by Paul Batters
“There are as many species of vampire as there are beasts of prey” – Grost ( John Cater) Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter
Of all the horror films produced by Hammer in the 1970s, Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter perhaps had the greatest potential. Touted to become a new franchise, the studio was in such dire financial straits that no incantations or tana leaves could have revived its’ dying body. And so, any possible future for a series of Kronos fighting all manner of monsters was sadly ended. As a result, there’s only one film as testimony to what Hammer was planning. Yet even as a stand-alone film, Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter, offers a different and fascinating take on the legend of the vampire with an intriguing story.
Directed by Brian Clemens (famed scriptwriter of numerous British TV shows such as The Persuaders, The Avengers and The Professionals), Captain Kronos would introduce a seemingly new yet actually ancient concept of the vampire. This concept also went to the metaphysical depths of vampiric legend that the source of survival was not blood but life itself. The vampire in Captain Kronos feeds on the life essence and the opening scene of the film, gives us the backdrop to the story in a vivid and terrifying way. Again, there is an evocation of Stoker and vampire folklore as the vibrant youth and beauty of the victims is countered with the decrepit corruption of the monster.
As a counter to the usual narrative, it is day when the first attack happens, whilst two girls who are together in the woods. As one girl runs off to pick flowers, the other sits under a tree and brushes her hair whilst looking into a mirror. The camera acts as the menace, approaching the girl, who discovers the strange figure via its’ reflection in her mirror (going against traditional vampire lore). Initially startled and frightened, she quickly falls under the hypnotic spell of the hooded figure and is drawn into the figure’s embrace, again shown in the reflection of the mirror, after which a few drops of blood fall onto the glass.
Perchance, Dr. Marcus is out riding and notices the second girl looking in in stunned horror. Again, the moment is highly effective in the suggestive gaze of the camera, particularly when Dr. Marcus discovers the victim, who turns to face the camera, horribly aged with blood dripping from her lips. The horror on Dr. Marcus’ face matches that of the audience and the story is set.
The titles launch, backed by the superb soundtrack of blasting horns and strings of a battle song, with the dashing Captain Kronos (Horst Janson) riding his horse across the green, with his faithful companion Professor Hieronymus Grost (John Cater) following behind. It’s an inspiring moment and the tone of a great hero who is more than a match for any monster is well established.
Of course, our hero is on his way to the village of Durward, after being called there by his old friend, Dr. Marcus. Kronos’ expertise in fighting and destroying the undead has brought him there. The context of the story is well-established, not only temporally through costume and language but more importantly through the belief system in place. In an age where the power of the Church was unchallenged, the law punishes those who go against Church teachings and dogma. On his way to the village, Kronos discovers a beautiful girl in the stocks, punished for dancing on the Sabbath. The girl, Carla (Caroline Munro) is a gypsy who will stay with Kronos and not only will she become his lover, but Carla will also assist in his search for the vampires.
What will follow makes for an intriguing storyline, with Kronos and his two companions using their knowledge and wisdom to discover the vampires. The methods used are fascinating and well-weaved into the story, with Professor Grost, acting as the classic horror character of the wise and educated elder who educates and familiarises us with vampire lore. Grost’s explanations are fascinating and his methods of discovering vampires, such as placing dead toads in buried boxes, also intriguing.
The scenes of the mysterious vampire taking down its’ victims are atmospheric and exceptionally done. Again, the flower of youth is accentuated via young, beautiful women with their whole lives in front of them, only to be left as drained husks before dying. Of course, it drives the story forward and the desperate necessity to rid the community of this horrific monster. But there are other horrific ways in which young girls are attacked, evoking classical interpretations of the vampire story.
Kronos is a fearless hunter of monsters and he also has a powerful intuition and knowledge borne of experience, which will lead him to discover who the vampire is. The hints are already there, after Dr. Marcus has made an earlier visit and of course the usual trope of ‘the noble vampire’ is again employed here. The Durward matriarch seems old and decrepit beyond her years; a result of ‘grief’ from the death of her husband, seven years earlier. Her son Paul (Shane Briant) plays protector to his mother and his beautiful sister Sara (Lois Daine) become suspects to the audience.
But unlike previous incarnations, there is quite the twist and it takes Kronos’ intuition, mystical powers and vampire knowledge to make the discovery. To draw the vampires out once and for all, he will use Carla as bait, which is beautifully shot and directed. Director Brian Clemens will lead us down the garden path and his screenwriter’s sense of story development makes the final twist all the more exciting.
The final confrontation makes for an exciting finish to the story. Again, Kronos’ brilliance sees him take on the Durward vampires with a mystical sword fashioned from a large crucifix. Its mirrored blade becomes a crucial weapon against Lady Durward (Wanda Ventham), the vampire matriarch.
What works in Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter is also what lets it down a little. There is plenty of fantastic back-story and plot development that is not exploited enough or rather not enough, to keep us dangling. One wonders if more would have been revealed in future films in the series. Certainly, Captain Kronos himself is a figure with a veiled past, that makes him far more intriguing and fascinating. A veteran of numerous wars (and apparently had served alongside Dr. Marcus in the past), he dismisses questions about his military career, illuminating a cavalier approach that is in keeping with a man with a past who would rather forget it but cannot:
Kerro: Tell me, did you win your battles or lose them?
