‘Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter’: The Action-Horror Hybrid That Reimagined the Hammer Vampire Film [Hammer Factory]

While Hammer Studios has been in business since 1934, it was between 1955 and 1979 that it towered as one of the premier sources of edgy, gothic horror. On top of ushering the famous monsters of Universal’s horror heyday back into the public eye, resurrecting the likes of Frankenstein, Dracula and the Mummy in vivid color, the studio invited performers like Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Ingrid Pitt and so many more to step into the genre limelight. Spanning a library housing over 300 films, Hammer Studios is a key part of horror history that until recently has been far too difficult to track down.

In late 2018, Shout Factory’s Scream Factory line began to focus on bringing Hammer’s titles to disc in the US, finally making many of the studio’s underseen gems available in packages that offered great visuals as well as insightful accompanying features. Over the course of this column, I will focus on these releases, gauging the films in context of the Hammer Studio story as well as analyzing the merits of the release. It’s time to highlight the power, impact and influence of Hammer Studios and ignite new conversation surrounding some forgotten classics.

Welcome to the Hammer Factory.

This month we dissect Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter (1974).

The Context

While a great many monsters graced the screens during Hammer’s reign, few were more inextricably entwined with the studio’s identity than the vampire. From the moment Christopher Lee stepped onto the frame in Dracula (1958), a gothically romantic, dread-fueled bond was forged between mythos and moviemaker, one that continued to drive Hammer’s success and creative output for as long as the studio was operational.

Even in the early 1970’s as the genre was shifting away from the subtle gothic passions which so fueled Hammer’s most prominent achievements in bloodsucking cinema, both the studio heads and American distribution partners were still interested in mining whatever they could from the tried and true vampire lore. Movies like Dracula AD 1972 (1972) and The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) took risks with the proven formula, transplanting their infamous Count to modern day London in an attempt to wrangle youthful interest and breathe new life into their aging property.

Desperate to keep the studio’s flailing finances afloat while at the same time stripping studio ownership from his contentious father, Michael Carreras was willing to explore almost any idea as long as it was presented by someone with a proven track record. Having penned the critically and financially successful Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971), Brian Clemens was one such candidate and Michael Carreras was all too willing to provide Clemens with the means to bring a new kind of vampire film to life.

Not being a vampire fan, let alone a student of horror, Clemens turned to Hammer’s stable of vampire films for research. He pored over the various vampiric entries in the studio’s canon to gain a better sense of style and understanding, walking away from his investigation believing that, by and large, the movies all seemed to be of the same ilk. Bolstered by the creative freedom offered to him by Carreras, Clemens set out to create new conventions and mythology. Most importantly, he sought to transform the lead into the hero in contrast to the fanged demon that Christopher Lee was so famous for.

Less than a month later, Clemens returned with a script featuring a time traveling hero who rode in a golden coach and ventured through the ages battling different breeds of vampire. It was a fanciful, swashbuckling tale that leaned far harder into spaghetti western than it did horror. Almost none of the preconceived vampire motifs were present in Clemens’ script, from the beasts being out in the daylight to the fact that they feasted on youth instead of blood— even wooden stakes were no longer useful.

Having insisted on helming the film as well as writing, Clemens landed his first directing job, a budget Carreras acquired through a return on a loan from the National Film Finance Corporation and approximately 8 weeks to shoot the picture. Clemens storyboarded the entire film, hand drawing 1300 frames well before any celluloid ran through a camera and, as a result, ushered in an energetic, efficient set that ultimately wrapped production well under the time allotted.

The result was Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter (1974) a beautifully constructed, strikingly grounded story that fit right in line with Sergio Leone’s Man with No Name trilogy, even if it didn’t exactly match the energy of the Hammer subgenre it was intended to embody. Michael Carreras, having paid little attention to the project until its final edit, was dissatisfied. Unhappy with the film’s unique approach, he labeled Clemens inexperienced and opted not to put the usual weight behind the film’s release and advertising campaign. It was released alongside Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell (1974) with little fanfare and fell by the wayside shortly thereafter.

