Scream Factory. Region A.
Feature: 91 mins. Aspect ratio 1.85:1.
In the ‘70s when Hammer Films were desperately heading in new directions in search of box office gold in an increasingly competitive genre film landscape, scribe and filmmaker Brian Clemens unleashed the failed first installment in a planned series, Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter. A relative of Mark Twain, Brian Clemens is best known for being the associate producer, principal writer, and script editor for the TV series The Avengers. In 1971, Clemens wrote the screenplay for the quite wonderful genre and gender-bending Hammer film Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, and brings a similar sense of bizarre quirkiness to Captain Kronos.
A mixtape of vampire tale and swashbuckler, Kronos opens on a prologue in which a hooded figure appears to suck the life from a young girl, leaving her old and parchment-skinned. Cut to the main titles with titular Captain (Horst Janson) and hunchbacked assistant Grost (John Cater) galloping through the countryside to composer Laurie Johnson’s rousing main theme (unintentionally referencing highwayman Dennis Moore riding in search of lupins, but perhaps that’s just me). After picking up sensuous, raven-haired hitchhiker Carla (Caroline Munro), Kronos and Grost end up at the village haunted by the vampire, to help Dr. Marcus solve the mystery and destroy the supernatural killer. Those familiar with Hammer critiques of the class system in films like Plague of the Zombies (1966) might wonder if the reclusive aristocrats the Durwards, Paul (Shane Briant) and Lady Durward (Wanda Ventham), are involved. “We are Durwards…thoroughbreds,” Paul Durward snottily intones.
Clemens’ mission was to invert the familiar Hammer vampire tropes and one of the most interesting aspects of the film is how the writer-director plays with traditional cinematic vampire lore. Here the vampire sucks youth from its victims, rather than blood. “The cross can only protect those who firmly believe,” explains Grost, who also counsels that there are many ways to kill vampires beyond the traditional stake in the heart. Flowers wilt amongst the grass in the wake of the cloaked vampire. Grost buries dead toads in the soft earth as way to detect the presence of a vampire – a toad corpse will reanimate if an undead bloodsucker passes by. This sense of country folklore, combined with much of the film being shot on location amongst woods, thickets, and green fields, edges Captain Kronos ever so slightly into the territory of folk horror.
This was Clemens’ only film as director. He has a propensity to frame shots – through carriage windows, architecture, vegetation, and as reflections in vanity mirrors. It manages to inject a cut-price sense of cinematic panache to the low budget proceedings. One shot with Kronos in shadow, face completely hidden and a shaft of light illuminating his cigar smoke, shows particular visual imagination. Clemens even channels Spaghetti Western in a Sergio Leone-like standoff between Kronos and three thugs in a tavern. Taking a page from Hitchcock, apparently Clemens storyboarded the entire movie, and this pays dividends in ensuring Kronos has a visual appeal that distinguishes it from other Hammer films of this era.
With a quirky tone, playful script, and solid performances, it’s a real shame that Captain Kronos did not fare better at the box office, depriving the genre film landscape of a series featuring the vampire hunter. Especially as Clemens’ plan was to apparently have the title character unstuck in time and fighting a variety of vampire species across different historical periods. Nevertheless, we still have this gem, which is one of the most interesting and purely entertaining movies that Hammer churned out in the ‘70s.
The transfer on this Scream Factory disc is clean, detailed and filmlike, though somewhat muted in its colour palette. A quick comparison with the old Paramount DVD release shows that the original disc sported similarly subdued colours. I’m unsure if this is due to the same transfer being used or if it’s inherent to the original film.
Audio Commentary With Brian Clemens, Caroline Munro, and Hammer Films Historian Jonathan Sothcott – Ported over from the Paramount DVD, thanks to Clemens’ wealth of information this is a great track, well moderated by Sothcott.
Audio Commentary with Bruce G. Hallenbeck – Author of the book The Hammer Vampire, Hallenbeck stuffs an impressive amount of detail into this track.
Anything Goes: Hammer Horror in the 1970s (32 mins.) – Authors Kim Newman and Stephen Jones talk about a fruitful but financially less successful period in British horror cinema.
Theatrical trailer and Radio spots
A crisp presentation of a minor Hammer classic, this Scream Factory disc is an easy recommendation for aficionados of classic genre fare.