The movies by British studio Hammer Film Productions might be among the most fondly remembered shockers in the history of cinema. Some of them have even held a cult status in fan circles for decades and made their leading men and women world-famous.
Christopher Lee, who – at an advanced age – has recently entered the mainstream by means of his appearances in such blockbusters as Peter Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings trilogy and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, is arguably the biggest name from the studio’s glorious heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, followed by Peter Cushing, whom most audiences might best remember for having played Grand Moff Tarkin in George Lucas’s Star Wars.
Hammer Film Productions might have long vanished from the face of the earth. Yet the studio has never ceased to fascinate movie buffs. Its impressive back catalog, however, doesn’t only offer legendary series like Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Mummy, but also some truly underrated gems. One of them is the latter-day Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter by Brian Clemens. Although it might not have the big names or the allure of these other movies, it’s still well worth a look.
Strange things are happening in a small village in the heart of Europe. Several young women have suffered mysterious deaths marked by an accelerated aging process. The resident physician Dr. Marcus (John Carson) doesn’t know what else to do and summons his old army friend Captain Kronos (Horst Janson) as well as his hunchback companion Professor Hieronymus Grost (John Cater). The two are professional vampire hunters, and the scholar immediately assumes that the murderous creature responsible for the girls’ untimely deaths doesn’t suck blood but youth.
The presence of vampires is soon confirmed through an experiment conducted by Grost and Kronos’s pretty new spouse Carla (future Bond girl Caroline Munro). An eyewitness, however, soon tells them that the killer is apparently ‘someone old, very old,’ whereas a youth-draining vampire should also look juvenescent. Who or what is the murderous creature haunting the village, and what have the children of Dr. Marcus’s deceased friend Lord Hagen Durward, Paul (Shane Briant) and the beautiful Sara (Lois Daine), as well as their bed-ridden ancient mother to do with the affair?
Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter by Brian Clemens is, by all means, a fairly idiosyncratic Hammer film. That’s not a negative thing in any way. If anything, the director and screenwriter (in a dual role) succeeds in his attempt to mix the concept of a swashbuckling erstwhile military man who tracks down vampires with some fresh, original ideas and rather witty dialog. As is usually the case for entries into the Hammer canon, set and costume design in Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter are top-notch. So are the special effects, particularly the perturbed aged faces of the murdered young women at the beginning.
Although it’s set in rural central Europe, the movie sometimes plays with elements of the western genre. A stranger (Kronos, in this instance) arrives in a small town, only to be greeted with hostility by the villagers. This idea is taken to extremes when our hero and his right-hand man enter the local tavern and are promptly attacked by a gang of thugs. The captain, naturally, defeats them and, just like in a western, is thus established as a force to be reckoned with.
Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter is an intriguing mélange, anyway, for it doesn’t only mix elements of vampire movies with those of ‘horse operas,’ but also incorporates bits and pieces of cloak-and-dagger stories, slasher films, as well a gothic horror setting. There are even shades of James Bond. Former cover girl and Vogue model Caroline Munro as his beautiful companion Carla comes to mind. It’s not too surprising that the 007 producers would later hire her to play the role of an ill-fated helicopter pilot to be killed by the famous secret agent in The Spy Who Loved Me.
Hammer had initially planned to make Captain Kronos its next big franchise in the mold of Dracula and Frankenstein, but none of that ever came into fruition despite the promising start. By the time the first Vampire Hunter movie was released, the studio had already been treading water financially for years. It folded entirely only a few years later. It’s a shame that the idea of a mix between action and the supernatural was never taken any further, because Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter is without a doubt one of Hammer’s stronger latter-day outputs and one that probably could’ve made German actor Horst Janson a bona-fide international star.
Over the last four decades, the movie has turned into something of a cult classic among the studio’s devotees as well as horror and fantasy fans in general. Not too much has been heard from most of the main cast and crew on the big screens of the world since, unfortunately. Caroline Munro had, to quote Andy Warhol, her ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ as a Bond girl. Director Brian Clemens would move on to write a number of stage plays and create some successful television series like The Professionals.
Horst Janson, on the other hand, then the long-haired star of a German show for the tube, Der Bastian, would later appear in the Teutonic version of Sesame Street, of all places. Now, aged 77 and allegedly retired, he may ask himself what might have been if Hammer Film Productions hadn’t folded. He has remained one of the most popular actors in his home country, but a Captain Kronos sequel or two would’ve had the potential to turn him into a household name in other parts of the world, too. Brian Clemens’s sole directorial feature for the big screen, meanwhile, is all that Timur Bekmambetov’s anemic recent mash-up Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter would like to be – and that’s not just a backhanded compliment.