At first glance, the early Seventies can look like a Golden Age for the British horror film; for starters, you’ve got The Wicker Man (1973), Death Line (1972) and Robert Fuest’s marvellous Dr Phibes outings (1971-2). But Hammer, the biggest names in the field, were seriously struggling at the time. Their initial forays into sinister territory – the Quatermass film adaptations (1955-67), and the remakes of Dracula (1958) and Frankenstein (1957) – had been long ago. Many successful ventures had followed, but by the close of the Sixties, the well was running dry. Seismic changes in society meant that audiences took some serious scaring. In the age of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Hammer’s be-fanged Count was beginning to look quaint. The studio needed, well, new blood.
Of the fresh approaches Hammer tried, some were predictable. On the Continent, Jess Franco and Jean Rollin were spicing up the vampire film with soft-focus nudity and intimations of lesbianism, so Hammer followed suit, albeit tamely. The studio also sought out new talent to liven up their output. One such name was Brian Clemens, who had made his name as a writer and producer of The Avengers (1961-69) in its day-glo heyday. Since the series ended, many Avengers luminaries had moved into film: Clemens himself had written And Soon the Darkness (1970), a memorable thriller set in sun-drenched France, which his fellow Avengers graduate Robert Fuest had directed.
When first recruited to Hammer, Clemens created the bizarre Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971), a decidedly kinky reversal of the familiar tale. Hammer were keen to find a new vampire franchise to replace the increasingly warn-out Dracula tales. Clemens duly came up with the character of Captain Kronos, a vampire killer, thereby shifting the focus from the bloodsuckers to their noble opponents. In a planned series of adventures, Kronos would be seen hunting down the undead throughout the ages – hence the suggestion of ‘time’ in his moniker. It was decided to keep options open as to whether the Kronos series would suit the big screen or television; the latter was an area Hammer were keen to move into. In due course the character was launched with a feature film, written and directed by Clemens himself. Today, Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter (1973) has a particular curio value, as the planned further adventures never materialised. In that sense, Captain Kronos shows Hammer searching for a new lease of life but coming to a dead end.
In retrospect, though, it’s tempting to wish things had gone differently. It’s no classic, but it’s up there with Plague of the Zombies (1966) and Quatermass and the Pit (1967) as one of Hammer’s most memorable late-period efforts. In truth, it never quite takes full glorious flight, which no doubt prevented audiences of the day – and thereafter the Hammer bosses – from becoming sufficiently enamoured of the format. Perhaps fatally, Kronos himself was played by German pin-up Horst Janson – then tipped for great things, but clearly an actor of limited range who ended up having his dialogue redubbed. His love interest is former model, and horror fanboy favourite, Caroline Munro, who is undoubtedly easy on the eye but hardly ups the ante in the thespian stakes. Instead, it’s Clemens’ own formidable sense of style and imagination that lifts Kronos out of the doldrums.
The dialogue’s pretty sparky – albeit hamfistedly delivered – and many inventive sequences linger in the memory long after a late-night TV viewing: flowers wilt and crumble in the wake of passing vampires; a young girl turns to the camera to reveal her hideously aged face… Much of this stems from Clemens’ refreshingly disrespectful attitude to accepted vampire lore: it’s youth, rather than blood, that the undead drain from their victims here. It’s also notable that, as Hammer were seeking to get bums on seats by pushing the envelope of sex and violence, Clemens is sparing in the use of such sensationalism – which has prevented the result from looking too dated in the long run.
There’s plenty of swashbuckling action, handled with aplomb, and it’s easy to see parallels between Kronos’ band – dashing young man, gutsy dolly-bird and wise old-timer – and the TV adventures of the Avengers, not least the relaunched New Avengers (1976), which Clemens went on to mastermind. The prospect of a supernatural Avengers is an appealing one, and it’s tempting to see echoes of the same sound idea in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) or even The X Files (1993-2002). As DVDs go, this is hardly packed with features- just a trailer, and not even a commentary by Clemens which would have made for an essential listen (although the accompanying booklet is attractive and informative). It seems a shame that Kronos wasn’t given chance to develop further than this ‘pilot’, and that Clemens never got a chance to direct again, but for all its fudged moments and lost opportunities, it remains an intriguing heap of fun.