Friday, January 6, 2012


It's not a good sign for the movie, I suppose, when the DVD box cover forgets to show you the title character, and that's where Wendigo and I started with the now-remaindered Paramount DVD of Brian Clemens's would-be tentpole picture from the dying days of the Hammer studio. With Dracula played out and the Karnstein act already growing tired, the home of the vampire made this last stab at infusing some novelty into the bloodsuckers, making sure to make Captain Kronos a tangental sequel to the Karnstein series (here pronounced "Karn-steen," Mel Brooks style) while pointing toward new directions that were never actually taken.

A Van Helsing for the Swaggering Seventies, Kronos (Horst Janson) is a sword-swinging, often-shirtless, cheroot smoking stud on a mission from God. The way Wendigo sees it, Kronos was to Peter Cushing's Van Helsing what Hugh Jackman's Van Helsing was to all other respectable vampire hunters: a floundering attempt to be more cool on all levels. At this point, Hammer thought it was better to look good than to talk good, giving us a very Germanic, very wooden star. Nor, under Clemens's direction, does Janson look very good as an action hero. The director doesn't direct action very well and has difficulty maintaining the balance he seeks between horror action and tongue-in-cheek fantasy. The climactic swordfight between hunter and vampire, waged while everyone else stands in mesmerized stillness, looks ridiculous, but not in a good way, and much of the action is like that.

Hammer clearly wanted Kronos to stand for something new in vampire movies. The script stresses that there are as many varieties of vampire as there are animals in nature, with different modes of attack, different vulnerabilities, etc. For this introductory outing the studio tries to spice up its usual gothic formula. The vampire doesn't drain its victims of blood alone, but of youth above all, leaving the usual pretty Hammer victims dessicated old ladies. It slinks about by day, albeit concealed in black robes that keep the predator's true identity a mystery until the end. It drains the life even from the landscapes, plants withering in its shadow. It can be trailed in obscure ways; plant a dead toad in a box beneath a road, for instance, and the poor croaker will come back to life if a vampire passes over. Wendigo assures me that this is authentic folklore, but that only shows that folks will believe all manner of lore. In one blackly comic scene, Kronos and his hunchbacked assistant struggle to figure out the right method to kill a more-or-less compliant subordinate vampire, trying the usual stake and the unusual expedient of hanging before literally stumbling upon the solution of applying blessed steel to its flesh. This inspires the forging of a sword from a steel crucifix while Kronos gets all spiritual and meditative like the martial-arts masters he was probably meant to emulate. These eccentric details are most of the best things about Captain Kronos in Wendigo's opinion.

Above: Shadow of the vampire -- or shadow of Gumby?
Below: a crucifix was no help to this victim.

The other best thing about the movie, of course, is Caroline Munro.

Munro is an icon of Seventies genre cinema, the Vampirella that never was and a mesmerizing presence in everything from The Golden Voyage of Sinbad to Starcrash. Sadly, she's underutilized and at the same time overutilized here. She isn't given much to do but service Kronos after he frees her from the stocks (she'd been sentenced for dancing on Sundays), but Clemens always cuts to her reaction shots as she makes saucy and sardonic faces in lieu of actual commentary on the action. Wendigo is compelled to admit that she's little more than eye candy here -- but he doesn't mind indulging his cinematic sweet tooth every so often. He's always regretted that she didn't have as many substantial roles as she deserved -- and that she didn't do nude scenes. He treasures what we do have of her just the same. She effortlessly eclipses most of the cast, from John Cater's learned hunchback to Wanda Ventham as a poor man's Ingrid Pitt.

Dr. Grost's Zoology: Dead toads are our friends;
bats are not.

Wendigo thinks that Captain Kronos could have become the series Hammer hoped for -- if it had a different director and star and had come out in a period when people hadn't grown bored with vampires. As it turned out, Clemens's Kronos was the wrong film at the wrong time. Would it be worth trying again now? Again, Wendigo notes sadly that Stephen Sommers's abominable Van Helsing is, for all intents and purposes, a Kronos remake. He presumes that any attempt to literally redo Kronos would end up sharing all of Van Helsing's flaws and excesses. The simplicity of a hunter stalking a single master vampire and deducing the right method of killing it probably wouldn't satisfy 21st century audiences -- but you never know. People who are interested in alternate approaches to vampires and vampire hunting -- and people interested in Caroline Munro -- might be satisfied with the Captain Kronos we have, but the whole remains less than the sum of its parts.

Here's a trailer uploaded to YouTube by TheCultMovieReview.


hobbyfan said...

I'm thinking Brian Clemens is the same guy who was a producer on The Avengers w/Patrick MacNee in the 60's. Right or wrong, Sam?

Samuel Wilson said...

hobby, have you heard of a website called Google? I've heard that it's a wonderful tool for looking things up yourself. You never know what you might find out.