Despite its poor performance, Clemens’ first and last feature directed film remains a special breed of western-action-horror hybrid that is unlike anything Hammer had done before it. Clemens’ meticulously detailed approach coupled with Ian Wilson’s earthy, naturalistic cinematography craft one of the rare dread-inducing sunlit, action-horrors of its time. Add in standout performances from Hammer newcomers Horst Janson, John Carson, John Cater and studio staple Caroline Munro and the outcome is one of Hammer’s most entertaining and compelling rides of the 1970s.

Like The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974), Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter seems, in retrospect, like the perfect olive branch to the modern horror audience Hammer was so desperate to reach at the time of its release. And, like Legend, Kronos was doomed from the start by an overseer out of step. Still, few properties in Hammer’s reservoir are as poised for a comeback, featuring a timeless hero who traverses genre entertainment without idiomatic confinement that— like their best work— feels as relevant to today’s entertainment landscape as it did to the ever churning tides of the horror genre in 1974.

The Film

“What he doesn’t know about vampires, you couldn’t put in a flea’s codpiece.”

A silver cross adorns white lace as the image pulls back to reveal a smiling girl, fixing her hair in a mirror while sitting with a friend in the sunlit forest. Her companion leaves to retrieve flowers for the braiding while the girl continues to brush, selecting a bouquet of red, orange and lavender while someone new approaches. Looking in the mirror, the still grooming girl’s expression falls, eyeing not her friend but a hooded stranger. She gasps before fastening her stare to the figure and inexplicably donning an otherworldly grin. The mirror drops to the ground, reflecting the two’s embrace which transitions all too quickly to terror as she screams in the arms of the cloaked assailant as blood drips onto the discarded mirror.

Moments later, Dr. Marcus, the town’s patriarch, comes upon the girl’s listless friend, staring awestruck at the girl on the ground. Marcus moves to investigate, reaching the girl just as she turns to face him. Gone is the youthful gaze of the girl in the mirror, replaced with the haggard, wrinkled visage of time’s ravaging effects. Blood leaks from her mouth as Dr. Marcus peers down in dumbfounded terror.

The trumpets of Laurie Johnson’s rollicking score thunder against the sun as the ornate letters of Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter fly into the frame. The pounding hooves of Kronos’ steed serve as the foundation to the crescendoing theme, ushering in a film that feels so far removed from the Hammer vampire film that one can scarcely believe the creature warrants being mentioned in the title.

And yet, such is the strength of Brian Clemens’ film, a movie that so purposefully diverges from the stylistic expectations of Hammer’s gothic aesthetic and story structure that it becomes something else entirely. Not beholden to any one genre, the film owes as much to John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) as it does Terrence Fisher’s Dracula, taking on a serial-like mentality and birthing a daring champion that could have gone on to fight any number of fiends, in any conceivable categories of narrative.

At the center of it all is the titular Captain Kronos, played with lone-wolf solitude and an abundance of testosterone by Horst Janson, and his partner Professor Grost. John Cater plays the hunchback Grost, a kind, quirky and intelligent man, dedicated to Kronos and his cause and a veritable fountain of lore applicable to whatever predicament they might find themselves facing. In lieu of a Van Helsing figure, Clemens dissects the archetypal Hammer vampire hunter into this complementary pair, adding depth and fallibility to the story in fun and interesting ways.

Rounding out the core trio is Caroline Munro as Carla, a gypsy woman Kronos frees in the opening moments of the film. She brings an understated humanity to the proceedings, evolving from passenger to admirer to lover as the story progresses and providing a more honest perspective to the narrative’s goings on than a hero like Kronos is able to reflect. Also of note is John Carson’s Dr. Marcus, town leader and old friend of Kronos. Carson brings the appropriate level of restrained respectability and gradually seeping vulnerability that makes his character feel like a fleshed out human being as opposed to a wooden part of the set dressing, as is sometimes the case in narratives of this sort.

