Updated: Oct 6, 2020
Creature-Feature Conversations is a series of movie reviews as dialogue between horror authors, with a focus on unique, engaging, or cult-status horror films.
Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter (1974, directed by Brian Clemens)
With guest reviewer Tom Breen
JONATHAN RAAB: I’m very much a fan of the 70s Hammer era, with Taste the Blood of Dracula and Twins of Evil being favorites of mine. That they wanted to start a new action-adventure franchise with Captain Kronos piqued my interest, but unfortunately I was left feeling this one lacked a lot of the vibrancy and energy of the films from the studio I’ve come to love--specifically because it isn’t nearly as shocking or lurid as its R-rating might suggest.
There’s a few things to like, here, of course: John Cater’s hunchbacked professor sidekick; Caroline Munro, who joins up with the heroes because killing vampires sounds cool; the noble family with a dark secret; and some weird stuff with dead toads in the forest. But overall, this is one of the weaker Hammer vampire entries for me.
I know you’re much warmer on this film than I am. What sells it for you?
TOM BREEN: I’m very much not a fan of vampire movies; I feel like the subject has been done to death (pun VERY MUCH INTENDED), but I admit there are some outliers that bring a quirky, fresh take to the mythos. For me, I was really compelled by the transformation of the young, adolescent victims into elderly crones by the vampire’s attack. Early on, in my notes, I wrote, “Young people drained not of blood, but of youth … is the vampire Capitalism.”
I was mostly kidding, but I think there’s a political dimension that manages to be subtle in a very un-subtle movie. Marx was kind of a horror geek, and filled his work with references to vampires, werewolves, etc. Early on in the movie, I kept thinking of this quote from Capital (I had to look it up, I just remembered it was about vampires): “Capital is dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.”
Especially given what we eventually learn about the vampire’s identity, this made me think this movie was an (unintentionally?) astute comment on the relationship between the wealthy and the rest of us, with the essence of our social relationship indistinguishable from vampiric attack.
What do you think? Am I investing far too much analytical weight in a movie that’s supposed to be a swashbuckler but only has one real sword fight?
JR: No, you’re right, and that is something I wanted to get into, so I’m glad we can just go ahead and be parodies of ourselves here up front. Kronos is representative of the Hammer sociopolitical commentaries blazingly present in its vampire and Frankenstein pictures: the nobility are occult perverts obsessed with draining the life out of and/or exploiting the flesh of the working class. I first encountered that Marx quote in the Horror Vanguard podcast, I think—a podcast I’d recommend wholeheartedly to you, and with cautious qualifiers to the theoretically apolitical horror fan—and it represents the literal and symbolic evil of this film quite well.
I’m not convinced that the Hammer filmmakers were aware of the subtext of their films, but I wouldn’t put it past them. The idea of the rich-as-vampire is so deeply embedded in this strain of horror that it’s hard to tell how much of this kind of storytelling is intentional or just paint-by-numbers.
The idea of the young being drained of their vigor is certainly creative, but the execution is goofy, as I found the buxom ladies of Hammer victimized and turned into old women to be both laughable and off-putting. Those poor actresses, hired solely to be objects of horror simply because they are old. There’s something to unpack there, for sure.
But at any rate, I can tell this is a latter Hammer picture, trying to shake things up, but it’s clear the imagination of the producers was running a little dry. This film came out in 1974, and horror was undergoing a rapid transformation, as heralded by Romero’s 1968 masterpiece Night of the Living Dead. The film Targets (also released in ’68) explicitly communicates the seismic cultural shift horror cinema was undertaking, as the familiar, safe, and overlit setpieces of Hammer’s period-drama vampire pictures were beginning to appear quaint and outdated.
The innovation this film offers is a minor detail of how vampires operate, rather than an upending of the established tropes and an embrace of splatter-shock or overt cultural commentary embodied by Night years earlier or in Kronos’ 1974 contemporary The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Imagine a Hammer studio reborn in the image of the gory and psychedelics-informed horror revival of the 1970s. What might that Kronos look like?
