1974 was a significant year for Britain’s Hammer Films, because after an earnest attempt to bring new life into the company during the early seventies – primarily using new talent to give fresh spins on horror icons like vampires, mummies, Jack the Ripper, plus an infusion of kung fu (sometimes together in one film) – things weren’t working out as hoped for production chief Michael Carreras, and by 1979 all feature film production has ceased, and the company switched its efforts towards television with Hammer House of Horror.
Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter was among Hammer’s final productions, and although it deserves to be ranked as one of the company’s best horror films, it was given an ignominious release as a double-bill in the U.K. before completely vanishing.
Writer/director Brian Clemens had hoped the film would start a new career directing films, but regardless of his meticulous planning and obvious skills as a director, Kronos was forgotten, and one wonders what other striking films Clemens would’ve made
Clemen's biggest hits lay in TV, showrunning classic series such as The Avengers (1965-1969) and The Professionals (1977-1983), but he also enjoyed a prolific career as a screenwriter in the sixties, and was a huge fan of directors John Ford and Akira Kurosawa, which perhaps explains his clever decision to take the vampire film, and twist it around using a western / wandering warrior template.
Kronos (German actor Horst Janson) is ostensibly a war veteran summoned by an old friend, Dr. Marcus (John Carson), to rid the town of a killer, except the villainous force is a vampire who lures and kisses young girls, sucking out their life forces to remain immortal. Aided by humpback Grost (John Cater), the two launch an investigation, finding new clues with each serial murder until they’re led to the source responsible for reducing significantly the teen girl population.
Woven into the story’s supernatural fabric are little folk tricks helpful in determining the presence of a vampire (‘toad in a hole,’ a line of bells around trees and shrubs, and a sword made from a blessed cross), plus a bosomy wench named Carla (Caroline Munro) whom Kronos liberates from the stocks early in the film (she vainly chose to dance on a Sunday!) and later uses for comfort, sex, and as another partisan in his quest to expunge the fang-toothed cancer from the town.
Carla is the most thinly drawn character in the film – she’s merely hot, heaving, and big-eyed – and her real purpose only kicks in when she’s used as bait in Kronos’ plan to unmasked the vampire and send it to hell, but Clemens designed many scenes to add further details of the friendship between Kronos and Grost, as well as Dr, Marcus, a sympathetic character whom Kronos must ‘save’ at the film’s midpoint.
As a vampire film, Kronos delivers in spite of being generally free from the gore typical of a Hammer film (in particular, Vampire Circus, made 2 years earlier), and sex is treated as a sensual, private pleasure – hence the shadows and stark lighting covering up Munro’s naughty bits in a pair of nude scenes. The story is engaging because Kronos is a bit of an enigma: he carries a samurai sword among his arsenal, and meditates prior to the film’s finale, a swordfight at the estate run by the Durward siblings (played by Lois Dane and Shane Briant). Janson was also in great shape, and the actor was game for stunts work, be it horse riding or swordplay.
Clemens storyboarded every shot, and one sees the results of his preparation: beautifully composed images, sharp editing, and the subtle use of shadows to infer horror. Clemens also liked visual tricks, and there’s a great little murder sequence in which a girl runs away from her lover in the forest, bobbing up onto futher distant mounds until a scream signals the vampire has managed to suck dry another victim.
Laurie Johnson’s music may be the best horror score never written by Bernard Herrmann. Johnson delved into Herrmann’s familiar use of low woodwinds and simple figures, and perhaps took a nod from Herrmann’s Garden of Evil (1954) by composing a riveting galloping theme for Kronos, giving momentum to slow scenes, and montages that follow after dialogue exchanges.
Paramount’s DVD apparently replicates the contents of the 2003 Region 2 Simply Media DVD, namely the great commentary track with Clemens, actress Munro, and historian Jonathan Sothcott. It’s a good balance of making-of factoids and anecdotes, spanning the casting of Janson (resulting from a recommendation with director Peter Collinson, then making Straight on Till Morning for Hammer), as well as Ian Hendry (Theatre of Blood), who had a small but memorable role as a saloon/pub bully.
Sothcott also discusses Hammer’s efforts to reinvigorate itself in the changing film market, and Clemens describes his hopes at the time of starting a directing career, and of further life for Kronos in films and TV – neither of which went anywhere as Hammer continued to wither away, and the production investment that kept indigenous film production in Britain started to dry up.
Clemens’ other efforts for Hammer (primarily as writer/producer) include the film Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde (1971), and episodes of the Hammer House of Myster & Suspense (aka the Fox Mystery Theater) in 1984.
Caroline Munro’s also appeared in Hammer’s Dracula A.D. 1972 before making a more formal debut in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974) which Clemens also wrote. Shane Briant’s other Hammer films include Demons of the Mind (1971) and Peter Collinson’s Straight on Till Morning (both 1972) and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974).
Cinematographer Ian Wilson later photographed Ian Softley’s lush Backbeat (1994) and David Twohy’s moody Below (2002).
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan