Continuing our Hammer Horror retrospective with a look at their swashbuckling, vampire-battling superhero.
Some ideas are simply ahead of their time. Some are beyond the understanding of the people who are ultimately in control of how they are presented to the public. And some just collapse under the weight of their own ambition. There’s a good argument to be made that Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter was, to one degree or another, all of these things. A project that seemed a bit of a curio at the time, the film now increasingly feels like the sort of genre mash-up that would’ve worked a couple of decades later – but in 1973, it was viewed with baffled suspicion by the Hammer executives and ultimately buried at the bottom of double-bills with Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell in America and the martial arts import The Girl with the Thunderbolt Kick in the UK, barely promoted. Neither movie was exactly a good fit for this swashbuckling supernatural romp.
If I had been pitching Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter in the early 1990s, I might have said that it was a cross between Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena – Warrior Princess – but, you know, with a male lead (though frankly, that doesn’t even matter and if someone wants to do a retconned Kronos TV show now with a woman playing the character, I think everyone would be down with that). The idea of a swashbuckling monster hunter in a period setting seems a great idea as an ongoing series – though of course, as I say that the spectre of the Van Helsing movie enters my head. There was nothing wrong with the idea of Van Helsing though – it was the execution that let the film down, with the instantly-dated CGI and bloated narrative. Perhaps the reputation of that film and the equally lame TV series of the same name in recent years might make that character a poisoned chalice, but Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter is out there just begging to be rebooted. I’m not the first to see the potential – the early issues of House of Hammer magazine in 1976 had a new three-part Kronos story and more recently there has been the Captain Kronos comic book from Titan.
Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter follows the eponymous soldier/freebooter/mercenary (Horst Janson), who travels the land (which land exactly remains somewhat unclear and ultimately unimportant) with hunchbacked assistant and vampire expert Professor Hieronymus Grost (John Cater) hunting the undead. Responding to a call for help from old friend Dr Marcus (John Carson), the pair travel to a small village plagued by vampires – but not just any vampires. In one of the film’s smartest moves, the story posits the idea that there are several different species of vampire out there and the ones in this story drain their victims not of their blood but of their youth. This also means that the traditional methods of killing a vampire won’t work and a significant part of the story involves Kronos and Grost trying to work out just how to kill this new strain. They carry out their investigation as the bodies continue to pile up – young girls reduced to wizened husks – before finally unmasking the vampires, the identity of which is slightly telegraphed but hidden behind enough red herrings to keep us guessing. Along the way, they battle suspicious villagers and henchmen and pick up Gypsy girl Carla (Caroline Munro) who joins them as an apprentice vampire hunter and becomes Kronos’ lover. The three of them make an appealing team. While Janson is unfortunately awkward and stiff – his performance certainly not helped by the fact that, in the great Hammer tradition, the German actor was dubbed (by Julian Holloway) – Cater and Munro are both a lot of fun to watch, with the latter thankfully given more to do than simply be a bit of Hammer glamour.
The impressive supporting cast includes Shane Briant, Hammer’s great blonde hope of the early 1970s who here delivers an impressively icy performance as Paul Durward, the son of the late Lord Durward who maintains a resentment towards Marcus, who he blames for his father’s death; Wanda Ventham as his mother, who may not be the bed-ridden invalid that she seems to be; and Ian Hendry as a hired thug who tries to defeat Kronos. This is another of Hammer’s films where almost everyone is on top form and it’s a shame that Janson is perhaps not quite up to the job as the lead – we can hardly blame him for the fact that the film failed, but it would certainly have been better if a more personable actor had taken the role (writer/director Brian Clemens apparently wanted Simon Oates from Doom Watch for the part). He simply doesn’t have the easy-going wit that the role calls for – Kronos, ideally, should be a Bondian figure, confident, charming, sexy and capable of becoming a ruthless brute at the drop of a hat. Janson, sadly, always looks as though he has a stick up his ass.
In fact, perhaps ‘Bondian’ isn’t quite the right comparison. Perhaps Kronos needed to be John Steed. Brian Clemens, of course, was the man behind The Avengers, and so already very familiar with eccentric, genre-bending fantasy stories. He wasn’t the show’s creator but was the showrunner who made the series what it was during its heyday with Diana Rigg. You can see the influence of The Avengers all over this film, with the sharp dialogue, slick fight scenes and the fact that the heroes only solve the case after everyone that they are supposed to be protecting is dead. Unfortunately, though, has little of that show’s visual style – the 19th-century rural setting and the low budget result in a rather flat, muted look that doesn’t help the movie in the end. it’s perhaps a little too realistic for what is essentially a fantasy, fairytale romp and the British countryside – clearly not at the height of summer – is far too monotone. This is a film that really calls out for artificial studio sets – or at least an eye-popping colour palette – to add a sense of unreality to events. That said, it’s well shot and fast-paced, while Laurie Johnson’s music is suitably heroic and dramatic by turn.
Like The Avengers, there’s a mix of dramatic action, mystery and a light-hearted tone in this film that makes it feel unlike any other Hammer Horror film. Given that Kronos is a sword-wielding soldier with a mysterious past, the film sometimes feels closer to the company’s swashbuckling adventures of the mid-Sixties but it is ultimately very much its own thing – and that is probably what proved to be its downfall. While the film clearly had series potential – and Clemens deliberately set the film up with further adventures in mind – Hammer was, by the admission of studio boss Michael Carreras, completely baffled by it and although the movie was shot in 1972, it was not released until 1974 when Hammer was essentially dead in the water. We’ve talked about this a lot in this series of reviews and I’m sorry to go there again, but the complete lack of understanding shown by the Hammer bosses towards anything that stepped outside their comfort zone was where it all ultimately went wrong for the company in the early 1970s – they knew they had to change but had no confidence in doing so and seemed to actively sabotage any efforts from filmmakers to bring something new to the formula. Of all the Hammer failures of the time, Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter feels like the biggest disappointment because there were so many possibilities for this story and this character. Perhaps Clemens should take some responsibility – he chose to direct the film when his strengths lay in writing and producing, and perhaps another director could’ve made the film a bit more visually exciting. But I can’t help but feel that cinema was the wrong place for this story and that the real lost opportunity was in him selling the story to Hammer rather than pitching it as a TV series. I’m aware that a supernatural adventure might have been a hard sell on British TV at the start of the 1970s – but Clemens made Thriller, The New Avengers and The Professionals in that decade so if anyone could’ve pulled it off, it was him.
As it is, the Kronos character has stubbornly refused to die and the film has slowly built a devoted following, even amongst people with no real interest in Hammer Horror. I feel as though this is an idea that could work now – it’s almost perfect for streaming services. This is what Hammer should be doing now, and to their credit, they do seem aware of the potential in the story, having apparently thought about a remake and offered it to Ben Wheatley in 2013. Presumably, Wheatley said no – but it does feel as though the time for Kronos is now and if Hammer wants any pointers, they know where to find us.
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