Kronos: A little of both… and not enough of either.
Obviously, Kronos is a man with incredible abilities, particularly as a swordsman, which has allowed him to survive countless encounters – not only on the battlefield. There is also the suggestion that he is travelled far beyond where most have been and it’s quite interesting that other than the traditional rapier, Kronos also wields a katana. To be in the possession of such a weapon opens up a host of questions – obviously, how did he get it but more to the point, how did he learn to use it? The incorporation of Japanese swordplay also raises another question; where Hammer trying to tap into the explosion of popularity in martial arts movies (This had been attempted, of course, with Legend Of The Seven Golden Vampires).
The scene where Kronos uses the katana is pure gold and evokes countless Westerns, where the underestimated stranger/gunslinger deals with local tough guys or trouble-makers. In the case of Kronos, three men led by Kerro ( a very underused Ian Hendry) are sent to dispatch with the hero, who does the dispatching himself of the three with one super-human stroke of his sword. Impressive? Absolutely and one of the highlights of the film.
What also makes the swordplay work is the quality of the duels, with greater realism in the use of weapons. As already mentioned, the final duel is gruelling and exciting as the two opponents seek to destroy each other through attrition rather than intricate swordplay. Kronos, after all, is a master of war and fighting, not there for the entertainment of others.
There are far more questions than answers, and a number of vague clues leave the audience with even more. At one point, after making love to Carla, Kronos reveals that he lost his family to a vampire, leaving him devastated and empty. He shows Carla two bite mark scars on his neck (given by his vampirised sister). Not having been vampirised himself, does this mean that his ‘near-miss’ has given him wisdom beyond that of mere mortals? Or the mystical and incredible powers that he possesses? What is left, is a man driven to destroy that which destroyed his family and nearly destroyed him. It’s a compelling and fascinating back-story to the character of Captain Kronos that is not developed enough, and this is a certain flaw in the film.
The film certainly needs to be better paced and whilst the slow burn works well in developing a tale, it begs for well-placed flare-ups from time to time to keep the fire going and further drive the story.
Horst Janson has enough charisma and mystery to make for a dashing hero. Whether he could have carried a franchise is impossible to know but this reviewer gets the feeling that he had the goods. Caroline Munro is as stunning and gorgeous as ever, and at least becomes part of the team hunting for vampires, instead of the usual eye candy.
As a huge fan of Brian Clemens for his work across a number of TV shows, he’s a far better script-writer than director and perhaps a more seasoned director could have been utilised to launch a franchise. After all, this was a last roll of the dice for Hammer. But there are some beautiful touches that Clemens employs; the opening scene is particularly effective, as are the opening titles and overall the film is beautifully shot. Other effective moments are the flowers left blackened after the vampire passes over them. Budget wise, Clemens did not have huge amounts of money to play with, yet he does well with the monetary limitations.
Clemens is on record believing Captain Kronos would have been a perfect franchise, fighting all manner of monster, across all manner of time period (hence the name ‘Kronos’ – Greek for ‘time’). There’s no doubt that there is huge potential for a series. (Perhaps television was an option?)
In fairness, Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter is a good film made at the wrong time. The audience demand for Hammer-type films was dying off by the mid 1970s, as a whole new approach to horror had emerged, particularly thanks to Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The horrors of Satan and demonic possession far outweighed Gothic horror tales and brought a deeper, more frightening fear out of the depths of an audiences’ psyche. Additionally, the terrifying reality and real fear of serial killers had emerged in the post-war era and the slasher film, with the almost-supernatural relentless killer a la Halloween, would frighten audiences far more than a frilly-shirted vampire from literature. Such horrors were turning up in newspaper headlines and the 6 o’clock news, rather than Gothic literature.
Hammer had gambled on combining genres which were out of fashion; the horror film and the swashbuckling hero. A great idea that did not fit the era and even if a franchise had taken off, it’s a safe bet that it would not have survived to see a third film, given the nature of what audiences wanted.
But there are other factors to consider. The film was made in 1972 but struggled with finding release by 1974, when as already discussed, new forms of the horror film had emerged. Caroline Munro has stated that it barely got released in Britain and she wasn’t even made aware it was being shown. For a Hammer Film, minimal publicity and struggles with getting wide distribution, was an anathema and simply unheard of. But the budget wasn’t there.
Nevertheless, Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter is lots of fun and perhaps one of the better Hammer films of the 1970s. It’s a last great hurrah for the studio which transformed the horror film from the days of silvers and sepia (for better or for worse), into a world of colour, sex and excitement. Captain Kronos won’t disappoint, and the hallmarks of Hammer are all over its production. It deserves to be honoured as a cult classic.
(Note: The film in full is available via Hammer’s You Tube Channel. You can view it via the link below)
This article is an entry into the Great Hammer Amicus Blogathon, kindly hosted by Realweegiemidget Reviews It’s been a great pleasure to take part! Click on the link to read other great articles on classic films from Hammer and Amicus.
Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.