Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter Review
Welcome to another entry in the Retrofest. As I have always tried to maintain, the films featured here are important for their audacious breaking of new ground, their pushing back of cinematic boundaries and their stamping of an indelible influence on the genre and upon the movies that followed. Often, as happened to John Carpenter's The Thing, they go unseen, or are summarily dismissed by audiences and critics who, at the time of their release, just don't seem to get it, going on to gain a sort of underground cult following by those in the know, ultimately perhaps - as is certainly the case with The Thing - finding the recognition they deserved all along. And this contribution to the Retrofest perfectly sums up the misconception and miss-handling of studios and distributors, audiences and critics alike when faced with a landmark movie that so breaks with tradition that they are inclined to dismiss, ignore or ridicule it. Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter smashed Hammer's rigid template and broke the mould for heroic, swashbuckling horror/adventure hybrids and, although hardly seen at the time, went on to become a firm favourite with fans and horror scholars the world over. So, without further preamble, let's cut a dash to see what made this sword-swinging super-slayer such a fine slice of prime entertainment.
“What he doesn't know about vampires wouldn't fill a flea's codpiece.”
Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter was a radical swing-shift for Hammer. Their particular brand of gothic chiller was rapidly being pushed aside by the new blood from Hollywood. Audiences had barely survived Romero's genre wake-up-call of Night Of The Living Dead and now William Friedkin was having a devil of a time with the culture-shock gut-punch of The Exorcist. The old Hammer “buckets of blood” routine just couldn't compete anymore in a market that had been saturated with gruesome footage from the Vietnam War, soaring crime-rates and civil unrest and filmgoers demanding more and more realism in their horror diet. Of course, they would get much more than they bargained for the year after Kronos premiered when Tobe Hooper's visceral Texas Chainsaw Massacre exploded onto the scene. But, in the meantime, to give his studio a much needed shot in the arm, Hammer-honcho Michael Carreras opted to take advantage of the new leniency of the censors and supply some much more graphic films. Thus, the early 70's saw a slew of last-stab attempts from Hammer to pep-up their product with more sex and violence. Sadly, these endeavours - Dr Jekyll And Sister Hyde, Dracula AD 1972, The Satanic Rites of Dracula and, most damningly of all, To The Devil A Daughter - were not well received by the critics or the fans. Time really had run out for the studio that had once led the genre into brave new territory. But, in the midst of this filmic last-chance-saloon, Hammer let loose a diamond in the rough, a film so unlike their colourful, set-bound back-catalogue in virtually every way that it practically clawed its way from the studio's rapidly-filling grave and screamed its independence. That it was saddled with the gory, but awful, Frankenstein And The Monster From Hell, on an ill-conceived American double-bill circuit was the ticket to oblivion that Captain Kronos just didn't deserve. But the death-knell had sounded and the vampire-slaying hero, himself, had to listen as the last nails were banged into Hammer's ironic coffin.
Over the years, though, Kronos has hung around, gaining more prestige with age and its legacy becoming all-too apparent in the rash of big-budget CG summer blockbusters. Written, produced and directed by the versatile and prolific Brian Clemens, creator of the ever-popular TV show The Avengers amongst many other things, Kronos took the exceedingly stale Hammer staple of vampires running rife in a gothic, rural locale by the throat and shook some fun and excitement back into what had become a very jaded trend. Kronos (Horst Janson), ex-captain of the Imperial Guard has been summoned to the isolated village of his war-time comrade Marcus (John Carson) to root out the evil that is draining young girls of their youth, leaving them aged and haggard and dead long before their time. Together with his hunchbacked assistant Professor Grost (John Cater), Kronos must unravel the identity of the mysterious life-force vampire and do battle with hostile locals before finally facing the undead in a thrilling showdown between good and evil. By fashioning a comic-book hero and pitching him into these overused settings and scenarios, Clemens, perhaps unwittingly, created the modern horror-comedy - the fast-paced narrative, dynamite dialogue and set-piece episodic nature of the film acting like a period template for the likes of Blade and Underworld. Even Christophe Gans' awesome Brotherhood Of The Wolf takes many a leaf from Clemens' screenplay. I, like many reading this I suspect, first discovered the film on TV, and was utterly enthralled by its action-packed and slyly amusing take on the vampire legend. Gone were the dusty old castles, the fake-looking bats on strings and formulaic cape-swishing fang-faces. Christopher Lee, long since battered into formulaic parody by inept and unimaginative scripts that just bounced his once-statuesque Count from one hum-drum hiss-and-snarl pot-boiler to another, was nowhere to be seen. His nemesis, Peter Cushing, was curiously absent, too. So just who was this young pretender to Van Helsing's throne?
