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Posts Tagged ‘John Carson’

Horror movies are a slightly culty genre as a whole, and within that genre the movies made by Hammer have a very healthy cult following of their own. Even so, some of these films have a particularly dedicated following far out of proportion to their profile or financial success – which makes them cult movies made by a cult studio within a cult genre. Cultiness cubed! Is this even possible? Well, anyway: one such film is Brian Clemens’ Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter (this is one of those films where no-one seems able to agree on how to punctuate the title), made in 1972 but only released a couple of years later (a fate which befell a few late-period Hammers). The only way to describe Captain Kronos is as ‘different’ (well, Sir Christopher Lee has gone on record as saying it was ‘the worst film Hammer ever made’, which surely only suggests he hasn’t seen Prehistoric Women, to name but one). I’ve always really liked it; it’s one of the very few Hammers that I recorded off the TV and kept, back when commercial VHS releases were beyond my pocket. (Happily the copyright holders have made it freely available to view over a popular video-sharing website.)

kronos

Our story opens in the tiny village of Durward, somewhere in central Europe in the 18th century (according to the trailer, anyway: the film is typically vague about this, but we’re definitely in the heart of Hammerland). Durward is a tiny little place, as you’d expect from a very low-budget film, and its young people are living in fear: a dark figure has begun preying on the rosy-cheeked young maidens of the village, reducing them to raddled old hags who peg out from old age almost on the spot.

Luckily, local doctor Marcus (John Carson) knows someone who may be able to help, calling in his old army buddy Captain Kronos (Horst Janson, but dubbed – bizarrely retaining a German accent – by Julian Holloway) and his sidekick, hunchbacked professor Hieronymous Grost (John Cater). Kronos and Grost are professional vampire hunters and are quickly on the case, assisted by a young gypsy girl they’ve picked up on their travels (Caroline Munro, in probably her best role for Hammer). But, given the wide variety of vampires apparently on the loose in Hammerland, the question is not just one of finding the beast, but working out exactly how to kill it, too…

As I say, for a long time Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter was a very obscure film, but its profile does seem to be rising: a novelisation was released a few years ago (the 39-year gap between film and book may constitute something of a record) and when Midsomer Murders did their Hammer-pastiche episode a while ago, it was two of the stars of this film that they recruited.

I think one of the reasons for its obscurity was that in many ways it inverts the traditional horror formula. It occurs to me that, structurally, the traditional monster or vampire movie has a lot in common with the classic superhero film, in that you’re waiting for the set-piece sequences where the central character appears and starts doing their thing, whatever that may be: these moments are pretty widely spread in the early part of the film, but slowly get more substantial until the climax rolls around. The main difference is that superhero films are invariably focused on and named after the protagonist, while horror movies tend to much more about the antagonist. When you get what’s purporting to be a horror, or horror-themed movie, but which is named after the hero, it’s usually a sign that you’re really in for much more of an action-adventure caper.

This is a rule-of-thumb I’ve just made up, but it holds true of Van Helsing, Solomon Kane, and Captain Kronos too. The film’s emphasis on action and colour over suspense and atmosphere probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the film is a product of the same creative team responsible for The Avengers and The New Avengers (it has been widely commented that Captain Kronos, which is relatively light on gore and nudity for a late-period Hammer, often looks more like a feature-length TV pilot than a proper movie). Certainly the film has some of the freewheeling style and offbeat humour of The Avengers, with an equally quirky hero – there’s a touch of the Man With No Names about Kronos, who smokes cheroots made of ‘Chinese herbs’ (yeah, right) and carries a samurai sword as well as a cavalry sabre.

Clemens directs with a huge amount of invention and energy, if not much subtlety: flowers wither with the passing of the vampire and the shadow of a crucifix warps as one attacks a young girl in a church. To be honest, he’s making a huge amount of the ‘vampire lore’ in this movie up out of whole cloth – different kinds of vampires attack and can only be destroyed in different ways, vampires have a resuscitating effect on the corpses of toads, and so on – but this is done with enough conviction and imagination to be convincing.

