Along with The Devil Rides Out (1968), Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter (1972) remains one of the great missed opportunities for Hammer Studios. Intended to be the first of a series of films featuring the titular hero, it was a commercial failure and thus nixing any future installments, which is a shame because it is such an entertaining and engaging take on the vampire genre, creating its own unique rules for how to dispatch these creatures. More than simply a horror film, Captain Kronos is also a rousing action/adventure tale complete with a brooding swashbuckling hero portrayed by Horst Janson.
Someone is attacking young women from a village and draining their blood, which ages them at an alarming rate until they die. One of the town elders – Dr. Marcus (John Carson) – calls on his old army buddy Captain Kronos (Janson) to investigate this strange phenomenon. After the suspenseful prologue, Kronos and his sidekick Professor Grost (John Cater) are introduced riding through the countryside to a rousing score in a way that suggests a gunslinger arriving in town to rid it of bad guys.
Along the way, the two men encounter a beautiful gypsy woman named Carla (Caroline Munro) shackled out in the middle of nowhere for dancing on a Sunday (?!). Kronos frees her and she joins them on their journey. The film becomes something of a whodunit as Kronos and Grost try to figure out who among the townsfolk is killing these young women, employing deductive methods that are fascinatingly unique to this film, like putting dead toads in boxes and burying them in the ground throughout the forest where the attacks took place. If a vampire passes by one of them its essence will reanimate the toad. As Kronos tells Marcus, “It’s an old folk rhyme but like most of them there is a grain of truth in it.”
Horst Janson plays Kronos as an enigmatic hero that says little but carries himself in a way that suggests an air of confidence and intelligence. The actor conveys this through body movement and in the way his character interacts with others. It isn’t until more than 40 minutes in that we get an example of Kronos’ impeccable fighting credentials when he deals with three hired thugs that interrupt him questioning the village barkeep. One of them says, “Tell me, did you lose your battles or win them?” Kronos replies, “A little of both and not enough of either.” He then proceeds to dispatch them in quick and decisive fashion reminiscent of how Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name took down opponents in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. Later on, Janson has a nice moment where he recounts a story about how he returned from the war to find that his mother and sister had become vampires. He was forced to kill them and this provides crucial insight into his character as well as compelling motivation for his current occupation.
I like that Grost isn’t the typical sidekick, which would have seen him providing the comic relief what with a hunchback and all. Instead, Kronos or Carla never mention his physical condition because it’s never an issue and it only comes out when three tough guys make fun of him in order to provoke Kronos. John Cater plays Grost as the Dr. Watson to Kronos’ Sherlock Holmes. He’s smart and empathetic, taking Carla under his wing. He may not be the badass with a sword that Kronos is but he has his own notable attributes.
Caroline Munro does a nice job portraying Carla. Her character is more than simple eye candy and while she’s not Kronos’ equal, she’s not his servant either. Carla helps him with the investigation but it is implied that she can leave whenever she wants. Munro delivers a sexy, spirited performance of an outcast that finds purpose with Kronos. It is her who initiates their love scene, which director Brian Clemens artfully and tastefully shoots among well-placed shadows.
Veteran screenwriter Clemens (The Avengers) crafts a solid screenplay that does a fantastic job of building its own unique world. At one point, Grost gives some tantalizing insight into this world’s mythology when he tells Marcus, “You see doctor, there are as many species of vampires as there are beasts of prey. Their methods and their motives for attack can vary in a hundred different ways,” to which Kronos adds, “And their means of their destruction.” Another memorable exchange establishes a playful vibe between Kronos and Carla as he asks her if she’s staying with them during their investigation. She suggestively replies, “I’m staying. If you’ll have me.” He gives her a sly look and tells her, “Oh, I’ll have you.” Cut to Carla and the camera zooms in on her smoldering eyes. However, before they can act on the sexual tension between them, Kronos is called to duty.