“Tell me, did you win your battles, or lose them?”
“A little of both. And not enough of either.”
Taking a fresh look at the genre and realising, quite correctly, that Hammer's vampires actually appeared quite unthreatening - they were extremely easy to exterminate, for one thing - Clemens decided to create for them a new mythology, one that enabled the race to have many varied offshoots. His vampires, for instance, don't just drink blood - which they probably view as a mere appetiser - they suck the very life essence from their victims, thus ensuring their own youthful vitality. The courageous heroes of Kronos and Grost also discover that this particular strand of the undead is uncannily impervious to many of the usual methods of despatching. And, not only that, they can be pretty handy with a sword, too. Thus, Clemens sketches in an entirely new framework for his conflict. And, if you are going to enhance the bad guys, then you are certainly going to have to do the same for the good ones, as well. So, casting his mind back to the hugely influential Spaghetti western cycle of taciturn, confident and thoroughly capable desperados who ride into town and thrust themselves into the heart of some bitter feud before riding off into the sunset again leaving a trail of corpses in their wake, he elected to have his vampire slayers a duo of dedicated, but eminently mysterious crusaders, eagerly travelling from place to place with only the desire to vanquish evil keeping them going.
“What does the K stand for? Is he a king?”
“A king? In a way, I suppose he is.”
In the title role, Horst Janson is magnificent. With his blokes-from-Abba hairstyle, Aryan good looks and roguish, blue-eyed twinkle, he assumed a heroic stature that had never been seen before in a horror film. Sort of pre-empting Blade, his Kronos is a master swordsman who enthusiastically takes the battle to the undead with a sadistic relish. Peter Cushing's Van Helsing saw his crusade as a moral obligation. Kronos, however, sees it as a war. Janson clearly has fun with the part, keeping his tongue wedged firmly in his cheek whilst still perfecting a commanding combination of nobility, duty and sacrifice. That he also manages to wrap up such an enigmatic character with a sheer cavalier attitude to danger, love and lust makes Kronos almost the perfect mythical hero. He may have a tragic past, but it is pertinent to note that this hunter also possesses a bloodlust of his own. Clemens takes the image of the returning warrior - visually Napoleonic, but actually much more in keeping with the Americanised Civil War veteran-cum-soldier-for-hire - and infuses it with heavy doses of the wandering Samurai ethic, a sprinkling of the questing knight and, cannily foreshadowing the imminent deluge of misunderstood Special Forces-on-the-run flicks, creates the skilled anti-hero working on the fringes of a society that despises him. In Kronos, there are shades of Snake Plissken, Dirty Harry and, most obvious of all, Clint's iconic Man With No Name. That Janson pulls all this off with a style that is individual, engaging and sparkling with wit and vigour is highly commendable. Even the sad fact that the German actor has been re-dubbed, despite his director assuring us that his accent sounded perfect for the role in the first place, the louder barking voice that now spills forth from his mouth becomes another, somewhat ironic, reminder of the Italian horse opera. Clemens fully intended this character to have further adventures and, out of all the cinematic heroes who have been lucky enough to have had such an extended lifespan, very few can hold a candle to the possibilities that Captain Kronos could, and should have had. The man of mystery formula is played to the hilt, yet with Clemens' smart screenplay and Janson's larger-than-life persona, the character avoids all manner of cliché. That the story is set in England is beyond doubt, but Kronos' name, obvious Germanic heritage and calm air of superiority throw enormous intrigue into the pot. We are told that he and Marcus were brothers-in-arms, yet the possibility of the two serving together in the same army is highly unlikely. However, instead of coming across as a dubious plot device, this element just throws open more thematic possibilities. Kronos and Grost have evidently battled the undead across the world - look at the samurai sword and Kronos' tendency to meditate before battle for evidence of their more exotic exploits - but Clemens wanted to instil the notion that they have also battled across time itself. The word Kronos is actually Greek for time. This was the hook that was originally designed to help form a series out of the character's demon-slaying deeds. Personally speaking, I think this time-travel aspect wouldn't have worked even with the adroit touch of Clemens ... but the continuation of the story, in film or on TV could have run and run, taking in all manner of beasts. A possible Highway To Hell kind of concept.