The film is peppered with fascinating variations on traditional vampire folklore. While the film acknowledges many of the mainstays— carrying wooden crosses in Kronos’ cart, for example— it’s in the deviations that the film stands out. One such plot point finds Professor Grost burying dead toads in the woods, hoping that a vampire will cross their path so they might spring to life. But the most striking detour in vampiric mythology comes from what it is upon which the demonic bloodletters feed.

Draining youth from its victims, this is a vampire that sustains itself in a manner befitting the time-bending monster hunting career originally intended for the film’s protagonist. The attacks in the film are often brought to life in brief, visually striking moments, rarely showing the aftermath, but rather crafting tension by way of an expertly constructed setup. A shadow of a cross on the wall in a church reveals itself as anything but a holy symbol. A girl forging a path through a hilly wood doesn’t resurface after disappearing below an unusually steep ridge. They all amount to the same thing: a young woman whose youth has left her, a soul robbed of innocence by way of time.

Another wrinkle in the mystery of the dark goings on in the small village is the wealthy Durward family, consisting of bedridden Lady Durward and her two androgynous adult children Paul and Sara, played by Shane Briant and Lois Diane respectively. Oddly close and constantly professing their insecurities regarding aging and ending up like their decrepit matriarch in the upstairs suite, Paul and Sara frequent the film as something of a disconcerting shadow hanging over the town. Probably the most in-line with Hammer’s typical output, the family represents the wealthy aristocracy, perched, as it always is, precariously above its subjugated class.

Throughout the dark investigation, Kronos still makes time for the kind of debonair interactions reserved for an action hero of his stature. While sensual love scenes and the dispatching of drunkard bullies in the local tavern by the edge of his sword may not move the story forward, they serve the characters all too well, promoting compassion, intrigue and excitement as though it were just as important as plot in the grand narrative scheme.

Even amidst the fencing, mysterious vampiric attacks and naked romps in the barn, the film carries a sincerity with it, never forgetting what’s at stake for the characters and the town. Emotion courses throughout, particularly in one sequence where Kronos is forced to explore every possible method of vampiric destruction on someone very close to him who’s been turned. Subtly photographed, carefully performed and strikingly realized, the tender heart of the sequence comes not only from those in the room, but too from Caroline Munro’s reactions as she watches the events from afar.

Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter is as interested in the violent, action-packed affairs of the story as it is the intimate effects of that narrative’s impact on those who populate it. Beautifully shot and designed from top to bottom, the film builds to its heroic, sword fight fairytale conclusion with an engaging, swiftly driving sense of purpose. Taking place in the Durward’s manor, Clemens composes the finale with faces and spaces obscured by objects in the foreground, always presenting the frame as though a window into another world that the viewer might be peeking into without permission. There’s a realness and urgency to that sort of filmmaking that betrays the outrageousness of Captain Kronos’ world and the film is all the better for it.

Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter is a Hammer vampire film that sought to break the mold of such a label, flooding the proceedings with daylight, placing the violence back into the imaginations of the viewer and building itself around a Captain instead of a Count. Unfortunately, the studio took umbrage with this approach, with producer Michael Carreras failing to see eye to eye with Clemens’ vision of a different sort of vampire outing. As such, the studio chose not to throw their support behind it and the production failed to make an impact during its time.

In the end, the hero prevails— at a cost— and must move on. For a man like Captain Kronos, evil is his burden to eradicate. His is a calling that no creature, no town and no woman can halt, and his stories are destined to be as much myth as they are truth. Wherever there is innocence being stalked in the woods, drained of its essence or terrorized by those vile things which dwell in the dark, Captain Kronos will be there. And so he rides, a familiar theme rising on the horizon as the sun settles below the hilly greens.

It is there that Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter concludes and, in the mind’s eye, truly begins.

