The three Don Houghton Draculas are a delightful surprise. I'd heard that they're completely out to lunch and there's a little truth in that, but more importantly they're an interesting and diverse collection that I'm delighted to have seen. What's more, the standard hasn't slipped. They're as enjoyable as the classic Hammer horrors, as opposed to the mercy killing that is the end of the Carry Ons.
They're different of course, but different is good. This one's a Hong Kong martial arts co-production with the Shaw Brothers, in which Van Helsing's chasing vampires all the way to China. This was a pleasant surprise in two completely different ways. I should admit that I'm not familiar with Hong Kong martial arts films, but I was impressed by what I saw here. The action is fun, dynamic and cleanly staged. It's also done on a much bigger scale than I'd expected, with battles rather than duels and lots of different kinds of weapons. Our hero kung fu fighter even goes up bare-handed against sword-wielding antagonists. Wow. I wouldn't want to watch a whole series of films like this, but I'm delighted to be able to watch one of them.
The other remarkable thing about this film is its respect for Chinese culture. This is 1974, don't forget. Open racism was normal on television, while black-face make-up was common to let Caucasian actors play ethnic roles. In that year there were riots in Boston about school desegregation. However writer-producer Don Houghton had a Chinese wife and so blithely inserts two inter-racial romances. Not one, but two! Furthermore this film paints a far more convincing portrait of China than you'll get in, say, a Christopher Lee Fu Manchu movie. Peter Cushing plays a crucial role in this, by the way. He's as beautifully polite and respectful as ever, making him the perfect go-between for East and West. You'll wish the British government had employed him as our official ambassador. No one could be more convincing as an elderly academic in the universities of a foreign culture that he respects and has even come to understand a little.
The Eastern vampire lore here is much stranger and more colourful than usual, which really lifts the film. These are some crazy messed-up vampires, not to mention their army of skipping, jiggling skeletons. This is a Hammer film and so they feed exclusively on pretty girls, whom they like topless. You won't see me complaining. This is an awesome-looking film, with kung fu action, insanely exotic undead and some nifty special effects. I liked the vampires crumbling to death, although not as much as I liked that shot of a cook cutting off a frog's head.
All this is impressive. I'd even go so far as to call this an important movie in its cross-pollination of two cinematic traditions. However the film also has actors, whom I'm afraid I'm going to have to talk about.
Peter Cushing is wonderful, of course. Christopher Lee would have been good if he'd agreed to take part, but unfortunately they let him read the script. Dracula appears only in a couple of bookend scenes, for the most part appearing in the bodysnatched form of an old Chinese priest, so it's possible that it would have been actually annoying to cast Lee in the film and then so completely sideline him. His replacement is the inappropriately named John Forbes-Robertson, who'd also played the Man in Black in Hammer's The Vampire Lovers (1970), so you can pretend that's a Dracula film too if you want. He's actually really good. Screen vampires tend to be either wonderful or "claw your eyes out" appalling, with little in between. Forbes-Robertson looks good and has a great voice , but unfortunately in his first scene gets a bone-white face and lipstick. This renders him very, very funny.
 - except that actually he doesn't. He's being dubbed by an uncredited David de Keyser.
That's it for the good. The Chinese performers are fairly dire, but one has to make allowances for their language proficiency. Just as Chinese tones are famously difficult for an English speaker, so are English speech rhythms a nightmare for the Chinese. You'll get used to it. They're good at fighting, anyway. It's also strangely wonderful to see an Asian Dracula who's also a taoist monk with a beard that could tether goats.
However no such excuses can be made for Julie Ege and Robin Stewart as Vanessa Buren and Leyland Van Helsing respectively. Julia Ege is a pair of breasts and absolutely nothing else, while Robin Stewart's character drove me up the wall. He's playing Cushing's son. You can see why. This is an action film, so they wanted a young Caucasian for the fight scenes. In other words, he's a complete waste of space. He antagonises local crime lords and then makes himself look like an even bigger tit by acting superior about it, like Cushing's Frankenstein. However hilariously he's not even as good at the fight scenes as Cushing himself (born 1913). Stewart merely rolls around in the dirt and somehow manages to keep not getting killed. Cushing would of course have snapped in half had any of these characters so much as sneezed on him, but boy is he badass with spear and blazing torch.
The only thing these characters add to the film is to be part of those aforementioned inter-racial romances, which as I've said I liked.
There's some bizarre continuity, which wouldn't be so unusual for Hammer's Dracula films if the film were even consistent with itself. Dracula goes to China in 1804 and gets killed there in 1904, despite the fact that Cushing's Van Helsing claims to have fought him in Transylvania. Maybe that makes Forbes-Robertson an imposter who'll be in trouble when Christopher Lee catches up with him, or perhaps he's a younger brother or something. Well, it worked for Universal. Oh, and why do the bats squawk like birds? Bats don't do that. Well, maybe they do when they're vampires.
This is a terrific little film, even if it's also a simplistic one. Its plot is built around its battle scenes, which is the kind of thing that only works because it's such a complete change from anything that came before it. It's also not afraid to kill its heroes. The film's shot all on location in Hong Kong, so it looks terrific and it's even culturally sensitive. Pretty good for a film about kung fu fighting Chinese vampires who like eating topless women! The acting was a huge problem for me on first viewing, but second time I was prepared and could comfort myself with Cushing. I think it's rather special, actually.