Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter (1974): Last of the great Hammer films

by Paul Batters

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?)

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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.

Dracula, Prince Of Darkness (1966): Hammer Horror In Full Colour

by Paul Batters

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During the classic era of cinema, it is indisputable that Universal was the master of the horror film. They would introduced to audiences iconic monsters that are known and loved and in Lugosi, Karloff and Chaney (Snr and Jnr) gave us wonderful actors who themselves became deserved icons of the silver screen. When the first cycle of horror films began in the early 1930s, high production values and story development were key with directors such as James Whale and Tod Browning, as well as the cinematography of the brilliant Karl Freund, shaping now classic films. By the 1940s, however, not only had production values changed but audiences had as well, and what were initially quality films became arguably less so, with more of an exploitive approach that sought to capitalise on ‘monster combinations’. The final nail in the coffin (excuse the pun) was the Universal pantheon of monsters becoming comedic foils for Abbott And Costello.

Sci-fi, aliens and giant bugs seemed to be the new order of things in horror cinema. It also seemed that the classic monsters had been put to rest, by audience demand and studio design rather than the powers of good over evil. And so it remained for around a decade.

Until Hammer films emerged.

If Universal in the 1930s and 1940s gave us dark fairy tales with haunting camera work in shades of silver, Hammer splashed the screen with vibrant colour, kept us on edge with dramatic action and titillated us with overt sexuality. Hammer would re-define the horror film and the familiar monsters that had become predictable would be given a make-over. Perhaps the classic monster that be re-identified best would be the Carpathian count and king of vampires – Dracula.

Hammer’s now classic Horror Of Dracula (1958) would bring Christopher Lee to the role of the Count. Unlike the hypnotic portrayal of Lugosi, Lee brought not only a regal and commanding presence to the role but a bestial creature baring fangs when taking his victims. Women swooned and there was no off-screen ending to cheat audiences of the vampire’s death. Instead, a battle to the end ensued between the formidable Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) and the Count, with an unforgettable ending, which stunned audiences.

Despite the film becoming a huge success and launching Hammer into the stratosphere, it would be eight years before Lee would re-appear as the Count in Terence Fisher’s Dracula – Prince Of Darkness (1966). As David Pirie points out in his book The Vampire Cinema, it would be a far more explicit film than its’ 1958 predecessor.

The film begins with a flashback to the exciting and shockingly explicit demise of the Count from the 1958 film. The narrator speaks of Van Helsing’s triumph over ‘the obscene cult of vampirism’. But as we will soon discover, the triumph will not be permanent and even after years of Dracula turned to dust, the village and surrounding countryside are still living in the shadows of Dracula’s evil. Their fears come to the fore as the story proper begins, with the funeral of a young woman and her mother crying over the treatment of her dead daughter. The local priest wants her impaled but the tense moment is broken by a gunshot and Father Sandor appears, scolding the local priest and the others for their superstition and blasphemy. Fisher’s opening scene is nicely constructed, acting twofold as an introduction to the climate of fear in the village as well as the authority who will combat Dracula, Father Sandor (Andrew Keir).

The story then focuses on the Kents, two English gentlemen and their respective wives who are travelling and stop at the village. As they visit a local inn, they happen to meet Father Sandor, who warns them against visiting Karlsbad but of course they dismiss the warnings. After an argument with their carriage driver, which gets very heated indeed, they end up making their way to the castle in a driverless carriage. However, unlike the broken battlements of the 1931 film, the Kents find themselves in well-kept though seemingly lonely castle. The table is strangely set and they find their baggage has been taken to their ‘rooms’. Yet this doesn’t seem to unduly put them off, although Helen Kent (Barbara Shelley) continually feels that something is wrong and warns the others that they should leave. Yet her husband Alan (Bud Tingwell) and his brother Charles (Francis Matthews) wave away her concerns. Here, Fisher again builds the tension when a strange dark figure emerges from the shadows, to a scream from Helen, only to discover that is a servant named Klove (Phillip Latham).

Klove explains that his master stated that guests should always be made welcome, even though his master was dead. The Kents enjoy the dinner, though Helen less so, and they do remark at the lack of servants that would be expected to manage the running of such a castle. As they move around, the wind howls outside, heightening the loneliness of the place and perhaps suggestive of the death that will come. The Kents toasting Dracula at dinner and hoping ‘may he rest in peace’ is an equally ominous and ironic statement!