The Special Features

This release comes equipped with a transfer taken from the Paramount master, presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio (the Australian Shock Entertainment transfer is not included). Shout!’s transfer is naturalistically filmic with good detail and grain intact. However, the picture is occasionally faded in high contrast scenes and the colors are somewhat dull throughout. Also, the aspect ratio is slightly altered from its original release of 1:66:1. While the print is lacking and the aspect ratio shift is not ideal, overall the Blu-ray is a significant step up from the film’s previous DVD release and generally looks good.

The DTS-HD Master Mono track serves the film well, presenting crisp dialogue and the triumphant score in a pleasing, easy to hear package. All in all, the presentation is far from perfect but more than worthy of any Hammer fan’s collection.

Audio Commentary, by Bruce G. Hallenbeck

(New: 2020, produced by Shout Factory)

Author and Historian Bruce G. Hallenbeck provides an incredibly detailed and well researched commentary track that delves into the history of the production, the creatives involved and an engaging analysis of the film.

Hallenbeck begins by discussing director Brian Clemens’ history and past successes with Hammer as well as the man’s general lack of interest or experience in traditional vampire lore. He leverages that context to explore the film’s unorthodox approach to the mythology and how ultimately unique Kronos is amongst Hammer’s catalogue. Hallenbeck comes equipped with interview excerpts from various publications as well, lending authenticity to the whole affair.

He concludes by saying that Kronos is probably Hammer’s most viable property for a reboot, modern in its approach, thematics and lack of genre affiliation. The track is an essential listen for those wishing to learn more about the film or its place in Hammer’s rich history.

Audio Commentary, by Brian Clemens, Caroline Munro and Jonathan Scott

(2004, produced by Paramount)

Ported over from the Paramount DVD, this commentary track features writer and Director Brian Clemens and actress Caroline Munro as they reflect fondly on their experience creating Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter while film historian Jonathan Scott moderates.

Brian Clemens talks about his desires to invert the classic Hammer vampire film, making the hero the hero as opposed to identifying with Christopher Lee’s villainous Count. He speaks fondly of the cast and crew and the creative freedom they were allowed. Caroline Munro seconds much of Clemens’ feelings, adding fun anecdotes to Clemens’ more serious recollections, such as how smelly the dead toads were on set.

In the end, all lament the fact that the film never got the sort of proper release that might have led to a wider audience and Clemens admits he wished he could’ve directed more features. Still, Clemens and Munro maintain that their time on Kronos was wonderful and, if they were able, say that they’d be back on set tomorrow.

Anything Goes — Hammer Horror in the 1970s (32:55)

(New: 2020, produced by Shout Factory)

Author/Critic Kim Newman and Author/Editor Stephen Jones sit down to have a candid chat about Hammer’s latter years and the huge output of genre films that came out at that time which ultimately made very little money.

They talk about how the bottom fell out for studios like AIP, Amicus and Hammer with the abandonment of US financial partners. They discuss the pull towards overt sexuality in an attempt to change with the tides and a new “try anything” mentality that led to an infusion of kung fu, bikers, sword-fighting and anything else producers could think of to get audiences in seats.

The two cover a number of different Hammer and UK titles in general, suggesting that British horror films were for Britain what westerns were for America. They cover the important genre-splicing that was coming out of the particularly fruitful period of cinematic output and make the point that many of these films stand up better today than they even did at the time. The message of the conversation boils down to this: one should never be ashamed of the films one likes.

Theatrical Trailer (2:47)

A voice announces that, “in the 18th century in Central Europe, a black terror swept across the face of the land…” A girl picks wildflowers in the woods as the narrator continues, “striking fear into the hearts of every man, woman and child.” Suddenly, the screen is bathed in red as a woman is attacked by a robed figure. She screams and rolls over, now ravaged by age and covered in sickly green light.

