Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter / Kronos / Vampire Castle (1972/1974) **½
The early 1970’s were difficult years for Hammer Film Productions. Big changes were afoot in the horror movie industry, and most of them had caught the studio’s leadership off their guard. The budgets of Hollywood imports were rising steadily toward levels with which Hammer simply wouldn’t be able to compete, the demise of the old Production Code led audiences in the lucrative American market to expect more explicit portrayals of sex and violence than the British Board of Film Censors might allow in domestic theaters, and as a general thing, audience interest in Hammer’s style of gothic horror was waning all over the world. What’s more, Hammer had always put great stock in franchise movies, and most of the series that had carried the studio through its glory days were in serious trouble. Professor Quatermass made his last appearance on the big screen in 1967; stodgy old Dracula had been knocked for a loop by the success of AIP’s modernistic Count Yorga films; an attempt to reboot the Frankenstein series in a way that would appeal to the youth market of the 70’s proved an utter failure; and the random succession of living mummies had never been particularly big money-makers for Hammer in the first place. Indeed, only the recently launched lesbian vampire series was performing up to expectations. Consequently, it seemed logical enough that the secret to putting Hammer back on its feet would lie in the creation of another new franchise calibrated to the tastes of a new decade. And on paper, Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter must have seemed like a can’t-miss proposition. Writer/director Brian Clemens was among the biggest behind-the-camera names in British television, most notable for writing a tall stack of episodes for the wildly successful “The Avengers,” and his vision for the film might justly be described as the premise behind that show reinterpreted as gothic horror— in both cases, we’re talking about an impeccably competent hero with a smoking hot female sidekick, backed up behind the lines by a third character who is a bottomless fount of arcane knowledge. Unfortunately, the many good ideas in Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter somehow fail to gel together right, and what’s worse, the actor cast in the lead role has absolutely none of the charisma necessary to pull the part off. Audiences noticed the problem, too, and the studio’s hopes of creating a new perennial cash cow came to naught. Still, it was a good try, and the movie is well worth watching at least once for its sheer strangeness.
A couple of girls in their early teens are hanging out in the woods, braiding each other’s hair and generally spiffying up their appearances. One of the girls— Anne Sorell (Nightmare’s Elizabeth Dear) by name— runs off to pick some wild flowers for her friend, and while she’s off doing that, someone in a long, black cloak creeps up behind the second girl. Village physician Dr. Marcus (John Carson, from The Plague of the Zombies and Night Caller from Outer Space) happens along a short while later, and he finds Anne in a state of deep shock and Myra (Joanna Ross) scant seconds away from dying of old age. Anne’s sister, Isabella (Beware, My Brethren’s Susanna East), succumbs to a similar supernatural assault just days later in another stretch of the same forest.
Luckily, Marcus knows just whom to call. The doctor had been a solider in his youth, and while serving with the Imperial Guard (Napoleon’s? Some Habsburg’s? Search me…), he made the acquaintance of an officer named Captain Kronos (Horst Janson). Kronos is no longer with the army; together with his old friend, Professor Hieronymous Grost (John Cater, of The Abominable Dr. Phibes and Dr. Phibes Rises Again), he now roams all over the land, hunting and destroying vampires. The captain, you see, harbors a grudge against the undead because he lost both his mother and his sister to a vampire while he was away on one of his many campaigns. Obviously what happened to the girls is a bit outside the norm for a vampire attack, but it’s close enough to get Marcus thinking in that direction. Along the way to Marcus’s village, Kronos unexpectedly acquires a second companion when he frees a girl named Carla (Caroline Munroe, from Starcrash and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad) from the stocks to which she had been confined for dancing on Sunday. Carla instantly hops aboard Grost’s wagon, apparently on the theory that wherever the men are going, it has to be better than a pillory by the side of the highway. Besides, maybe this Kronos guy is in the market for a girlfriend— I mean, dancing on the Sabbath? That’s some hot stuff right there— what red-blooded heterosexual could resist such charms?
