Imagine my delight when I stumbled upon the Peter Cushing Centennial Blogathon and realized it tied directly to Asian folklore and therefore I could totally justify a blog post.
Cushing had a long and varied career, playing everyone from Sherlock Holmes to the Sheriff of Nottingham, but even those who aren’t film buffs will remember him as Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars (as pictured here), one of the few who could successfully tell Darth Vader when to step off.
But Cushing had a particular niche in horror films, and that’s what we’re going to talk about today — specifically, his role as Van Helsing in a kung fu zombie vampire movie.
You read that right.
The film was released under several titles — possibly as some form of cinematic witness protection program, I suppose — but we’ll use The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires. I encountered it at a B-movie festival (at the Historic Artcraft Theatre I often mention).
You see, I love cheesy old horror films. I also love good old horror films, and the two don’t have to compete. I’m even sponsoring the Universal Monster Fest at the Artcraft this October, a marathon of all the Universal classics with Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, the Mummy, and more. But there’s a special place in my masochistic heart for films like The Wasp Woman and Billy the Kid Meets Dracula.
Even so, I goggled at The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires. And I suspect I came better prepared than most of the audience, as I had an existing framework of Asian folklore.
In a nutshell, Dracula is recruited to strengthen a sort of evil cult of girl-kidnapping, blood-drinking eastern vampires. So they do a lot of kidnapping and drinking until one family of kung fu artists gets fed up and recruits Van Helsing to come out and help them kick butt. And — oh, just watch the trailer.
SPOILER: They kill Dracula at the end. I guess even the trailer editors know you’re not watching this for the plot.
To be perfectly fair, Hammer re-cut this film for American release, which explains some of its wackiness, but God only knows why they made the artistic decisions they did. You see that footage in the trailer of zombie-like things busting out of the dirt? Get used to it; the attack montage is used repeatedly in the film. Like, five times. And not just a quick clip, but several minutes of montage. Repeated. And again. Really, just go refill your popcorn, I swear you’re not missing anything.
And yet — and yet it has a hypnotic sort of quality, in which that gong is banging and the zombies are rising and the naked girls are screaming, and you just can’t quit because Van Helsing is going to do something about it and the seven brothers (and their one sister!) are going to fight supernatural evil with kung fu.
This is a Chinese film, not Japanese, so the featured creatures are a bit different than I usually talk about here. Most traditional eastern vampires feed on life force, not blood, though that line has been blurred in recent decades with the blending of cultures. A jiangshi is a reanimated corpse which feeds on xi, or life energy, so they’re similar to both zombie and vampire western myths, and traditionally they move by hopping. Which sounds more funny than menacing, until they eat you.
That’s the thing about traditional folklore; no matter how weird or silly something might sound, it still may be very dangerous and must be taken seriously.
By bringing Van Helsing and his grudge match with Dracula into a Chinese setting with jiangshi, this film presents a great mashup of cultures, traditions, and creatures, with one Peter Cushing to rule them all.
If you know Cushing only as Grand Moff Tarkin, consider looking up some of his work — even if you’re not a fan of horror films (of any quality). After all, he also played with Laurence Oliver’s Hamlet, and anyway, those cheekbones were born to be on camera. Try browsing the Peter Cushing Centennial Blogathon for ideas.
Happy Birthday, Mr. Cushing, and thank you for so many films!
Side note: speaking of Star Wars, the Indiana State Museum just opened its new Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination exhibit, and it’s pretty darned cool. And I don’t say that just because my Mara Jade won the costume contest at the midnight grand opening — it’s a fun conglomeration of fantasy tech and real life equivalents or developing technology. I saw some things I already knew (bionic limbs responding to nerve impulses), learned new things (like ideas for ramjet rockets and 700-mile-long antimatter rockets), and got to drive a hovercraft. There will be lots of associated events, too.