Captain Kronos rides into the frame, the one man who “dares” to take on the fight. Kronos is seen sword fighting while dialogue from the film informs us that not all vampires attack the same way, saying the girls were “not drained of blood, but of youth.” Shots of a woman alone in an eerie church and footage from the climactic battle accompanied by somewhat revealing quotes from the film’s final twenty minutes carry the trailer to its concluding freeze frame shot of Kronos, tinted red as he wields his sword.

Radio Spots (3:02)

A still of Kronos from the film, like the trailer bathed in red, serves as the backdrop to a series of several radio spots collected for the disc.

In the first, an excitable voice practically shouts, “For dear life hold onto your blood, because your blood is their life!” The spot is quick and fast paced, going on about Captain Kronos taking on “the terror that must be challenged” and how “horror has met its match”. The spot concludes with what feels like a dare to all the teenagers who might be listening in, saying, “under 17 not admitted without parent”.

The second spot is a truncated version of the first. The third is for a double feature including Kronos and Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell. The “double scream show” involves “the eeriest transplant in the history of horror” and “the only man alive feared by the walking dead”. It’s backed by what sounds like an old “Sounds of Halloween” record and ends with an exaggerated scream. The fourth spot is an expedited version of its predecessor. All together, the spots offer a fun few minutes of fun listening pleasure.

Final Thoughts

Even in the waning years of the studio’s prominence, the vampire remained the life-blood of Hammer’s cinematic yield. As the 1970s dawned, the studio’s ownership was in the process of changing hands and the horror genre was dramatically shifting toward the kind of graphic exploitation fare that Hammer neither embodied nor understood. So it was that risks were taken and the studio heads, like Michael Carreras, were willing to tweak those formulas which had so often led to success in the past, the vampire included.

In the wake of writing the successful Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, Brian Clemens proposed a new kind of Hammer vampire film. It was a film which focused on the hero instead of the villain, that pushed the boundaries of horror into other genres and provided audiences with something new and exciting with the potential for countless more entries in the future. The film was Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter and given Clemens’ track record and meticulousness, Carreras gave the filmmaker carte blanche to turn the Hammer vampire film on its head.

Filmed under the time allotted and within the confines of its strict budget, the smooth production was a testament to Clemens’ vision, careful planning and immaculate execution. A kinetic, earthy picture, Kronos succeeds in presenting a film that feels altogether new when compared to Hammer’s other blood-thirsty entries while simultaneously employing and subverting many of the tropes which comprise those narratives.

Unfortunately, when Carreras turned back up in the final stages of editing the picture, he was displeased. The film felt nothing like the movies Hammer had made before it, so far removed from the constructs of their particular breed of vampire that it hardly seemed appropriate to the producer to even label it as such. His frustration led to a lackluster advertising campaign, inconsistent worldwide release pattern and a movie that came and went without much attention being paid to it at the time.

Luckily, Scream Factory resurrects Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter with two invaluable commentary tracks, original promotional materials and a conversation between two Hammer historians that fleshes out the film’s importance and sticking power despite its poor performance upon release. While the transfer is not altogether beyond reproach, the naturalistic, grainy presentation serves the earthy look that cinematographer Ian Wilson was going for and makes it a must-own for Hammer fans and horror enthusiasts alike.

Despite the fact that Kronos was precisely the type of genre hybrid that was on the cusp of becoming so popular, Hammer opted not to get behind it and allowed the film to languish as a forgotten misstep on what was becoming an increasingly futile path toward relevance. As is so often the case with Hammer’s more interesting creations of the 1970s, one wonders what might’ve been had Hammer embraced what made them unique and interesting as opposed to rejecting that which challenged the expected paradigm.

Still, who knows, perhaps Captain Kronos has yet to take his final ride into the horizon of the setting sun. After all, what makes Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter such an enduring property is its universality, untethered by genre and constantly treading toward the next great fight. Hammer may not have realized it at the time, but the great movies, much like the character of Kronos was originally intended to be, are nothing if not free of time’s binding constraints.