After conferring with Marcus, Kronos and Grost determine that the thing running around sucking the youth out of village girls is indeed a vampire. As Grost explains, there are a great many subspecies of the undead, with an enormously varied range of powers and vulnerabilities. Some cast reflections and some do not; some can go out during the hours of daylight and some can’t; some may be dispatched by a stake through the heart, while others must be burned or hanged or beheaded; and as we have seen, though most vampires drink the blood of their victims, others employ a more exotic method of attack. (The movie never mentions this, but what its vampires resemble most closely is a creature from Sumerian legend called the Ekimu.) The first order of business, of course, is to figure out just who the neighborhood nosferatu is, and with that in mind, Carla and Marcus begin assisting Grost in some really surreal paranormal detective work. Eventually, Marcus determines that some kind of connection exists between the vampire and a tiny village not far away, which was once the home of a renowned swordsman named Lord Hagen Durward. Durward, coincidentally, had been a patient of Marcus’s, and it is because he was unable to save Lord Hagen from the plague that Lady Durward (The Vampire Beast Craves Blood’s Wanda Ventham) now refuses to have anything to do with the doctor. For that matter, Paul (Shane Bryant, from Demons of the Mind and Lady Chatterley’s Lover) and Sarah (Lois Daine) Durward seem to be only slightly better disposed toward him than their mother is. In any case, when Marcus fortuitously crosses paths with the Durwards on a visit to Lord Hagen’s grave, he notices that Lady Durward looks unnaturally aged and decrepit, and he begins to wonder whether maybe she or her offspring could be responsible for the deaths back home.
Another clue surfaces when Kronos goes to the village to check things out. At the tavern, he is accosted by Kerro (Ian Hendry, from Children of the Damned and Theater of Blood), the town troublemaker, and his mookish buddies. Kerro and his boys last about three seconds against the captain, but the important thing is that they were paid to start that fight, and the person who paid them was the Durwards’ butler, Barlow (Perry Soblowsky). That should put paid to any remaining doubt that the vampire is somehow attached to the Durward household, and what’s more, it establishes that the vampire is concerned about Kronos’s arrival on the scene.
So concerned is the vampire, in fact, that he or she decides to launch a more direct attack, spreading the curse of undeath to Marcus himself. In doing so, however, the vampire actually plays directly into Kronos’s hands, for Marcus manfully volunteers to allow Grost to experiment on him in the hope of determining exactly how to kill the strange form of vampire which our heroes face. After a mordantly funny exercise in trial and error, Kronos and Grost determine that a cross made of good, solid steel is the weapon they require; luckily for them, most of the cruciform headstones in the local cemetery are braced with steel backings. The vampire hunters uproot a convenient monument and pry loose its brace, at which point Grost goes the extra mile by forging said brace into a vampire-killing broadsword to compliment the rapier and katana which his comrade already carries. Now it’s just a matter of tempting the vampire (or vampires) into a trap— and considering that Kronos has a Caroline Munroe character for a girlfriend, I’d say he’s got the market on temptation pretty well cornered. He might want to watch out for the villagers, though, who aren’t going to be in the best of moods once word gets out that Kronos and his companions killed Dr. Marcus, vampire or not.
If only Clemens had hired somebody other than Horst Janson… There are other problems here, to be sure. There’s just a bit too much story being crammed into these 91 minutes, and the result is a cluttered and somewhat muddled film which spends far too much time chasing minor subplots around in little circles. The movie’s status as a purpose-designed franchise-starter is also just a little too obvious for its own good, and Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter often comes perilously close to feeling like the pilot episode of an extremely off-kilter TV series. That said, there’s nothing so wrong with Captain Kronos that it couldn’t have been ignored if only the title role had gone to an actor who had some verve to him. Janson’s performance as Kronos is as stilted and lifeless as anything you’ll see in a Columbia Pictures Sinbad movie, and no matter how hard Clemens tries to cover for him, there’s no way to avoid noticing that Janson’s swash remains resolutely unbuckled throughout.
Nevertheless, it’s hard not to be charmed by Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter to at least some extent. If nothing else, it stands among the most determinedly peculiar horror films Hammer ever released, and it represents a then-unique attempt to do something new and different with vampirism. With Dracula A.D. 1972 showing what a bad idea it was for the studio to try setting a vampire movie in the modern day (not that that stopped Hammer from doing it again with The Satanic Rites of Dracula, of course), and with the likes of Jesus Franco and Jean Rollin beginning to steal the Carmilla movies’ thunder in a big way, Captain Kronos offered an update on the vampire premise that was both distinctly a product of the 70’s and distinctly Hammer’s own. And once you get past Janson, the movie features a fairly strong cast giving it their all, even though the project probably doesn’t quite deserve their efforts. Whatever this film’s faults, I think it’s a pity Captain Kronos didn’t get to stick around for at least one more go.