It’s almost enough to stop you noticing the clearly tiny budget on which the film was made – the village of Durward only appears to contain one family, who are progressively wiped out by the vampire as the film goes on (the script doesn’t play this for black comedy, which almost comes as a surprise). If the film is short on peasants, it sometimes seems a little short on plot too: the need for incident results in a large number of set-piece vampire attacks, which get a little repetitive, and a rather preposterous western-pastiche sequence in which a mysterious stranger hires Ian Hendry (who looks vaguely embarrassed to be participating) to pick a fight with Kronos down the local pub. Hendry’s dying-acting is extremely funny, but you have to be paying really close attention to note that the mysterious stranger is actually the villain’s butler (the viewer is bombarded with red herrings as to the vampire’s identity, but there’s never much doubt that the trail is going to lead to the door of the local aristos), rather than just some random bloke.

In the end, everything is resolved with a cameo from Wanda Ventham, a near-enough continuity reference to the Karnstein family from other early 70s Hammer vampire films, and a rather spiffy sword-fight between Kronos and the villain. The villain is played by William Hobbs, for many years the doyen of cinema fight choreographers (other works include the 1973 version of The Three Musketeers, Excalibur, and Musical Chairs Game of Thrones) and so this duel is significantly better than you might expect from a low-budget genre movie. Kronos rides off into the sunset, heading for new adventures which never actually materialised.

How much the box-office failure of Captain Kronos was a result of poor distribution, and how much down to the quality of the film itself is a little difficult to say for certain. Perhaps a film as distinctive and strange as this one, with its peculiar juxtaposition of swashbuckling action, vampire horror, and deadpan black humour, was always going to struggle to find a mass audience. At least it seems to be more appreciated now. I could not honestly describe Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter as a classic Hammer horror, but it is still a hugely entertaining film.

 

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You so very rarely get a proper double-bill at the cinema these days – nearly twenty years ago when I was a student, they would occasionally show all the Star Treks back to back, or the first three Lethal Weapons (I sat there for seven hours and came out numb from the neck up), and now I think about it there was a marathon showing of the first two Lord of the Rings films ahead of the release of Return of the King, but, really, if you want to have a proper night out along these lines you have keep your eyes open and arrange it yourself.

Which I managed the other night, seeing two movies back-to-back, in the same theatre, in virtually the same seat: an occasion I was happy to refer to as ‘An A to Z of Cinema’, in that the first movie was Woody Allen: a Documentary (there’s your ‘A,’ for Allen) and the second was John Gilling’s 1966 movie The Plague of the Zombies (there’s your… oh, you’re ahead of me). Sadly none of the other Woody fans seemed inclined to stick around for a classic-period Hammer horror movie, and I suppose this shouldn’t surprise me – this isn’t even one of my favourite Hammer films, but beggars can’t be choosers when it comes to seeing these films on the big screen – you could wait forever for them to revive Dracula – Prince of Darkness or Quatermass and the Pit, after all.

The Plague of the Zombies is possibly the only 12A-rated film showing in the UK this year where a walking corpse gets beheaded with a spade. It all kicks off with some groovy drumming from oiled-up extras of African origin, while a mysterious masked figure puts some voodoo ‘fluence on a sleeping young woman (a very maidenly-looking Jacqueline Pearce, many years before her Blake’s 7 pomp). Zombies! Tribal drumming! Voodoo! Crikey, how is Hammer going to afford all the location filming in the Caribbean?

Er, well, by not actually setting the film in Haiti, of course. Hammer eschews this tired old backdrop and opts to tell a story based in that notorious hotbed of voodoo and the undead, Cornwall. Eh? Strap yourselves in – crusty old London-based professor of medicine Sir James Forbes (Andre Morrell) receives a letter from his favourite former pupil, Tompson (Brook Williams). Despite apparently being a brilliant doctor, Tompson, for reasons best known to himself and the demands of the plot, has set up his practice in a remote part of darkest Cornwall. But a strange epidemic is afflicting the local villagers, who would be dying like flies, were it not for the fact that the local flies are actually doing pretty well for themselves in the circumstances. The villagers are mysteriously dying off, anyway.

