In the early 70’s, Hammer Studios was in deep financial trouble and about to shut it’s doors. In this troubled climate, the studio decided to take a chance and gave Avengers scriptwriter Brain Clemens free reign to both write and direct his own project. The result would become known over time as one of the best Hammer films ever made but unfortunately, not at the time.
Nevertheless, the sub genre of the vampire hunter was given life with this film in a trend that continues to this day and seldom done better than right here. Eerie, exciting, mysterious and almost unrelentingly original in the best Hammer tradition, Kronos entertains from beginning to end and stands as a mournful testament to what might have been if the studio wouldn’t have been forced to close down.
The tale begins like a lot of Hammer films, in the woods during the 17th century with two young maidens whiling the day away, picking flowers and before you know it, a sinister, black robbed figure approaches one of the girls and drains her. not of blood but of her youth; leaving behind a withered hag. The horrific scene is discovered by Dr. Marcus (John Carson), who knows just the person to solve this problem.
Cut to a dashing figure galloping across the green, English countryside in the uniform of the Imperial Guard and armed with a samurai sword. This is Captain Kronos (Horst Janson) and he’s accompanied by his sidekick driving a caravan, Dr. Heironymus Grost (John Cater), a hunchback with unwavering loyalty to the Captain.
On the way to the village, the two come across Carla (Caroline Munro) who has been sentenced to the stocks for dancing on a Sunday. Kronos frees her and now the two become three as Carla asked to join them and serve Kronos in her gratitude. Kronos agrees because, c’mon. It’s Caroline Munro.
Arriving in the village of Deerwood, Kronos meets up with his old war buddy, Dr. Marcus and it doesn’t take long for the two professional vampire hunters to come to the obvious conclusion with Grost explaining there are “as many species of vampires as there are beasts of prey. Their methods and motives for attack can vary in a hundred different ways and the means of their destruction.” We are also told that this holds true for the traditional means of protection as well, meaning crosses don’t always work.
As young girls continue to fall prey to the sinister presence in black, Dr. Marcus visits the Durwood family, the local aristocrats whose patriarchal leader, Lord Hagen Durwood was killed by plague seven years earlier, leaving behind a grieving widow, the Lady Durwood (Wanda Ventham) who has become a shut in and two children, a son Paul (Shane Briant) and his sister, Sara (Lois Daine). It’s obvious the family is hiding something just as Dr. Marcus suspects.
Meanwhile, Kronos and Carla finally give into the sexual tension where Kronos’ reasons for becoming a vampire hunter are revealed when he explains how after returning from the war to his mother and sister, he found them both transformed into vampires, forcing him to kill them both and leaving him guilt ridden for going off to war. Hunting vampires is obviously his penance. Afterwards Kronos and Grost head to the local pub for a drink where they are accosted by a trio of bullies who decide to make the grievous mistake of insulting Grost before Kronos takes out all three with lightning fast precision and concluding correctly that they were hired to kill them because they’re getting closer to learning the identity of the evil at the heart of it all.
As Dr. Marcus rides back from the Durwood mansion he sees the mysterious, cloaked figure but looses time and any memory with the only evidence of the encounter, a spot of blood on his glove. He meets up with Kronos and Grost just in time to help them rig the forest with a series of ribbons and bells to alert them to anymore attacks and before long the system alerts them to the cries of another young girl whose been attacked by a giant bat. Afterwards, Dr. Marcus notices that he’s gotten younger and comes to the horrifying conclusion that he has indeed become one of the living dead and that it was actually him who attacked the last victim. Going to Kronos for help, they’re all left with only one alternative, leading to the film’s craziest sequence.
Not knowing how to kill this species of vampire, Dr. Marcus unwittingly becomes the test subject. Stake through the heart? Nope. Hanging? Nada. The poor doctor is put through the ringer until it’s discovered that a steel cross does the trick and now our heroes have the means to defeat the ancient evil that they must soon face.
Final preparations are made with Grost forging a sword for Kronos from a giant steel cross they lift from the cemetery. As the vampire continues to leave a trail of corpses through the village, Kronos, Grost and Carla finally close in on the Durwood estate, using Carla as the bait to gain entry.
Once inside, Kronos finally confronts the evil presence at the center of the killings but since it involves a quite effective twist, I’ll end things here but add that the surprise reveal and ending fight are both superbly executed and lead to a satisfying ending.
Even though it was a financial failure at the time, there’s a reason it’s seen as one of Hammer’s best today. Writer/director Brian Clemens was given complete freedom by the studio and makes full use of it. Everything about it’s approach to a traditional vampire tale is fresh and original. While still retaining the wonderful atmosphere that Hammer Horror films were so popular for, Clemens has said he didn’t even see it as a straight horror film but as a Horror/Western which is evident in many elements like Kronos himself who is the stranger that comes to clean up the town much like Clint Eastwood in The Man With No Name Trilogy. Many shots are inspired by John Ford films and the scene of the three bullies being brutally taken out by Kronos in the bar is straight out of countless westerns.
The take on the vampire itself brings a lot of originality with the most interesting being how the vampires here feed not on blood but youth which plays into some interesting subtext about the old praying on the young. There’s some wonderful touches with the vampire killing a bloom of flowers as it passes by and being able to temporarily suspend time almost as if it’s victim experienced an alien abduction and then there’s the wonderfully stylistic touch of the shadow of a cross in a church which slowly starts to move, revealing it to be the shadow of the vampire about to prey on it’s next victim.
