One of the best elements of Hammer's seventies curio Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter (DVD reviewed separately) is its ambitious and exciting score from TV-series composer extraordinaire Laurie Johnson. The man behind such iconic themes for The Avengers and The New Avengers, Thriller, The Professionals and Jason King, Johnson's movie work was few and far-between, although his mainstream career got off to a great start with his creation of the score for Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove. But there is something unique about his pumping, brazen style for instantly memorable title themes and cleverly exacted suspense cues that makes it a real shame that he didn't compose far more for the big screen. Of course, as regular readers of my soundtrack reviews will already know, I am a huge and almost obsessive fan of score composer Bernard Herrmann, and it is perhaps Johnson's professional association with this immortal tour de force - the man behind the best of Hitchcock and Harryhausen and the sheer master of musical menace and simmering mystery - that brought so many wonderful nuances and symphonic asides to his work. And there is nothing better than his score for Captain Kronos to showcase his considerable, though often overlooked talents.
Something of a departure for Hammer, Captain Kronos was a deft, eclectic but addictive combination of horror, whodunit and swashbuckler all rolled into one hybrid actioner that, like its haunted limbo-travelling hero, was way ahead of its time. Horst Janson is the demon-slaying Kronos, ex of the King's Imperial Guard - a cross between Errol Flynn and Bjorn Borg - summoned to a small rural village by an old army friend called Marcus to help rid it of a plague of life-sucking vampires. Its horrible lack of success at the box office was totally to do with inept marketing and woeful distribution and not in the least a reflection of the quality of the film itself, which has gone on to garner quite a cult following - but this still scuppered any chances of a horror series featuring the titular monster-hunter being developed. TV action-supremo, writer Brian Clemens had high hopes of his first - and only - directorial effort, securing a great cast (including Caroline Munro, Shane Briant, Wanda Ventham, John Cater and Ian Hendry), a hugely impressive visual style, a smart story and, naturally, an energetic and experimental composer in Johnson, whom he had already worked with on the likes of The Avengers. This would also be another radical departure for Hammer in that regular composer James Bernard would be absent. His penchant for shrieking strings and wild, blurting brass statements had adorned the studio's blood-dripping output for many years, much of it - such as his terrific score for their classic interpretation of The Mummy - was as classy and well-produced as it was immediately distinctive. But there was new blood on the scene and Kronos was to be a foundation stone to help lead Hammer into the new age of horror filmmaking. Thus, Laurie Johnson was brought in with his reputation for quick work, strong themes, shivering suspense motifs and his strict adherence to the story in question, rather than following on from an accepted style, such as Bernard's typically raucous Hammer sound.
After a fabulously eerie opening track that swiftly displaces the lilting woodwind and string-led pastoral harmony of peaceful forest scene with some exquisite mysterioso and playfully plucked strings mixing menace with mischief in a rather slow-baked variation on Herrmann's Psycho, we are launched into the dementedly brilliant Main Titles theme for Kronos, himself. Much like the weighty, percussive drive from Henry Mancini's awesome Main and End Titles for Tobe Hooper's daft but enjoyable Lifeforce, this is one of those cues that, once heard, will never leave you, precisely the kind of main theme to hit your audience over the head with and haul them into the story, breathless and excited. Use of intense and versatile brass along with tremendously deep and sustained low-register bassoon and oboe and heavy, doom-laden bass are a huge factor in the effective and unsettling atmopsherics of Kronos. These archetypal components are heavily influenced by Herrmann, especially with regards to both the agitated action and the long drawn-out fear and tension motifs that jockey for position throughout the score. Kronos' thunderous main theme, which plays out across and within many of the tracks in various guises and incarnations, is a major case in point, exhibiting this boisterous-yet-skin-prickling quality in vigorous style. The fantastic propulsive nature of the track - racing horns and swirling strings literally gallop across the orchestra, perfectly capturing the image of Kronos and his trusty associate Grost (John Cater) roaring across the blighted, cursed landscape, whilst deep bassoon and oboe interludes provide a deliciously dark reminder that what the pair will face are not conventional enemies - is purely inspired by Herrmann's work for North By Northwest, On Dangerous Ground and, most of all, The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad. But this is not plagiarism as far as I am concerned. The two had worked together on several occasions before and Johnson had been privy and instrumental (quite literally) to Herrmann's highly dynamic style and, therefore, carried such a heritage with him. Kronos' main theme is also a glorious scene-setter, dripping with mood, the high tang of Imperial heroism and the strident, earnest march of a man on a mission from beyond. The militaristic trumpet fanfare that bookends the piece adds a touch of chivalric class and the urgent pace, accentuated by clawing violins, never lets up, indicating the ceaseless nature of Kronos' desperate business. It is such a shame that the Kronos saga never actually went any further than this first outing - although there is always hope for further adventures, even if I have to write them, myself - as the theme would have become a glorious signature for an evolving character. This must certainly have been on Johnson's mind at the time, when the intentions were to produce an ongoing series of Kronos adventures. Even if Hammer's producers had eventually resorted to a TV series in lieu of a film franchise - an idea which was also mooted - Johnson would have been just as happy as that was his perfect medium. This main theme recurs throughout the score, but often in much shorter cues within larger tracks that alter with the mood of the film, shaping this piece with eloquence and poignancy.
