“In the eighteenth century, in central Europe, a black terror swept across the face of the land. The curse of vampirism, which had been a half-forgotten memory for hundreds of years, returned with a fury that struck unholy fear into the hearts of every man, woman, and child.”
So begins the story of Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter. Written and directed by Brian Clemens (Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde) and produced by Clemens and Albert Fennell (The legend of Hell House), the film did not get off to the best of starts. It was completed in 1972 but Hammer’s distributors took such a dislike to the film that is was not released until 1974, and even then its distribution was limited. This, combined with a lukewarm response from critics contributed to the film’s relative obscurity. I used to stay up late as a child to watch Hammer horror films on the BBC, and Captain Kronos is not one I ever recall seeing. Like so many forgotten horror films from yesteryear, it has been given a new lease of life thanks to the DVD market. This, alongside it’s previous incarnation on video, has exposed the film to a new generation and given it a cult status that is richly deserved.
Viewed today, it easily stands up alongside more well known period horrors like Witchfinder General and Blood On Satan’s Claw. Like those, Kronos was made on a ridiculously low budget (£160,000, according to Wikipedia) and there are a lot of exterior scenes, presumably to save money on set design. These work together with some obligatory stately home and tavern interior scenes to create a convincing picture of eighteenth century Europe.
Like many classic horror films, the music is responsible for creating most of the tension. The Laurie Johnson score, comprised of minor strings and the occasional trumpet fanfare (most notably as Kronos’ signature theme), creates an eerie atmosphere and uses rhythm to great effect during the horse riding scenes and a sword fight towards the end of the film. The cold, high-pitched strings invoke a particularly chilling effect in the vampire attack scenes. Johnson even borrows a bar or two from Bernard Herrmann’s classic Psycho score during the odd sudden scare. I’m prepared to forgive him on the grounds that thousands of lesser film composers have done the same , and continue to do so to this day.
Captain Kronos was made at a time when Hammer were undergoing a period of experimentation. Keen to stay relevant and appeal to younger audiences, they were ready to move away from the same tired old monster and vampire films. This film breaks away from the usual middle aged (or even elderly) Peter Cushing attempting to send a charismatic and equally mature Count Dracula back to his grave. Instead, Clemens takes a chance and centres the film around the vampire hunters rather than the vampires themselves. For the majority of the film, the vampire is a faceless, anonymous entity that wears a black hood. The identity of the vampire is not fully revealed until the closing stages of the film, although plenty of hints are dropped along the way.
The most unique aspect of the film is the way the vampire kills its victims. It does not simply feed on their blood in the traditional Dracula manner. The vampire selects beautiful young maidens, and while it does draw some blood, it drains them of their youth. Make up effects are used to show the formerly attractive young actresses in states of advanced age that are quite disturbing. You really get a sense of the tragedy that has taken place. They go from being carefree young women with their whole lives ahead of them to being withered old hags in a matter of seconds. The vampire takes their youth and beauty, feeding on it in the process. It also takes their innocence, and this is the most frightening aspect for me.
Played by German actor Horst Janson, Kronos is a young, physically fit ex-naval captain who is fond of the ladies and smokes what he refers to as ‘an old Chinese herb,’ which clearly represents cannabis. The addition of the ‘Chinese herb’ is quite clever. Not only does he smoke it periodically throughout the film, but he keeps a clear head and it doesn’t slow him down once. Just the image Hammer needed to update themselves and fit in with a ‘hip’ contemporary audience while staying true to their trusted period-drama formula.
Kronos is joined by his ever-faithful hunchbacked assistant Professor Grost (John Cater), and Carla, a beautiful young gypsy woman played by veteran scream-queen and one time Bond girl Caroline Munro. Kronos and Grost find Carla (who has been imprisoned in stocks for dancing on a Sunday) early in the film, and Kronos rescues her. She is then bound to him and never leaves his side for the rest of the film. Presumably, she did not have a serious boyfriend before the dancing incident. Nor does she mind leaving home and travelling round with a sword-wielding stranger. Such is the amazing world of Hammer.
John Carson who played the evil Squire Hamilton in Hammer’s 1966 classic, The Plague of the Zombies, joins the cast mid way through the film. He plays Dr. Marcus, an old wartime friend of Kronos. He joins the team and attempts to use his local knowledge to help foil the vampire. Unfortunately, he is bitten in the process, eventually succumbing to the vampire’s bite. Kronos attempts to save his friend remarking that he has survived a vampire’s bite in the past, to which Grost responds “he is not the man you are!” As an ordinary man, Marcus simply does not have the willpower to resist the vampiric drain on his life force, and all too soon, he is consumed by its evil.
While Captain Kronos deviates from the traditional Hammer blueprint, it does stay true to it in other ways. Besides the rural period setting, there is the addition of a rich family, The Durwards. The two heirs to the Durward estate, Paul and Sara, live in Durward House and care for their elderly mother. They have done so since their father’s death seven years earlier. Consumed with grief, the ageing Lady Durward has become a recluse. She does not receive visitors and has begun refusing her meals. As the film draws on, the link is made between the Durward family and the tragic murders that have been taking place.
The ending is open ended and allows for a possible sequel. Sadly, one was never made. Despite this Kronos has returned more than once, in two novels by Guy Adams and also as a comic strip in the 1970’s magazine Hammer’s Halls of Horror. The film was originally intended to be a TV series, with the story used in the film serving as a sort of pilot episode. Something could have been made of this, especially if the writers had expanded Kronos’ activities beyond purely hunting vampires. Again, this was not to be. At least the film itself survived to be digitally restored for new generations to enjoy.