There’s a bat stuck “splat!” on to someone’s face at a certain point in Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter, which just about sums up this film made in 1972 (released in 1974), an attempt by writer/director Brian Clemens and his crew to breathe new life into the vampire genre and the Hammer Studio’s output.
Clemens was the moving spirit behind the British TV spy-fi series The Avengers, which had ceased production in 1969 after an eight-year run. Never one to let the grass grow under his feet, in the interim he’d created the comedy series My Wife Next Door, and written for TV shows The Champions and The Protectors, and also penned the screenplay for The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.
Busy, busy Clemens specialised in pastiche and spoof, as did TV generally, borrowing ideas from the cinema as if taking hand-me-down garments from an older sibling. Here, Clemens takes the Dracula story – worn translucent by Hammer in around a dozen films since 1958 – and gives it a couple of tweaks. First up, vampire-slaying Van Helsing is now two, if not three separate people – handsome dashing, man-of-action Captain Kronos (Horst Janson), his more cerebral loremeister and sidekick Grost (John Cater), plus Dr Marcus (John Carson), who has called on the services of his old friend after his village has been troubled by a puzzling phenomenon – young women suddenly hideously aged into old crones after a kiss from a mysterious stranger.
Vampires come in many forms and varieties, Grost helpfully informs Dr Marcus (ie us). We, meanwhile, look around the locale for anything suspicious going on. There is, for example, the local lady of the manor (played by Wanda Ventham in little more than a cameo), who seems suddenly much older than she had been, perhaps prematurely aged by the recent death of her husband, perhaps by something else. Other contenders? Her children, the unbearably entitled duo of Paul (Shane Briant) and Sara (Lois Daine), heads held high, never walking into a room when they can stride into it etc etc. Er, that’s about it.
Clemens was never known as much of a one for plot, preferring (often eccentric) character to story, which makes for an enjoyable if inert viewing experience. In Captain Kronos Not Much Happens. Kronos and Grost visit a local inn where a belligerent ruffian (Ian Hendry) and his sidekicks are taken down a peg or 12, Dr Marcus meets Lady Durward while she visits her husband’s grave and is shortly thereafter touched by a mystery affliction. Again, that’s about it.
Thank god for Caroline Munro, who is introduced as a feisty young local woman who’s been put in the stocks for dancing on a Sunday. After being freed by Kronos, Carla becomes another of his band, pouting, tossing her mane and swishing her way attractively through the rest of the film.
The “big idea” is youth – the boomer generation’s hang-up – and the word is lent a special emphasis throughout. Kronos is your hippie type, long of hair, an indulger in “Chinese herbs”, the sort of vampire slayer who lets it all hang out right up to the point where he needs to gather it all back in again to actually do his job.
Clemens likes words, which gives the film its zing. And he doesn’t mind being ridiculous here and there – see The Avengers – like the bit where Kronos and Grost go out and deposit dead toads in boxes around the woods. If the toad comes back to life at any point, sayeth ye olde lore, it’s an indication that a vampire has “bestrode” the box. “Bestrode” because it rhymes with toad. Everyone keeps a straight face.
Take it at that level and it’s vastly entertaining. The sparse, almost Shakerish production design (by Avengers old hand Robert Jones) is better than it might have been, the soundtrack by Laurie Johnson (another Avengers hire) injects some needed pace and DP Ian Wilson shoots it in that “all the lights on” early 1970s way. It’s bright, it’s clear, and thanks to a recent restoration, it’s sharp as hell. A good looking production.
This was Clemens’s first and only go at directing a film, which was meant to be the first of a series of Kronos adventures. The box office said no. And so that was that. Captain Kronos was unceremoniously put back in his box.
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© Steve Morrissey 2022