Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter (1974)

This may be the most awesomely bad poster ever.
This may be the most awesomely bad poster ever.

“The only man alive feared by the walking dead!”
This is blatant false advertising; they’ve clearly never heard of him.

Directed by Brian Clemens
Starring Horst Janson, Caroline Munro, John Cater and Wanda Ventham

A small village in Transylwherever is plagued by a rash of early onset old age, so local physician Doctor Marcus (John Carson) calls on the aid of his old army buddy, the often shirtless Captain Kronos (Janson). Kronos and his friend, the hunchbacked Professor Hieronymus Grost (Cater), arrive with all speed – stopping only to rescue a girl named Carla (Munro) sentenced to the stocks for dancing on a Sunday – and begin an investigation with toads, bells and herbal cigarettes, for they are vampire hunters. Professional vampire hunters.

In 1974 having a katana wasn't cool, but it was different.
In 1974 having a katana wasn’t cool, but it was different.

By a simple process of elimination – or attrition might be more accurate, as between the vampire victims, a trio of local bullies killed after being paid to pick a fight with Kronos, and Marcus’s death after being turned, there really aren’t many suspects left – Kronos and Grost settle on one of the two children of the late local lord. Carla, tiring of her role as sexy receiver of exposition, agrees to act as bait, but shock and horror! It’s the children’s supposedly bed-ridden mother (Ventham) and supposedly dead father who are the vampires, at least until Kronos offs them with his holy sword.

What’s wrong with it?

"I heard your movie needed sexing up."
“I heard your movie needed sexing up.”

Captain Kronos was part of the experimental wave of Hammer Horror movies that preceded the studio’s eventual collapse, and it’s damned weird. Written by Avengers (not that one) scribe Brian Clemens, later to be credited with the story for Highlander II (in your face, Skip Woods!) it features apparent superstar German hunk Janson in his English language debut, and possibly dubbed at that. It has strong elements of 70s Hammer’s exploitation agenda – Carla and Kronos basically have a conversation that runs: ‘I’ll be around if you want to have sex.’ ‘Oh, totally.’ – and the return of Lust for a Vampire‘s ‘vamp cam’. I’m just glad we aren’t saddled with any Strange Love, although we are ‘treated’ to some highly stylised sexual gymnastics, and Kronos using stakes through the heart as sexy pillow talk double entendre. For added ick, he might be talking about having to off his own mother and sister. I wasn’t entirely clear on that.

Actually, a lot is unclear about Kronos; a kind of royalty, according to Grost, to name but one thing that is never explained. He also, we are told, survived a vampire’s bite. All of this might have come out in the planned series of Captain Kronos adventures, had the film not tanked.

During the denouement, Kronos and Grost break into the mansion aiming to capture the vampire as it tries to feed on Carla, but they’re so slow. They also, for reasons of stumbling on evidence, break in not through an unoccupied room, but through a skylight directly above the bed of the ancient Lady Durward (which I heard all the way through as ‘Durwood’, as in Bewitched.) If she hadn’t turned out to be the vampire that would have been hella awkward.

Along with his sabre and, later, longsword made from an iron crucifix, Kronos has a katana. An actual fucking katana in 19th century Transylwherever. No explanation, again, of where a hard-working officer in the Imperial Guard found time to bog off to Japan, just… ‘Hey; I have a katana. Which I carry the wrong way up. And wield like it was a fucking willow switch or something.’

It’s also damned lucky that the weakness of this vampire clan was steel from a crucifix. Kronos would have felt pretty stupid going up against master swordsman the late Lord Durward with a rose and a hawthorn bush.

What’s right with it?

This could not be more awesome if there were jaggedy lightning lines to indicate the mesmerism.
This could not be more awesome if there were jaggedy lightning lines to indicate the mesmerism.

Kronos has a mirror which slips over his sword blade. For why? To reflect a vampire’s mesmo-stare back into her own eyes. Fuck yeah; that’s some quality vampire hunting right there.

Although she starts out pretty gratuitously, Clara ends up playing a significant role, and for 1974 a scene where Grost and Dr Marcus are heading to talk to Kronos and she just cuts in front of them and slams the door in their faces, as if to say ‘piss off, this is my sexy cuddle time’, is pretty ballsy.

The film embraces the idea of a wide range of vampire sub-types – in deference to The Vampire Lovers and its source, Lady Durward claims to have her dark powers from the Karnstein lineage – and much of the run time is made up of Kronos and Grost making sure that they are dealing with a vampire, and what type.

Generally the performances are good, and Clemens proves a strong first- (and last-) time director.

How bad is it really?

A commercial and critical failure at the time of its release, Captain Kronos has come to be recognised latterly as one of the last great Hammer horror films. Make no mistake, it’s still a Hammer horror film, with all that that entails, but it’s one of the good ones, in which the old-fashioned film-making has aged into charm instead of becoming laughable.

Best bit (if such there is)?

"You don't look so tough to me."
“You don’t look so tough to me.”
  • Kronos and Grost are asking questions in the inn when the paid-off bravos try to pick a fight by insulting the army and calling Grost ‘Crookback’. Kronos insults them back, then when they throws down kills all three in two swings, then turns back and continues questioning the horrified bar staff.
  • As noted above, Clara shuts Grost and Marcus out of the barn.
    Grost turns to Marcus
    Grost: I play chess.
    Marcus: And I have a rather good bottle of wine I’ve been saving for a rainy day.
    Grost glances back at the barn door, then up at the sky
    Grost: Looks like rain.
  • Marcus realises that he’s becoming a vampire and begs Kronos to kill him, but a stake doesn’t work, so they try hanging and burning, before discovering that stabbing with a steel cross does the trick.
  • Seeing the suspect carriage approaching, Grost gamely pitches a dead toad in a box underneath it to see if the toad resurrects, proving vampires. AND IT WORKS!

What’s up with…?

  • Seriously, the katana?
  • The vampire vulnerability to blessed steel?
  • The absence of a priest in this town?
  • The mixture of Puritanical attitudes and big, fancy crucifixes?

Ratings

Production values – Now, we have to bear in mind that this is 1974, and for that, it’s all pretty swish. The costume porn is top notch, the vamp-cam isn’t over used (points for not having anyone actually fondle the lens,) and the blood looks… if not like real blood, at least less obviously like red paint than in many contemporary efforts. 6
Dialogue and performances – There’s really only one weak link here, and sadly that’s Horst Janson, or rather the stilted delivery of his voice over artist. For the rest, a witty – if slightly batshit – script and game performers from the kind of talented jobbing thesps that made Hammer great carry us through in style. 4
Plot and execution – Huge kudos is due to the film for doing something actually different from the typical vampire movie. I adore the investigation scenes, although the final plan is a bit less focused than it could have been. 7
Randomness – Steel crucifixes? Katanas? 4
Waste of potential – This is textbook Hammer. Perhaps we could have done with a better hero – he is no replacement for a young Cushing or Lee – or at least one with a better grasp of English to go with his oft-bared torso. 6

In an early example of flagrant fan disservice, he's about to turn around to reveal that she's sticking medicinal leeches to his back.
In an early example of flagrant fan disservice, he’s about to turn around to reveal that she’s sticking medicinal leeches to his back.

Overall 27%

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