The influence of such a supernatural actioner is plain to see across the genre even today. The seed of Kronos must surely have been sown into Joss Whedon's mind when he devised Buffy. Even the more modern Supernatural owes a debt to Kronos, with its road-movie style of episodic monster mashes. Kronos is perfectly suitable for an update, or remake - and, for once, this is a film that can be re-imagined, re-tooled and actually improved upon.
“Are you sure you want to go through with this? You'll be the bait, you know?”
In the supporting roles, Hammer played another ace. For one thing we have the curvaceous beauty and heart-melting pout of Caroline Munro, who, in my opinion (and I am a huge fan of hers) never once looked sexier than as the gypsy girl, Carla, whom Kronos frees from the fruit-pelted stocks when he first arrives. “And what was your crime?” he asks her. “I danced,” she declares with smouldering defiance, “on a Sunday.” Though intended purely as the comely wench to satisfy Kronos' off-duty needs, Munro actually fleshes out her character considerably more with a sense of humour and feistiness that Kronos' cool detachment plays off well against. Clemens has fun with her, too. Look at the great little touch that sees her resting with her head against her saviour's lap as he meditates - only to be stunned when she comes to with her face on the dirt after Kronos has almost magically leapt into action. It's played for comedy value, but it is Munro's reactions on the two occasions that it happens that makes it work so well. There is also a wonderful moment when Kronos and Grost are attempting to kill a captured vampire (a marvellous set-piece in its own right) when Carla hovers about outside listening to the terrible events taking place behind closed doors, her face a mixture of awe, terror and pity. Munro could never lay claim to being a great actress - Hammer found a much better performer in her friend, and contemporary, Ingrid Pitt - but she has a sexy presence and a raw enthusiasm that makes her a delicious accessory to any film. John Carson, from Hammer's own The Plague Of The Living Dead, is equally excellent as Kronos' friend, Marcus. With a mellifluous voice that can often sound like James Mason's (close your eyes and listen) he brings a stature and maturity to the film that makes his ultimate misfortune a terrible development indeed. In fact, it is his plight that gives the story its real weight. Although played equally for its grisly humour, his eventual downfall is emotionally poignant and brilliantly done and, again, it is only the unique combination of Clemens' excitable horseplay and the actor's rock-steady commitment that makes such a scene work. Look out for the nice little moment when Carson's Marcus and Cater's Grost realise that Kronos and his gypsy-girl want some time alone - their decision to play chess and drink wine together is wonderfully touching.
“They made fun of me, Kronos. They laughed.”
