|Horst Janson as Kronos: All the ladies love a vampire hunter...|
It must have seemed daunting to make a vampire film in 1972. After Hammer studios gave the genre a kickstart in the 1950s, the whole concept felt dead again by the 1970s. Christopher Lee had played Dracula eight times, and Roman Polanski's 1967 comedy The Fearless Vampire Killers brazenly stamped a label of camp on anything involving fangs, throats, or women in nightgowns. True, Count Yorga, Blackula, and Barnabas Collins attained some cultish popularity, but vampires, it seemed, were losing their bite.
Then along came Captain Kronos, who was not only determined to rid the European countryside of vampires, but was trying like hell to revamp a genre that felt about as vital as a discarded snakeskin. The idea seemed to be, If vampires no longer draw at the box office, how about a vampire killer? In a way, Hammer had tried a variation on this with their Frankenstein movies, where Peter Cushing as the good doctor was actually the focal point, rather than his ghoulish creation.
Directed and written by Brian Clemens, Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter is rich with good ideas. It's more of an action film than a horror movie, the emphasis put on Kronos as a man of adventure, rather than a scholarly type lurking around the catacombs. Clemens was primarily a writer, and a good one, having created such classic British TV shows as The Avengers. But Kronos was his first directing assignment, and the results are uneven. Perhaps the challenge of a 90-minute feature was unusual for someone used to hour long television shows, hence the pacing of Kronos drags. Some critics have pegged Kronos as "boring," and one early observer said it felt "like a television pilot." Others, such as the editors of Phil Hardy's exceptional Encyclopedia of Horror Movies labeled it a "spoof," although it's not particularly funny. Meanwhile, Cinefantastisque hailed it as "one of Hammer films' all time greats in the horror genre."
But it's the original were concerned with right now. The excellent opening sequence of Kronos and his hunchbacked sidekick, professor Grost ( John Cater ) pounding across the countryside accompanied by the crushing musical score by Laurie Johnson (Dr. Strangelove, The Avengers TV series, First Men in the Moon) feels like the beginning of an opus. It almost feels like a misplaced spaghetti western opening, but upon closer inspection Kronos appears to be from another type of movie all together. Is he Robin Hood? Is he a swordsman? And the hunchback, why is he dragging what looks like a coffin alongside his horse? The opening is so strange and so stirring that one could almost watch it for a half hour and not be bored.
We gradually learn that Kronos is a former soldier. Upon his return to civilian life he found that his mother and sister had been turned into vampires. After slaying them, he vowed to scour the countryside and vanquish the vampire plague.
There's an interesting dynamic between Kronos and Grost. Kronos is the hero, but he's rather serious and drab. Meanwhile, Grost is a sniveling hunchback, but carries himself with swagger. When a sexy young woman asks what Kronos and Grost do for a living, Grost answers as cool as any wealthy playboy: "We're professional vampire hunters, my dear." But Kronos also acts as Grost's protector, saving him from a trio of thugs in a tavern. Grost nearly weeps with gratitude; Kronos, for whom killing three chaps is all in a day's work, stops short of declaring his love for Grost. There's something about the two that appears deeper than the friendship between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.
Kronos is an amalgam of several heroic types. Along with the obvious Robin Hood analogy, he smokes cheroots like Clint Eastwood in his Sergio Leone era. Kronos also beds down the women like good old 007, James Bond. He's dressed like a buccaneer, and he's a master swordsman like Zorro. One lovely maiden (Caroline Monroe) practically throws herself at Kronos' feet early in the movie, and he takes her along for their next adventure, perhaps to break up the monotony of traveling with Grost.
Kronos is on his way to a village where he suspects vampires have been taking lives. These aren't your garden variety neck-biters - they seem to drain the life right out of their victims, causing them to age a hundred years immediately and drop dead. As Grost explains in one of the film's more interesting angles, there are as many types of vampires as there are predators in nature, and none of them are the same. This explained why there were no traditional stakes through the heart in this story, and why the life draining critters were able to prowl the local woods during the daylight hours. One can feel Hammer hoping to alter the vampire myth, anything to create something new. Daylight vampires may have seemed like the right direction.
Eventually, Kronos learns that the head vampire is a wealthy woman who lives in the village's most extravagant home; with help from Grost, Kronos fashions a sword made of a particular steel, and uses it to destroy the old woman and her resurrected husband. Not bothering to celebrate a job well-done, Kronos and Grost are immediately off to their next destination, wherever that may be. Caroline Monroe stares wistfully at Kronos as he rides away. I'm not sure why he didn't take her; she seemed like a game vampire hunter's assistant. Then again, Kronos and Grost appear to have a good thing going; three's a crowd, you know.
If Hammer was hoping to spin Kronos off into a series, or at least a sequel, the studio must have been disappointed in the film's tepid reception. Variety deemed it "A vampire mystery with a lot of swash and buckle," but wasn't overly impressed, describing Janson as "a prototype blond Germanic superstud caped like an operetta leading man." Variety did give the film credit for being "unusual."
The New York Times' Vincent Canby opined that while "the acting is terrible," the film managed to be "foolish but fun." Canby also pointed out something that may have kept American audiences from enjoying the film, namely Janson's German accent and Nordic looks: "To those of us of the World War II generation," Canby wrote, "a superman like Kronos is possibly a more scary concept than plain old bloodsucking."
If such xenophobia sounds odd, you must remember that only 30 years had passed since Germany's surrender at the end of WW II. American TV was still rife with images of evil Germans, particularly in the syndicated program World at War. It's a very real possibility that Janson's German presence kept the movie from doing better at the box office. Instead, it enjoyed a brief stay in America, doubled on the drive-in circuit with another Hammer horror, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell.
Ultimately, the film's failure to score in the U.S. could've been due to it not being scary. Aside from a few creepy scenes in a forest, the film barely qualifies as a horror movie. One can imagine the early '70s audience going to a movie with the word 'vampire' in the title, and being disappointed to see so much sword-fighting. And the business about a "different" sort of vampire may have been more than the average filmgoer could swallow at the time. Daylight vampires, indeed.
Still, the film's cult status grew over the years, partly due to Clemens rising stature in England. For his work on The Avengers TV show, and other British programs, he was awarded the OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) in the 2010 Queen's Birthday Honours List. Meanwhile, Janson remained one of Germany's biggest stars, and Caroline Monroe became a B-movie favorite.
Some hail Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter as one of Hammer's last masterpieces. As recently as 2008, many cast members were reunited at the Cine Lumiere theater in England for a special tribute, with Janson presiding as a guest of honor. Well, Kronos may not have reignited the vampire genre, but it may have turned out to be a kind of masterpiece, after all. During the explosive opening sequence as Kronos and Grost pound across the countryside on horseback, it certainly felt that way.