sum of its parts. Elton John and Kiki Dee? Stone cold classic. Madonna and Prince? Embarrassing clunker which is probably only on the album for contractual reasons.

      And that’s The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, that is. As a Hammer film it’s rubbish, not least because of all the unwanted kung fu stuff. As a Shaw Brothers film, it’s also pretty bad, mainly because of all the bollocks about Dracula. It’s slightly better, or at least less bad, in terms of martial arts because at least the fight scenes are quite good. But attempting to combine two popular things has resulted in something that neither Hammer fans nor Shaw Brothers fans will enjoy, a cinematic album track that’s just there to fill a gap.

      Peter Cushing, three years before he put on his Grand Moff Tarkin carpet slippers, goes through the motions as Van Helsing one last time and it’s a testament to the man’s acting ability that there is no sign of the embarrassment he must have felt. John Forbes-Robertson established his legacy as a horror film trivia question by playing Dracula, albeit only at the start. He transfers his soul into a Chinese acolyte who has somehow managed to travel all the way to 19th century Transylvania, after which the Chinese actor speaks with Forbes-Robertson’s voice. Except apparently Forbes-Robertson’s lines were dubbed by another actor, so in a film where he ‘plays’ Dracula we’re neither watching his body nor hearing his voice. It’s Britt Ekland in The Wicker Man all over again. Without the nudity, thank God. Still, imagine that. A 1970s Hammer Dracula film so bad that even Christopher Lee couldn’t be persuaded to appear in it…

      Rubbish though it undoubtedly is, The Legendary Sven’s Golfing Umpires does at least provide some entertainment value. It’s such an obviously terrible idea, and fails to work in so many ways, that it actually becomes watchable in parts and occasionally teeters on the edge of fun. Which is considerably more than can be said for The Doctor’s Coughing Up Blood. When the various Chinese actors aren’t kicking, punching or stabbing each other in athletic fashion, and when attempts to spot some sliver of regret behind Cushing’s soul-less going-through-the-motions come to naught, there is always the opportunity to drift into a reverie about Julie Ege. Specifically, one can have fun imagining what she must have done to persuade somebody somewhere that she had any acting ability at all. Still, at least this wasn’t her worst Hammer film. Once you’ve grunted your way through Creatures the World Forgot (to Include in the Movie), the only way is up.

      You see, this is why I like watching these things at the Festival of Fantastic Films. You don’t have to agonise over which DVD to pick, but you also don’t get to switch something off halfway through if it’s rubbish. Okay, you could walk out and go to the bar, but that’s defeatist talk. We’re British and we see things through to the end, even if they do star Julie Ege.

      We’ll skip over the 1980s, a decade when there were absolutely no films made in Britain or America (it’s true: that’s why most film reference books have all those blank pages, and explains all those dead links on the IMDb – nah, I’m just messing with you). Nevertheless, the third archive title I watched was more recent: the 1998 feature Deep Rising. And you know what? It was great!

      Ah, the second half of the 1990s. I’ll not deny there’s a certain personal nostalgia there because that’s when I was working on SFX magazine. But there was also a real sense of fun. Deep Rising is one of those films made after Hollywood realised that they could create entire things in CGI and matte them into their film, but before they just said sod it, let’s have basically everything except the actors and a few interior sets as CGI because people want to see two hours of explosions and giant robots. This was when computer effects were a tool, rather than used by tools.

      Deep Rising is set aboard the biggest, most luxuriant liner ever made, which a bunch of criminals plan to target, assisted by some unwitting schmucks whose fast boat they have hired. But when they board the liner, everybody is dead, apart from the Captain, the owner and glamorous pickpocket Famke Janssen. For some reason that’s never explained, a giant tentacled beast has taken over the ship (along with lots of smaller tentacled beasts which may or may not be part of the larger one). Our gang must work together to get away, leading to lots of chases down corridors: on foot, swimming underwater and, in the memorable final sequence, on a jet-ski.

      Sympathetic, interesting, believable characters; some fun dialogue; a great monster; and adroit, restrained use of what was then state-of-the-art in CG effects combine to make this an absolutely top-notch monster-action flick which I could quite happily watch again right now. I don’t know how well folk remember this film: it never spawned any sequels or remakes and has been rather swallowed up by history, but it’s very much worth rediscovering.

      It was directed by Stephen Sommers who was something of a Hollywood golden boy for a while. The success of Deep Rising led to him getting gigs on The Mummy and its sequel and then Van Helsing (which had the working title All the Other Universal Monsters Except the Mummy – seriously, that is totally true). Wondering what he has done recently, a quick trip to Wikipedia shows he made the first GI Joe movie (no wonder I didn’t notice) and an adaptation of Dean R Koontz’s book Odd Thomas which apparently hit legal problems in the States but came out over here on DVD. Which is a shame because his movies were always at least good fun.

      What have I learned from my weekend of nostalgia? Some things are better than I remember, some things are worse than I remember – and some things are really not worth remembering at all. Next month: back to films made last week for 50 quid that you’ve never heard of.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MJ Simpson has been writing since he found out which end of a pencil makes a mark. After editing sci-fan club mags he spent three years on the staff of SFX and helped to launch Total Film before switching to freelance work for Fangoria, Shivers, Video Watchdog, DeathRay and other cult movie magazines. He has a number of scripts in development and has been working on his third book, a biography of 'Bride of Frankenstein' Elsa Lanchester, for a very long time, but he promises to have it finished soon (-ish). Mike lives in Leicester with his wife, Mrs S, and his young son, TF Simpson. By day he edits the university's website and in the evenings he edits MJSimpson.co.uk. He should probably get out more.