The vampire hunters themselves here are also embellished with great little flourishes like the wooden stakes with grooves wrapping around it’s shaft so the blood can drain when a vampire is killed. Kronos and Grost are given a wonderful sense of history in how the film shows their techniques used throughout the film to track down the vampire and the many scars covering Kronos’ body as well as the bites on his neck from a previous close encounter. His costume tells a lot about him as well making you wonder where he got the katana that he carries along with his saber. Grost is nothing less than an expert on the undead proving these two have been in this racket for a while.
Horst Janson in the title role is perfect and inhabits Kronos with a steely eyed stoicism and deadly skill and yet at the same time, he gives him a real sense of warmth and decency in his interactions with Grost as well as Carla who he treats with real affection and respect which is surprising in this type of film. The film also takes an interesting modern approach (for the time) to the character like when he’s seen with his hand rolled cigar which he explains to his friend Dr. Marcus as “a Chinese herb”. No doubt, if one spent their life hunting vampires, smoking pot would probably be a a good idea to ease the stress. Horst himelf is one of Germany’s best known actors and has also, not surprisingly; been in many spaghetti westerns alongside Franco Nero and Eli Wallach. By all accounts he was easy to work with here and comes across as likeable despite the tough guy persona of the character. Thin, tall and blond, he takes on the appearance of a more dashing version of Roman Polanski which was a popular look at the time. Strangely enough, his entire performance in Kronos was dubbed by the producer despite the directors objections over concerns that his accent would be too hard to understand for English audiences.
John Cater as Grost is also great here, playing the hunchback without the slightest bit of self consciousness or bitterness over his condition. In fact, his appearance isn’t even brought up by anyone until the bar scene where he is singled out by the three bullies. Afterwards, there’s a wonderful scene where Grost is clearly hurt by their insults before getting reassurance from Kronos and Carla, making you really come to like this guy. His performance though, is really shaped by the relationship between himself and Kronos. You really believe these two characters have a long history together and you completely buy the chemistry between the two. Cater himself was an accomplished British actor of the RSC and also starred in the Avengers and both Dr. Phibes films.
Caroline Munro here is stunningly beautiful, probably never more so. The first time she appears when she’s freed from the block and flips her hair back to reveal her stunning features, is a jaw dropper. Incredibly sensual, she exudes a sense of natural beauty in the role and brings a wonderful innocence and warmth to Carla that makes the character genuinely enduring, a sense she brings to her relationship with Kronos, giving them a wonderful chemistry together to the point where you really don’t want to see them part ways at the end. This is only one of two films she made with Hammer unfortunately, the other being Dracula: 1972 A.D. but she did make other films like this for Amicus with At The Earth’s Core (1976) and would go on to take the title role of Stella Star in Starcrash (1978). She was one of the most famous of the British beauties of the time and in her prime, could have easily given Jennifer Connelly a run for her money. I have to thank her, Linda Carter and Carrie Fisher for giving me my first revelation as far as how I felt about girls as a wee lad.
You may also remember her from this awesome Dr. Pepper commercial back in the 80’s:
Rounding out the cast is John Carson as Dr. Marcus, playing the character with a great sense of tragedy as he slowly comes to the realization that he is a vampire himself. Again, as with the other characters, the implied past relationship with Kronos as an old war buddy is completely believable and adds another layer to the performance. Carson was a favorite of the director coming from his days on the Avengers. He was also a Hammer regular, going on to appear in the television series, House of Hammer.
The rest of the cast is excellent. The two Durwood children look like they’re actually related and according to the director, were given an extra creepy dimension by giving them the backstory of an incestuous relationship.
Lady Durwood is given a small but strong presence by Wanda Ventahm, best known for playing Col. Virginia Lake, second in command to Commander Ed Straker on Gerry Anderson’s UFO. She also happens to be the mother of Benedict Cumberbatch and actually appeared on Sherlock Holmes, playing his mother along with Cumberbatch’s real life father and her husband, Timothy Carlton.
Altogether, this is a fun, solid Hammer outing that should be seen more. It even has some great gore moments with dripping blood, the great torture scene where they try to figure out how to kill Dr. Marcus, dudes being taken out by Kronos’ katana, emaciated corpses drained of youth and even a nicely severed arm.
It’s really a shame this film didn’t perform better and Hammer didn’t make more because. as the director explains, “Kronos” is the Greek word for “time” and the idea was that they would make sequels with each having Kronos and Grost hunting different kinds of vampires in different time periods with each film. After the film underperformed, Clemens even tried to sell it as a television series but that didn’t get picked up either. It would have been great to see Kronos and Grost fighting vampires in Medieval Times, Ancient Rome or Modern London. Alas, the only spinoff that ever came about was as short comic strip that wisely kept Carla around too.
Over the years, it’s become a cult favorite and for good reason and in the end, the greatness of the film is only foreshadowed by what might have been. It’s greatest legacy, however has been its’ influence on film itself with it’s presence being felt in shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer. One of it’s biggest fans is Quentin Tarantino and no doubt his own From Dusk Till Dawn has taken inspiration from Kronos.
The DVD also has a great commentary with the director and Caroline Munro that’s worth listening to.
This Halloween, I highly recommend checking out the adventures of Kronos and Grost and maybe afterwards, playing some sequels in your head. They sure deserve it.