Here’s a movie premise for you: Chinese kung fu vampires. Chew on that for a minute.
Sold yet? I certainly was when I unearthed 1974’s The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. I first heard of it while digging deeper into British film studio Hammer’s classic Dracula and Frankenstein cycles of the 1950s-1970s. But unlike the indisputable early classics of Hammer’s Dracula series, which starred Christopher Lee as the vampire and began with 1958’s Horror of Dracula, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires is largely forgotten. It was the last Dracula film that Hammer would ever make, a tangled mish-mash of British thespians and the flying fists of withered, mummified vampires.
This being a film that takes two unlikely genres and mashes them together, I thought I would search for a craft beer with a similar philosophy. What I found was Crown Valley Brewing’s Barrel Aged Big Bison, a Belgian-style dubbel aged in whiskey barrels. This certainly isn’t a common pairing—in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever had any dubbel that received the whiskey barrel treatment. I suspect this is due to the delicate yeast and ester profiles of most Belgian ales—throwing them against the huge booze/wood flavors of a whiskey barrel seems like it could easily be overkill.
Still, I had reasons to be optimistic about both film and brew. For the movie, chief among them is the reassuring presence of Peter Cushing in the film, returning as vampire hunter Van Helsing for the fifth and final time. He brings his typically serious performance to a film that was leagues beneath his acting ability, and looks a little confused as to why he’s still making these films. Van Helsing is here introduced giving a lecture (Vampires 101?) in what appears to be a Chungking learning annex for adult paranormal education. Even so, his audience derides him and walks out, leaving poor Peter (who has personally defeated Dracula four times to date) looking uncomfortably like a doddering vagrant who just wandered in off the street and began teaching classes on the undead without anyone noticing.
This bizarre contrast between the prim and proper Cushing, with his vest, cravat and tan pith helmet (seriously), and the manic energy of the film’s kung fu elements is often hilarious. He soon meets up with a band of seven kung fu brothers, and the film finally starts looking like the classic 1970s Shaw Brothers production it truly is. They’re introduced in a street fight wielding comically huge silver axes that look like they’re made of tin foil and weigh a couple of ounces each.
Dracula, meanwhile, has been resurrected by an evil Taoist monk, whose body he conveniently inhabits, presumably because the white actor they found to replace Christopher Lee looks like a sad clown in pancake makeup. He returns to China and sets up shop ruling over a band of “seven golden vampires,” bizarre creatures with beef jerky faces, fright wigs and huge golden necklaces that Flavor Flav would find ostentatious. There they conduct a reign of terror, which largely consists of ripping the shirts off large-breasted Chinese women, in true vampiric fashion.
Thankfully, a 22 oz bottle of Barrel Aged Big Bison makes this whole experience infinitely more palatable. Rather than displaying the huge whiskey flavors I was expecting, it’s surprisingly well-balanced and thoughtful. The flavor brings together dark and dried fruits such as raisins, dates and black cherry, melding them with moderate sourness and an oak-forward finish. That oak characteristic is particularly interesting, not particularly reminiscent of a good dram of bourbon but instead providing a tartness that works in great conjunction with the Belgian dubbel’s natural fruitiness. It’s an inspired combination that, unlike this film, displays quite a bit of class.
The horror/kung fu fusion, on the other hand, is a lot more awkward. As the action unfolds, it becomes apparent that Cushing seems to be in an entirely different film from his compatriots. During each fight sequence you can see him mostly standing in the background, looking concerned or waving a torch. His net contribution to the first vampire skirmish is at one point yelling “STRIKE AT THEIR HEARTS!” over the din of the melee. It’s clear the kung fu fighters are glad they brought an arthritic 61-year-old along for the ride.
It all culminates in Cushing’s crowning moment of embarrassment, when he trips and falls sideways during a fight sequence, rolling directly through a campfire. The whole sequence is painfully awkward to watch and looks like an outtake through and through, but when you get a free stunt out of your thespian, you keep it in the picture, right?
In a competition to determine whether the film or beer is ultimately a more successful combination of two unlikely bedfellows, the Barrel Aged Big Bison wins this one hands down. It’s a surprisingly sophisticated take on a difficult pairing that simply works. The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, on the other hand, is a film caught between eras, with Hammer’s best days far behind and Shaw Brothers’ still to come. It’s appreciably goofy B-movie entertainment and far more competent than many of the films that will undoubtedly follow in this series, but one can’t help but think there were missed opportunities.
Perhaps what the world needs is a modern entry into the Chinese kung fu vampire subgenre.
Or instead of vampires, you could pursue the Crown Valley Barrel Aged Big Bison. You may get more of a kick out of it.