Which brings us to the casting of John Cater as the crook-backed sidekick, Professor Grost. It is funny how Clemens brings these two stalwart hunters together without a hint of their backstory. An ex-Imperial Guard and sage-like intellectual with an unhealthy interest in necromancy and vampirism makes for an unusual team, though really it is just a case of the brains and the brawn double-act of old. Cater is pure gold in the role. Like the others he delivers much more than the whip-crack-away script would have you believe. The bond between Kronos and himself is warm and full of devotion, their interplay humorous and respectful. In the aftermath of the bar-room belittling he receives from the vicious tongues of the local goons, we see the inevitable pain of his humiliation coming to the fore. Only the few kind words from his best friend and “protector” allay his self-loathing and Cater brilliantly underplays the scene, whilst still tugging at the heartstrings. Another convincing touch is seen when Grost paints some ritualistic war paint in the form of crucifixes upon Kronos' own scarred neck during the lull before the coming storm. I must admit that the hump looks a little odd, though ... sort of bringing to mind Marty Feldman's Igor (“No, it's pronounced EEE-gor!”) from Young Frankenstein. But it is still quite a sight to see Grost scampering up into the boughs of a great oak to watch how his latest set of vampire traps performs. Mention must also go to Shane (Straight On Till Morning) Briant as the noble Paul Durwood. The actor's curiously effeminate mannerisms, which always served him well in movies, are in abundance here, too. His affecting of such “delicacies” of poise and diction seem to make him worryingly androgynous though, overall, the coupling of him and Lois Dane, as his sister Sara, is fused with a kind of aristocratic incest - adding yet another dark ingredient to the already overflowing cocktail of ideas in the film. On the subject of Sara, much is made of her supposed beauty - with Marcus falling for her charms and even the lusty Kronos passing comment - but the simple fact is Dane is sadly not that attractive. Admittedly, up against the likes of the Caroline Munro's sultry vixen, it is hardly surprising that she comes up short, but some of the scenes in which she is meant to be bewitchingly alluring just fall badly flat.
Then again, when Lady Durwood finally puts in an appearance in the guise of the mischievously tempting Wanda Ventham, the sexy balance is fully restored.
“Time to make our move, my friend. Time to kill a vampire.”
In another departure from the normal Hammer style, the photography is excellent and takes full advantage of the extensive location work. There are not many sets and soundstages here, that's for sure, and DOP Ian Wilson provides copious panning and tracking shots, zooms and sweeps. A nice camera move early on sees a victim snatch a nervous glance over her shoulder at an empty space in the woods, then circle back around again to reveal the girl confronted by the hooded vampire, who has seemingly teleported into the vicinity. Clemens ensures that the imagery is also quite flamboyant and symbolic. The church victim, for instance, is lured into the waiting arms of a Christ-like figure - seen only in shadow on the wall. And check out the eerie illumination cast around a cottage from a table lamp splattered with blood. The visuals are also quite cheeky, too, with Kronos' cigar tilting upwards as Munro's nude gypsy approaches him in their barn-boudoir. But perhaps it is the quite phenomenally provocative use of shadows draped across her body that is most memorable from this scene. For more atmospheric touches, watch for the woodland flowers that wilt and die as the vampire passes by, and the smashing of an egg basket against the roots of a tree - the yolk mingling with a victim's blood - to suggest the destruction of youthful fertility. There is also a brief instance when a prime victim is treated to time literally standing still for a second in a brave, but fun, little visual steal.
“I know you've got guts, Kronos. I've seen them.”