A secondary theme that also plays and evolves throughout the score is that for the vampires who have taken a liking to draining the energy from the nubile young ladies in the vicinity. Shrill strings herald the outrageous, even rude, advances of oboe and bassoon, the rhythm much slyer and darker than that for Kronos, a confidently fierce underscore that adds a texture of veiled violence. Urgent little violin stabs in short fluttering notes jab into the pervading mood of their evil, loitering presence in such tracks as Doctor Is Refused/Toad In The Hole and then the oboe malevolently takes up the same ascending note flurry in later cues like the two comprising Track 10. Johnson holds frightening strings over sliding irrepressible tones that cry out for that oboe to put in another appearance - the very fact that we now want it to appear a testament to the composer's innate construction of dissonant, electrically-charged suspense that is both unnerving and rewarding. The slow vampiric chords also bed the score with a stature and depth that make the album come alive with dread, actively creeping about the piece as though stalking each individual cue.
A third theme arrives when Kronos frees the gorgeous gypsy-girl Carla, played by Caroline Munro, from the stocks at the edge of the village and Johnson begins to develop a lush romantic motif that features delicate strings, a lilting mandolin and soft piping of Kronos' own theme, gently interwoven to highlight the couple's bond. Defiantly held at a lower point on the thematic scale, this signature cue for Carla still reverberates throughout the score, tempering Kronos and his battle with the vampires by softly caressing his more strident drum and brass bravado.
But Laurie Johnson delights in the shuddering power of his fear and mystery cues, establishing the score for Kronos as one of the more menacing in Hammer's canon. His varied work for television lends him an arsenal of unusual choices that rocks the established norm of Britain's genre output, his association with Bernard Herrmann giving him the confidence to splash little jangles of the unorthodox into slow-burning rhythms of dark intensity, pepping things up and allowing for a score that is as unpredictable and surprising as it is exciting. His mesmerising music for scenes when the hungry vamps captivate their victims and hold them spellbound are absolute gems of wildly spectral and irresistible orchestration, featuring marvellous use of tubular bells. Tracks 21 to 24 are rife with such moments of tension and unease, menacing low tones with glacial strings sliding over the top. I'm even tempted to say that Morricone, himself, comes close to imitating some of this high-string creep-out with his musical depiction of The Thing for John Carpenter's remake. But there are more tricks up Johnson's sleeve - just listen to the audacity of the second cue comprising Track 6, for example. Here, Johnson scores the great scene in which a woman is attacked in a church, the victim actually mistaking the shadow of a vampire for that of a crucifix in a wildly sly take on accepted conventions, with some incredible ecclesiastical notes of almost rapturous devotion, devilishly twisting and subverting them in perfect tune with Clemens' devious visuals. It is a powerful cue that raises the level of the score another notch and adds yet more flavour to its already potent brew.
Use of bells, cimbalom and harp also recall the ethereal and magically dark ideas that Herrmann would regularly visit in his fantastical scores for the likes of Jason And The Argonauts, Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad and Mysterious Island, but Johnson gives his music a lilting and pervasively ethnic taint with such intricate lacings. This quasi-European spicing - which was quite popular in film and TV scoring of the seventies such as the plentiful spy capers and dramas like the Louis Jourdan version of Count Dracula for the BBC - gives the music an undeniable aura of the fantastique. Once Marcus (John Carson) has succumbed to vampirism, his own theme introduces the cimbalom which, in turn, acts to transform the vampire theme still further. High strings serenade Marcus' infamous trials and tribulations as he willingly allows Kronos and Grost to destroy him by whatever means they find actually work, before giving in to tremendous rolling drums and an emphatic, execution-style motif pierced by a three-note voice that continually marks time which is, of course, one of the central concepts surrounding the character of the hero. Kronos actually means time in Greek and the notion is that he is cursed to wander the ages combating evil wherever he finds it. Conceding to the tragedy of this condition, Kronos' own theme plays out reflectively at the end, again underpinning the restlessness and despair of his never-ending crusade. Drums beat out in the next track as Kronos is confronted by a mob and has to battle them atop the hillside graveyard. This formal aggression is meted out in Napoleonic style, although there is a definite nod to Morricone in there somewhere, too. The second cue on the track, Magic Sword, is wonderfully mysterious - chimes tinkle, bassoon swells and a sound like the wind rustling through reeds can be heard - and evocative as Kronos goes through his own mystical pre-battle ritual.
Fight To The Death/God's Blade actually wins by not doing what you think it will do. Essentially scoring the final duel between Kronos and his now-unmasked nemesis, this track ought to have been a real swashbuckling piece of high action and rhythmic rage, yet Johnson opts to keep the tension taut and as sharp-edged as a razor, the resulting confrontation far less clichéd. In a film that boasts plentiful sword-fighting already and a rousing theme for an athletic hero this is a rather bizarre step, but one that seeks to keep an element of fear in the proceedings. A xylophone marks seconds-out like a clock made of bone and trilling notes on the cimbalom clash fiercely with sharp, penetrating brass and strings amidst one of the strangest sounding battles ever heard. A further track, 27, brings back the more tragic and haunting rendition of Kronos' theme and then propels it with clattering see-sawing violins and rumbling percussion, and listen out for the terrific, almost prehistoric clonking effect that counterpoints the final vampiric dissolution to dust.