With creepy perspective shots and gripping music, Clemens gives the daytime scenes where women are attacked a real sense of menace as they are easily and quickly isolated only to be killed in a way that leaves few clues. He goes against the traditional practice of having vampires attack at night and thus from the outset announces that this film will be subverting the usual conventions of the genre. For a first-time director he has a keen eye for framing, like a particularly nice shot of one of the victim’s sister in the background with a giant bell looming in the foreground so that it is a frame within a frame. A little later there is another excellent shot of a woman praying in a church with a giant cross in the foreground. Its shadow gradually changes so that the horizontal bars bend and the woman is attacked off-camera. Clemens cuts to a chalice tipping over all by itself and then she screams. It is a particularly effective scene that leaves something to the imagination.
After writing Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971), Hammer Studios executive Michael Carreras asked Brian Clemens to create a screenplay for a vampire movie. The screenwriter wasn’t a fan of the genre and decided to research it by watching several of them. He found that they were very similar: “same buildup, same premise, same stake in the heart. I proposed bending the established conventions and inventing my own.” Clemens had written and produced And Soon the Darkness (1970), but didn’t like the way director Robert Fuest did things. Clemens realized that he should have directed and decided that he would do so with Captain Kronos.
Clemens originally envisioned Captain Kronos as a series of films featuring a time travelling protagonist that encountered different kinds of vampires in several places and eras. He spent three weeks writing the script. Carreras provided the $400,000 budget and promised it to Paramount Studios as the bottom half of a double bill with Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974), but there was no guarantee it would be released in the United Kingdom.
When it came to casting, Clemens chose John Carson and John Cater, both of whom had worked on The Avengers television show as did the filmmaker. At the time, Caroline Munro was under contract to Hammer and they wanted her to play Carla. Clemens heard that she couldn’t act and had her read the part naturally. From that, he reworked her role to suit her inexperience. Horst Janson was hot off a popular appearance as an Austrian ski instructor in the English T.V. soap opera Coronation Street and had appeared in big budget films like The McKenzie Break (1970) and Murphy’s War (1971). The actor’s agent gave him the script for Captain Kronos and he found it funny and entertaining. Janson liked the story and knew of Clemens because The Avengers was very popular in Germany.
Captain Kronos began principal photography on April 10, 1972 with an eight-week schedule, five of it in the studio and the rest on location but Clemens was able to complete it in seven and on budget. However, Carreras was not happy with the final film: “Clemens’ team didn’t have the proper expertise with this type of material.” He felt that Clemens and co. didn’t make Captain Kronos with the “same reverence as the experienced Hammer team … Maybe I didn’t understand their style, but I just didn’t like it.” Some have alleged that Carreras “killed” the film and used it for a tax write-off. At the very least, he didn’t support it properly and it died on the vine. With the financing deal that he made no distribution was guaranteed and it wasn’t released in Britain until April 7, 1974 and in the U.S. in June of that year.
The first half of Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter is dedicated to the hero’s thoughtful, methodical investigation and we are kept guessing as to who is the vampire terrorizing the village. It has a witty, well-written script that cleverly re-imagines the vampire genre in subtle but significant ways while also deftly mixing genres. Captain Kronos is a horror film that dabbles in action/adventure with comedy sprinkled lightly throughout while managing to avoid being out-and-out camp. Clemens doesn’t forget what’s at stake and doesn’t take lightly the horror that has beset the village. Our hero also goes from a hired gun of sorts to someone personally invested in the resolution of these murders. While it is a pity that more films weren’t made chronicling the further adventures of Captain Kronos, at least we have this one to enjoy.
Hallenbeck, Bruce G. “Brian Clemens at Hammer: The Making of Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter.” Little Shoppe of Horrors. No. 18. 2006.
Kinsey, Wayne. Hammer Films: The Elstree Studio Years. Tomahawk Press. 2007.
Sommerlad, Uwe. “Horst Janson.” Little Shoppe of Horrors. No. 18. 2006.