Another terrific set-piece sees Kronos and Grost perform all manner of wretched execution techniques upon a poor reluctant vampire who wants nothing more than to die. But, despite all their vampire-slaying expertise, this particular strand of the undead proves stubbornly indestructible. The sheer brute audacity of this celebrated sequence straddles the gossamer-thin line between squirm-inducing horror and out-and-out farce with a devilish panache that only Brian Clemens could perform. Likewise the Sergio Leone riff when Kronos meets Ian Hendry's thug Kerro and his henchmen. That a Hammer horror should subvert its own gothic centrepiece of the rural tavern - usually the haunt of the ubiquitous Michael Ripper, but strangely colourless here without him telling of the foul things he's seen out on the moors - and turn it into the scene of a standout confrontation is a work of genius and directorial indulgence. Clemens cannot resist having a lengthy set-up to introduce the, admittedly, superfluous Kerro to the proceedings, establishing his thoroughly reprehensible and violent temperament. And Hendry, reputedly drunk for the entire shoot, plays the nineteenth century bullyboy with a playfully antagonistic flair, hurling a whore's tip into a full spittoon, humiliating a burley-but-lily-livered labourer and insulting the poor hunchbacked Grost when our heroes arrive later on. The little subplot about Kerro being paid to attack Kronos is neat, but unnecessary. Hendry makes it abundantly clear that he would have a go at the “deserter in a stolen tunic” and his friend, “Crook-back” even without the money bag tossed his way by the Durwoods' bizarre wax-faced manservant, Barlow. But the timing of the scene and the cool confidence exuded by Janson - that lightning-quick unsheathing and re-sheathing of his blade is just classic - cannot fail to bring a knowing smile to your face. This is an ultra-low budget, flea-bitten quickie take on the epic grandeur of Leone's high-tension bullet-opera stand-offs ... and, once again, only Brian Clemens would have the brass cojones to attempt such a steal in a gothic horror film, and get away with it. Have a look at the blind girl sitting on her own in the corner and quaffing ale, for a little addition of the surreal as well.
The score by regular Clemens collaborator Laurie Johnson is a real treat - just listen to that oboe and bassoon surge during the main theme for Kronos, a pure homage to the great Bernard Herrmann's wild compositions for Jason And The Argonauts and The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad. It is quite refreshing to hear something rousing and action-orientated after the shrieking, nerve-jangling music of regular Hammer-composer James Bernard. Johnson, of course, also crafted the theme tune for The Avengers.
All is not perfect, however. The script does fall down in the sequence when Marcus pays a visit to the Durwoods in their country manor, as it tries much too hard to create mystery and suspicion, when our instincts have filled in many of the blanks for us already. The scene is further hampered by giving Carson and Dane some very heavy-handed and unlikely dialogue. It is a misstep, as well, to have Marcus readily accept that there are vampires in his midst, whilst remain flippantly dismissive of Grost's explanation of their powers of hypnotism. The bells and ribbons trick that the vampire hunters employ around the wood to aid in their capture of the enemy, whilst a neat visual idea, comes undone by having it played out in broad daylight when the trap is all too easy to see - an especially unfortunate gaff since we've sort of been told that this was going to be night operation. It is also not very hard to work out who is behind the slayings, but credit must go to Clemens for, at least, attempting to create a pervading mood of mystery until the final unveiling. The oft-used camera angles at an atmospheric and secluded hillside graveyard are also obviously enforced so as not to reveal the housing estate on the other side of the slope. But, once again, Clemens should be applauded for staging a cool little skirmish here between Kronos and some infuriated locals, supplying more Errol Flynn-style choreography before the epic duel at the finale. Of particular note with regards to the climactic battle, check out the thrusts and parries made in-between the hypnotically mesmerised bystanders.
“What could be more improbable than God? Yet I believe in Him.”
In all, though, Captain Kronos is a great film, and an important one. If audiences at the time had been able to actually see the film - its distribution was a haphazard affair, the film only gaining a release two years after it had been made - then Hammer's decline may have been put on hold, or even reversed. Janson made a wonderful hero, and one that didn't pander to accepted convention - he quite happily ditches the girl at the end of this adventure, knowing full well that there will be plenty more to bed on the next, in pure James Bondian style. Is it scary? No. not once. Eerie? Yes, once or twice. Exciting, then? Constantly, and more intriguing and entertaining than a dozen other Hammer entries from 1965 onwards, all rolled into one. There is a smart vein of wit that runs through the film and a sheer sense of infectious fun that cannot fail to impress. Clemens was sadly bitten too harshly by the experience of seeing his film sinking virtually without trace and took himself back to the land of television, where The New Avengers (now equipped with Purdy) was waiting. Janson returned to his homeland and has enjoyed working ever since. And Caroline Munro is still drop-dead gorgeous!
Terrific value and a prime contender to be brought back from the grave, Captain Kronos is everything that Stephen Sommers' Van Helsing isn't - dependable, charismatic and believable. I, for one, pray for his return.