Monday, May 03, 2010

Movie Monday - Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter

In the early 70's, the English studio Hammer was starting to fall on hard times. The huge success of their late 50's/early 60's horror films had been ridden into the ground through repetition: by 1972, the studio had put out six Frankensteins and seven Draculas, along with four Mummys, four cave girl movies, and a trilogy of lesbian vampire movies featuring Countess Mircalla Karnstein. Audiences were looking for something new, so writer/director Brian Clemens (creator of 60's TV classic The Avengers) decided to try something new.

That something was "Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter."

It starts as a typical Hammer vampire film, with a couple of blandly pretty girls frolicking in the forest. But one of them is kissed by a sinister hooded apparition, leading to this.

Sadly, that hair looks more realistic on the old lady than it did on the younger girl.

Soon, an ex-soldier on horseback, accompanied by a hunchback in a wagon, come thundering into town.

Yeah, that's right, they bad. They are Captain Kronos (German actor Horst Janson) and Professor Heironymous Grost (John Cater). Soon they are joined by Carla (Caroline Munro hubba-hubba), a smokin' hot babe they find imprisoned in stocks for dancing on a Sunday. She gladly hitches a ride with them rather than wait around to be thrown in the stocks again.

They soon arrive at the home of Dr. Marcus, an old friend of Kronos's. Marcus's manservant is taken aback at the contents of their cart.

Those skewers will make for some awfully big kebabs.

Marcus has summoned them to help with a vexing problem: the young women of the town are turning old and dying. Grost immediately divines the problem: a vampire that consumes youth rather than blood (there are many different types of vampire, Grost says, thereby alerting the audience that this movie is not going to be 90 minutes of yawning while waiting for the stake). So Kronos and Grost begin trying to track down the vampire, using sophisticated detection methods like dead toads and bells on ribbons.

And at night, Kronos keeps warm with Carla.

Oof. In a nicely subtle bit of euphemism, Kronos's cigarette gets happier the closer Carla approaches.

All the investigating appears to bear fruit when some local toughs are hired to instigate a fight with Kronos in a tavern.

And here we see a couple of the things that made Kronos so unique. Number one, this scene obviously owes more to American westerns than to vampire movies. Clemens appears to have been trying to make an action film rather than a horror movie. Too bad the budget was so low and the schedule so tight, because with a couple more action set pieces, this film might have made a bigger splash.

And number two, notice the sword on the bar. Kronos was intended to be the first of a new series of films, so Clemens went out of his way to throw in lots of incongruous elements to Kronos's character (which would probably have been explored or explained in later films in the series). Kronos carries both a samurai sword and a rapier. He smokes a "Chinese herb" and bears the scars of an old vampire bite on his neck. And he's got his own logo (seen in the title card above) which he has stamped on all his gear, from his horse blanket to his backpack to his ring.

Meanwhile, as Kronos is dispatching the goon squad, Dr. Marcus pays a visit to the local nobles, a family called the Durwards. The father, a legendary swordsman, died recently of "plague," while the mother shuts herself into seclusion and the two grown children share a close relationship.

On his way back from the Durwards' mansion, Marcus has a strange encounter in the forest and discovers that he is now a vampire himself, which leads to the centerpiece of the movie, as Kronos and Grost try to figure out how to kill him.

Each type of vampire can only be killed in a certain way, you see; you can't just stake them and be done with it. It's a clever and entertaining sequence that, like the action scenes, probably just needed to be pushed a little further to transform it from interesting cult footnote to enduring fantasy classic. By incredible coincidence, it turns out that the way to kill this type of vampire is one that involves stabbing with a steel implement, like, say, a sword made from an iron cross. Why, one might almost think the film was setting up a big swordfighting climax.

Before Grost can forge the sword, however, Kronos must show off his dueling chops by fighting a few of the townspeople, roused to fury by Marcus's manservant, who claims the newcomers murdered his master in cold blood. The scene is undercut somewhat by Janson's clumsy swordplay and Clemens's inexperience as a director.

Anyway, it all comes down to a battle between Kronos and the not-quite-dead Lord Durward, surrounded by Durward's family and Carla, all victims of vampire mesmerism.

That's fight arranger William Hobbs playing Durward. Why pay an actor when the stuntman's right there?

Of course, Kronos wins in the end and rides off into the sunset, inexplicably leaving behind the two best things in the movie--the vampire-killing sword (does he honestly believe he'll never run into that kind of vampire again?) and Carla. Luckily, Carla (or at least Caroline Munro), came back in other films.

Looking back, "Captain Kronos" is more interesting as a precursor of what was to come than as a movie in its own right. Which is not to say it's bad, just that it was way before its time. If it had been made a few years later, with a bit better budget, it might have revolutionized the vampire film. As it is, it anticipates the blend of action and supernatural horror found in later films like "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer" (along with Hammer's last film in their Dracula series, 1974's "The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula," a truly odd fusion of vampire horror with Shaw Brothers kung fu that I need to hunt down sometime).

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