TB: Thank you for the podcast recommendation! I’m going to dig in here and inexplicably defend the vampire victims’ transformation into superannuated versions of themselves. Typically, women (and sometimes men) who fall victim to vampires are presented in a glamorous, romantic, even sexualized way—it’s deeply reminiscent of the way young tuberculosis sufferers were romanticized in the 19th century, all that talk about porcelain skin and lovely corpses.
(And here I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a widespread folk belief in Eastern Connecticut, Western Rhode Island, and the parts of Vermont settled by Connecticut people that linked tuberculosis to supernatural attack—this belief in Yankee vampirism was deadly serious, with bodies being disinterred and staked through the heart right up into the 1890s; one such occasion in Exeter, RI, was part of Lovecraft’s inspiration for “The Shunned House.” I’ve visited the grave of the “vampire” Mercy Brown and talked to one of her descendants; he said Halloween can be kind of a cluster with all the legend-trippers showing up in the graveyard at night.)
By contrast, here we have vampire victims who are turned into the least desirable thing that our youth-obsessed culture can imagine: old people. That idea has stayed with me while most of the movie is already a kind of hazy memory; after all, if we’re talking real-deal horror, for most of us that’s not a guy in a mask with a hatchet or a monster trying to eat us, it’s the face staring back at us in the bathroom mirror every morning. Is that more gray hair? Where did those wrinkles come from? Have I always looked this tired?
Point taken, though, that this film is basically the product of creative exhaustion. Apparently this was intended as the first entry in a franchise, which is hilarious: none of the characters are exactly compelling, and it doesn’t leave a lot of loose ends at the conclusion that need tying up.
It’s also, as you point out, badly out of place in a mid-70s British horror landscape that had left behind the need to conjure up some semi-dreamy Gothic past; Captain Kronos came out the same year as Pete Walker’s grim and brutal Frightmare, and the two films might as well have been made decades apart. Britain’s bleak and traumatic Seventies were much better delved by films like Walker’s and even earlier films like Frenzy and Death Line, both of which came out two years earlier. Kronos looks laughably old-fashioned in comparison, right down to the weird idea that Seventies audiences were looking for a swashbuckling adventure story.
It’s hard to imagine a Kronos film that could have worked in this environment; maybe a “revisionist” period piece like Witchfinder General, with a much more ambiguous vampire hunter protagonist? Imagine a version of that film where Vincent Price’s despicable killer is nevertheless the hero—now you’re talking!
I suppose this brings up a question about period pieces generally: do they still have something to contribute to horror? Is the only way to make them convincing the revisionist route, where everything is realistic and grimly depressing? Could films like the indistinct “Once Upon a Time” offerings of Hammer’s golden years ever work again?
JR: I’d say so, the examples springing to mind being Guillermo del Torro’s period pieces like The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Crimson Peak. There’s also the neo-Hammer release The Woman in Black (2012) which wears the Gothic trappings in set and mood but combines them with contemporary jumpscares. Going further back, I have to cite Coppolla’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) which is, story issues aside, a perfect example of how to do the classic Gothic monsters and settings justice for modern audiences.
That zombie films continue to rise and rise again shows that there’s room for a return of any subgenre, and I can’t help but think that your allusions to tuberculosis and disease being linked to folklore about vampirism are timely. Maybe we’re due for a proper Gothic horror revival in the age of COVID-19.
Tom Breen is is the author of Orford Parish Murder Houses: A Visitor’s Guide, along with numerous short stories and two books about contemporary American Christianity. He is one of two people responsible for the erratic output of Orford Parish Books and lives in Connecticut. He fires off tired hot takes on Twitter on a disappointingly regular basis: @TJBreen.
Jonathan Raab is the author of numerous short stories, veteran advocacy essays, and novels including the forthcoming The Crypt of Blood, Camp Ghoul Mountain Part VI: The Official Novelization and The Hillbilly Moonshine Massacre. He is the editor of several anthologies from Muzzleland Press, including Behold the Undead of Dracula: Lurid Tales of Cinematic Gothic Horror and Terror in 16-bits. He lives in Colorado with his wife Jess, their son, and a dog named Egon. You can find him on Twitter @jonathanraab1.