At nightfall, Alan makes the ill-fated decision to poke around and becomes a victim of Klove. Here, the Hammer touch makes its’ mark as Klove hangs Alan upside down and slashes his victim’s throat. Thick litres of ultra-red blood pours out to mix with Dracula’s ashes, reviving the Count who will begin to wreak havoc on the Kents. His first victim will be the prim and proper Helen, whose warnings were ignored. Her turn into a vampire is a proto-type for future vampirised female victims; hair flowing, almost sheer night-gown and breasts billowing. The moment is pure Hammer horror – over-the-top colour and gruesome to behold.

The surviving Kents almost become victims but manage to escape by chance when Diana (Suzan Farmer) discovers one of vampire lore’s most time-honoured tropes; the power of the crucifix. Dracula and the now- vampirised Helen can only look on, with Dracula throwing Helen aside in disgust and rage as the Kents escape. They finally make the way into the safe hands of Father Sandor at the monastery.

At this point, this review will leave the story for the reader to discover. Nonetheless, it is impossible not to mention some interesting turns in the story. Unlike previous vampire films, the audience is treated to the explicitness that would become staples in future Hammer movies. Lee’s Dracula bares his fangs, hissing at his victims and those who transgress his commands and Fisher was not averse to showing Lee use his fangs either! Additionally, a powerful scene straight from Stoker’s novel shows the Count opening a wound in his chest, enticing Diana to drink from him. It is interesting to see Stoker being mined for story points. Even the minor character of Ludwig, as a plot device for Klove to smuggle Dracula and Helen into the monastery is clearly the mad Renfield appropriated for the said purpose.

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Christopher Lee plays a different vampire to his portrayal of eight years previous. The noblesse charm of the 1958 film gives way to a Dracula that no longer needs any pretence. Lee’s vampire leaps at his victims as well, cruel and inhuman in every way. His black cape is lined in red to amplify Dracula’s bloodlust but also as Lee quipped because Hammer like a lot of colour. Strangely enough, Lee’s screen time is fairly limited and there is no dialogue at all, save for some hissing and a yell at the end! There is some dispute over the lack of dialogue that has Lee and script-writer Jimmy Sangster in dispute. Nonetheless, Lee is a terrifying Dracula and despite some critics’ concerns (and Lee’s own reluctance to play the Count), Hearn and Barnes point out in their book ‘The Hammer Story’ that the Christopher Lee Fan Club were delighted. Lee’s portrayal is one of a supernatural creature, animal in every way, and dominates the screen whenever he appears. He menaces his victims with incredible strength and it is only the crucifix that mutes his powers.

The demise of Helen is perhaps one of Hammer’s films most publicised and famous images. As a group of monks hold Helen down, she writhes around before a large stake is placed over heart and plunged into her. The scene could be interpreted in a number of ways – and the sexual overtones of the scene are obvious and highly suggestive. The camera captures the entire moment in full view and it still shocks and stuns today. Helen’s vampirisation also suggests the sensual and sexual qualities of the vampire. Helen’s transformation from a gentile lady into sexual creature also suggests the repressive nature of Victorian gender roles, as well as the connection of sexual freedom with bestial desire. Hammer certainly exploited this factor in their films.

The film’s ending will not be given away here but it should be noted that it is not the ending audiences would expect and delves into a little known aspect of vampire lore, which is rarely if ever considered.

Today there are many mixed reviews regarding Dracula, Prince Of Darkness. Empire Magazine makes a fair criticism that ‘once Dracula is up and about, the script can’t find much for him to do’. Fisher’s direction becomes stilted and the story loses some of its’ earlier effectiveness once the surviving Kents escape. The cast, whilst solid in performances, is perhaps missing some firepower. Keir is admirable as the authoritative Father Sandor but he is no Peter Cushing, perhaps the best Van Helsing the screen has yet to see. The usually talented Phillip Latham is not impressive as Klove and Bud Tingwell is a far better actor who is underused and actually has very little to do.

Yet there is still plenty to enjoy and all the familiar tropes and iconography of both the vampire story and Hammer productions are ever present. It’s still a great deal of fun and any opportunity to see Christopher Lee as the evil Count Dracula, eyes blazing red as he is about to strike, should never be missed.

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This article has been submitted for the 2018 Great Hammer-Amicus Blogathon, hosted by Gill at RealWidgieMidget and Barry from Cinematic Catharsis. Please click on the following links for access to more articles for this blogathon – http://cinematiccatharsis.blogspot.com/2018/06/the-great-hammer-amicus-blogathon-is_3.html?_sm_au_=iVVTjWN25qfkZ7QQ and https://weegiemidget.wordpress.com/2018/06/02/and-theres-more-in-hammer-amicus-blogathon-day-2/

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.