Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter
What would have happened if dear old Hammer had kept on going? A little bird told me once that there might have been a Vampirella movie, probably a film about the Loch Ness Monster, but almost certainly there would have been another outing for Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter. Now Nessie could have been good, and Vampirella may have turned out alright, but I definitely could have gone for more adventures with Captain Kronos.
Now this is not to say that Kronos is a great film, but it is a lot of fun. They obviously liked what they saw in Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde because they gave its writer, Brian Clemens, his first directing gig. For this I applaud them, because Sister Hyde was great. And good on them for turning to a writer in their hour of need. They knew they couldn’t keep telling the same Dracula story over and over again; even when they set it in 1972 Van Helsing still takes on Dracula in the same old battle with the same old rituals, only with more flared trousers. Hammer wanted a whole new hero, and if you’re going to make something up from scratch, you’re best off asking a writer. And our Brian was smart enough to realise that it’s not enough to just have a new hero, what you need is a new world to put him in. After all, Brian could have come up with Van Belsing, a tall hunchbacked Welshman who always has a small cat perched on his head and starts off every sentence with the word ‘Bastards!’ That would definitely have qualified as a new hero. But if Belsing still ends up traipsing up to spooky castles to put a stake through Count Dracula’s heart and rescuing whichever dim bulbs have gotten themselves into easily avoidable trouble, then all you have is a brand new hero in the same old story. No, what you need is a new kind of vampire hunter, one who hunts vampires in a whole new way; and preferably one who’ll wind up starring in lots of movies. Personally, I think one of the reasons Brian was such a good fit for this job was because he started off in television writing exciting adventures like The Avengers; he’s a bloke that knows how to set up a world that’s ripe for stories.
All that is what makes Kronos so much fun too, because it introduces a vampire hunter who more closely resembles the ride in, save the day, and ride out hero of television. Turning up in a place torn apart by tragedy and trouble, solving a mystery, dealing with a bad guy, falling in love, leaving her behind and moving on with his faithful assistant beside him. It’s a brilliant idea for a vampire hunter, not least because all the urgency of the film comes not from saving idiots before it’s too late, but from figuring out the mystery of who the vampire is. There’s even further mystery in having to discover how exactly to kill the vampire once you find them. You see, at the beginning of the movie Kronos’ hunchbacked mate informs us that there are lots of different kinds of vampires and there’s a different way to kill each one. I was a bit sceptical upon hearing this, I don’t mind telling you, mostly because I could almost hear Peter Cushing’s eyebrow being raised from across the decades in a withering retort to such obvious poppycock. But as the movie went on I began to appreciate the idea that if this were to have been a new series of movies, then I can see how having to solve the mystery not only of who the vampire is but also how to kill them, would be a neat thing to have to do each time. Plus it leads to an excellent darkly comic scene where the hero and his mate find themselves having to dutifully try out each method of killing upon their recently vampired friend. They ram a stake through his heart, they hang him, and they’re just about to set fire to him when they discover by accident what will really do the trick. It’s funny because it’s so dark, which is a nice place to go in a Hammer horror movie. Why not throw some black comedy in there? I wouldn’t have minded it if they had set fire to him, with that not working either, and then they could have had a chin stroking ‘what should we do now?’ meeting in front of their charred but still living friend.
The ‘who’s the vampire?’ mystery was pretty good too. There were enough suspects and I didn’t fully figure out what was going on until the movie told me, which is always nice. Although the close up on the ‘greatest swordsman ever’ bit of the dead father’s gravestone was a bit of a giveaway when they were taking pains to establish Kronos as also a master swordsman. They wouldn’t have been giving out prizes for guessing the climax at any rate. And despite all the buried toads, and the inexplicable hanging of ribbons with bells on, their plan did eventually boil down to ‘send the good looking bird into the evil family mansion and see which one of them bites her’ (I can hear Cushing’s eyebrow again...) But I feel like these flaws would have been ironed out in another film, with less world-building to pack in, and the attempt to establish burying dead toads in a box as a method of finding vampires shows a willingness to try out mad new things that I feel sure would have led to good things in future movies. But most of all I liked the idea of the master swordsman and his hunchbacked assistant travelling from town to town hunting and killing vampires.
The only thing I’m not sure about is the casting of the Captain himself. Don’t get me wrong, Horst does a pretty good job, and maybe the next movie would have given him a bit more room to breathe, but ultimately he’s up against everyone’s idea of a Hammer vampire hunter - Peter Cushing. And Horst just wasn’t as cool as Cushing. It’s quite telling, I think, that the version of the movie that I own has the old actor who plays Kronos’ Doctor mate on the cover as if he’s the hero of the picture. He looks more like a Hammer hero I suppose, where the floppy blond-haired Horst looks more like the bloke who’s in love with a vampire-kidnapped-victim who has to team up with Cushing to get her back. But I would have given him another movie to prove himself. And I definitely would have had him practise his sword play a bit. No point in having a master swordsman vampire hunter if the actor you hire to play him is pretty obviously rubbish at sword-fighting; it just takes a little bit of the shine off if you ask me.
In the end though, it is a really fun film with a whole lot of potential, and that’s all down to Brian. It’s a shame he never directed again because he does a great job. The vampire as faceless black cloaked figure standing in the middle of the green Hammer forest is jolly effective, and there is some nice work with shadows and interiors too. It’s a shame that Hammer didn’t last long enough to see the return of Kronos and Brian. Sometimes, I suppose, you just have to be happy with what you can get. Speaking of which…