The rousing theme for Kronos once again arrives in time to play us out after a brief nod to the “love 'em and leave 'em” ethic that Kronos is forced to live by as he and Grost ride off for further adventures that Hammer were never able to show us.
A great touch is the selection of bonus tracks at the end of the album. Made up of lightning-quick orchestral FX cues this is a delicious series of eerie, spooky and unsettling stabs in the dark that would work well at any Halloween party. The tubular bells get to remind us of their awesomely hypnotic effect, too. People who are familiar with many unofficial “extended” scores that are available - like me - it is somewhat amusing to find such cues on a bonafide full release. But there is some good stuff presented here. Hats off must also go to the longer version of the Kronos title theme and the lingering alternates attempts to find the perfect trumpet fanfare.
All in all, this is a fabulous score that is presented here in its entirety for the first time. Laurie Johnson would go on to score the third instalment in Larry Cohen's popular mutant baby series, It's Alive, which is poetic considering that his main inspiration for this score, Bernard Herrmann, actually composed the music for the first two entries in the trilogy. Johnson's score, like the film it surrounds, dares to be different and even attempts to straddle several different genres in one fell swoop. One of Hammer's most original films gets a classic score and this release captures the spirit and atmosphere of the story perfectly. Highly recommended.
There is also a fine booklet of liner notes by Randall Larson that takes in the film's production and its cult status, as well taking a detailed look at the score, itself. The book is illustrated with some great images and artwork from the film, as well as a brief introduction from Caroline Munro. Larson is the author of several books on horror film scores, most notably Music From The House Of Hammer and was, for many years, the senior editor of Soundtrack Magazine. His notes here are informative and detailed.
Full Track Listing is as follows -
1. Innocent Maidens / Drained Of Life (2:06)
2. Captain Kronos Main Titles (3:09)
3. Carla Released From Stocks (1.01 - erroneously stated on pack as 6:18)
4. Birthday Victim (1:32)
5. Victim Returns (0:57)
6. Kronos Meets Doctor Marcus / Evil In The Church (1:36)
7. Vampire Hunters Start Work (0:56)
8. Doctor Is Refused / Toad In The Hole (1:42)
9. Carla And Kronos (0:51)
10. Couple Kissing In The Woods / Girl Attacked Going Home (2:22)
11. Doctor Rides To The Castle / Doctor Enters The Castles (1:25)
12. Enter Sarah / Mother In Bed (1:17)
13. Bar Confrontation (1:16)
14. Surprise! (0:22)
15. Doctor Sees Figure (1:07)
16. Doctor Returns To Kronos / Setting Trap (1:26)
17. Girl Attacked By Bats (1:12)
18. Doctor Hears Noises (0:34)
19. Doctor Is A Vampire / Peace At Last (4:21)
20. Angry Mob, Magic Sword (3:48)
21. Vampire At Door / More Victims / Sarah At Father's Grave (1:39)
22. Kronos Is Protected (1:45)
23. Kronos Goes To The Castle / Carla Is Bait (1:34)
24. Stalking The Prey (3:00)
25. Bloom Of Youth / Father Returns From The Dead (3:40)
26. Fight To The Death - God's Blade (2:48)
27. The End Of Lady Durwood (1:07)
28. Kronos Leaves / Captain Kronos End Credit (1:44)
BONUS TRACKS 29. FX #1 - Spooky Cymbals (0:34)
30. FX #2 - Spooky Strings (0:31)
31. Trumpet (0:32)
32. Tymp Sweetener (0:58)
33. Tymp Sweetener #2 (0:06)
34. Sound Effects #1 (1:01)
35. Sound Effects #2 (0:13)
36. Tubular Bells (0:34)
37. Captain Kronos Theme Edit (3:33)
Total running time 59.37This is an excellent release and despite its limited status is certainly still available - and I think there may even have been a re-issue since I got mine. Laurie Johnson's score for Captain Kronos was one of those long-desired titles that fans believed would never surface, but GDI Records and their BSX label have done it justice with a brilliantly produced and well-stocked disc. The nods to Herrmann are understandable and perfectly in-keeping with the rousing heroics-meets-hypnotic-dread tone that Johnson seeks to employ. The main title theme for Kronos is one of the all-time greats of the genre and the score, as a whole, blends eeriness and excitement to a wonderful degree. Just like his contemporary in TV scoring, the great Ron (Doctor Who/The Prisoner) Grainer, it is strange that Johnson didn't delve too much further into the realm of big screen composing. With Grainer's score for The Omega Man (still one of my all-time favourites) and Johnson's for Kronos, the world of movie music would have been so much richer and more diverse if they had. Highly recommended.
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