Thursday, December 10, 2009

Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter

Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter

by Jason Henderson

Released in the UK Titled Kronos
Hammer, 1973
Video available from Paramount

Producer: Albert Fennel and Brian Clemens
Director: Brian Clemens
Cast:
Captain Kronos: Horst Janson
Dr. Marcus: John Carson
Professor Grost: John Carter
Carla: Caroline Munro
Paul Durward: Shane Briant
Sara Durward: Lois Daine
Kerro: Ian Hendry
Lady Durward: Wanda Ventham
Hagen Durward: William Hobbs
George Sorrell: Brian Tully

By now we all know the Hammerscape. We've ridden carriages across it with maddening speed, watching mists swirl out of the path of Van Helsing and Frankenstein, Dracula and the creature. We've seen that the towns flow into an odd British/German/Eastern European fusion, conveying that this clearly is an entire other planet, some of which looks a lot more like our own than others.

In Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter, we learn that some parts of the Hammerscape look an awful lot like, and are populated by people fresh from, Gunsmoke.

This must have seemed a radical idea in 1972, when the picture was made. Director Brian Clemens said he felt the way to revive flagging interest in Hammer would be to shift the focus from the vampires onto the hero. In the process he created a new hero, somewhat in line with Peter Cushing's Van Helsing. Van Helsing, of course, was the dashing, stalwart vampire hunter best seen in Brides of Dracula: athletic and relentless, a symbol of goodness. Kronos is a vampire hunter as well, but of a slightly advanced sort. He's the sort of vampire hunter Buffy seems to be patterned after, and of which there really aren't that many in film: he has a whole regimen of activities, access to great lore, and a variety of weapons. Kronos comes looking for trouble, like Harker in Dracula, but there's a big difference between city boys Harker and Van Helsing and the one-man A-Team represented by Kronos.

Kronos comes to the vampire-besieged village of Durward after receiving a letter from his old friend Doctor Marcus. Kronos is played by Klaus Janson, a flaxen-haired, chisel-jawed Swede who wears an Imperial Guardsman's coat and carries both a rapier and a katana. He smokes little cigars and tries to speak as little as possible, so the effect is that of an overly Aryan version of the Man with No Name. He was a captain who returned from the wars to find his family vampirized, and he slew them himself. His sword, we learn, is faster than the eye. Women just adore him. And so on.

My favorite aspect of Kronos is the movie's delight in giving you details about vampire-hunting. There are different kinds of vampires, we find out: the local vampire seems to be sucking youth rather than blood, for instance, which means once they have caught one, they have to experiment to figure out how to kill him. Professor Grost, Kronos' very own hunchbacked Alfred, lays out a rather impressive "vampire-detecting" system that relies on the fact that the passing of a vampire will revive a dead toad. Grost also fashions Kronos a blade from the steel of a great cross, once it's determined that that's the stuff they need. While the forging happens, Kronos purifies himself by meditating in a corner, his head covered.

So this is a weird Hammer movie. The vampires themselves are a fairly well-executed mystery for the bulk of the film, keeping you guessing how the culprit can't be who it seems to be. The solution even ties this movie in to the Hammer Karnstein Trilogy (proving once and for all that it's the same universe.) But it seems odd that in a movie designed to launch Kronos as a repeat performer (this was meant to be the first of a series), Hammer would choose such exotic vampires. It would have been preferable to at least start Kronos out chasing someone like Dracula.

The style wavers maddeningly. Director Clemens does the occasional neat trick, suggesting the stopping of a heart by the stopping of the clouds in the sky, or framing multi-layered shots of people behind statues seen through windows, etc. But as Bruce Wright points out in Nightwalkers, this film is "way "too light, containing almost no night shots at all. Scene for scene, this film has the atmosphere of a Barnaby Jones episode.

Historically, Kronos occupies a place in the fitful last years of Hammer, when few of the old crew remained. Just as Hammer had changed the face of horror in 1958, by the early seventies a new wave had come, leaving Hammer as the old school. With the advent of modern, glib horrors like The Omen and The Exorcist, sexy gothics like the Hammer films began to look quaint and out-dated. Which I suppose they were. Everything comes around. But it was in this time that Hammer entered a period of experimentation, some better than others, giving us wonderfully wacky pieces like the kung-fu vampire movie, Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, and my god, my god, the exquisitely sexy, atmospheric, avant-garde and positively wonderful Vampire Circus. And oh yes, there's Kronos, the blond-headed stepchild.

So should you see it? On a lark, sure. This is one of the few films that dared to stretch the vampire mythos within the Hammerscape concept, and it's a neat idea. Had Kronos fared better in the US, we might have seen better episodes, more stylishly delivered. As a pilot, it's not bad. Fans of super-heroes, or especially of Buffy, will want to see this seminal vampire-hunter tale. But honestly, what makes me fall ultimately on the negative side is this: after I watched this film again, I happened to catch Brides of Dracula on the Sci-Fi channel. (Mind you, Brides is the absolute "finest" Hammer of all.) But there was all the rich color, the exciting photography, masterful direction and riveting suspense of Hammer at its best. And Kronos is a very, very long way from that.

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