As Sir James’ dippy daughter (Diane Clare) is best friends with Tompson’s wife (Pearce), she suggests they pop down to Cornwall and see what’s going on. They find a village full of uneasy, frightened people, very much under the control of the local squire (John Carson) and his wild young friends. Clive the squire has sinister sideburns and an icy manner, but more importantly he’s wearing the same costume jewellry as the voodoo cult leader from the opening sequence. Through this one simple costuming decision, Plague of the Zombies blows most of its tension and suspense very early on: now we know who the villain is, and the fact that the movie is called Plague of the Zombies might lead the astute viewer to suspect what’s really going on with Tompson’s mysterious disease outbreak.

All we are really left with is trying to second-guess the mechanics of the plot, and waiting for the actual zombies to turn up. The plot of Plague of the Zombies is a bit exasperating, in that in some ways it is very inventive and tightly written, and genuinely clever. In other ways, however, it is embarrassingly primitive – the story starts to cough and splutter a bit at one point, and so in order to keep it going Morell’s character strolls up to the local vicar and says ‘Would you happen to have any books on witchcraft, and, if so, is it all right if I pop round and read them all?’ (The vicar, it transpires, is very well equipped with this sort of thing, but hasn’t bothered to read any of the books himself.) And the central idea of the movie is quite simply a bit peculiar.

Modern viewers used to movies where the walking dead are the victims and carriers of a viral disease may get a bit of a shock from this film, because the zombies here have all been created using black magic and are under the control of evil Clive the squire. But why? What nefarious scheme can he be up to? Well, I’ll tell you: tin mining. Under evil Clive’s mansion is a lucrative vein of tin he wants to exploit, but the villagers are not keen on the dodgy safety conditions. Evil Clive has taken their declaration that ‘We’d rather die than go down your mine’ a bit too literally and is using the zombies to run the place. Tin mining? Is that it? Yes, I’m afraid so.

Well – the plot also demands that evil Clive also attempt to turn Jacqueline Pearce and Diane Clare into zombies, for reasons which are not explored. Does he honestly imagine these delicate young ladies will make a good addition to the workforce down t’pit? Or does he have other, kinkier things in mind for their resurrected flesh? Quite properly, for this is still only 1966, evil Clive’s stranger peccadilloes are left to the imagination.

(And, by the way, someone watching at the time thought evil Clive’s plan was rubbish too: George Romero saw this movie and wondered what would happen if the zombies got out of control and started running loose, and decided that might be a good idea for a movie… and the rest is history, which may mean The Plague of the Zombies is the most influential movie Hammer has ever made.)

The undead spend most of their time tin mining in this movie and really aren’t on screen very much, which is a shame as the Hammer zombies are a striking bunch – grey-skinned, blank-eyed and wrapped in sack-cloth. You want to see much more of them but instead you just get lots of evil Clive being evil, until the end, at which point there’s a sort of industrial accident and the zombies revolt against their master. Which just leads one to conclude that zombies aren’t much better as employees than actual Cornish people, except that there’s less backchat and the smell is probably worse.

I think the lack of actual zombie action may be one of the reasons why this film isn’t better known than it is. The lack of a big Hammer name may be partly responsible, too – though members of the Hammer rep company are present (Michael Ripper gets some good stuff as the local plod), and the whole thing is unmistakeably a Hammer production – evil Clive’s mansion looks suspiciously like the Castle Dracula set redressed yet again, which must have been fun for contemporary audiences: this movie was released in a double-bill with Dracula – Prince of Darkness. (This film was itself shot back-to-back with The Reptile, which was released in a double-bill with Prince of Darkness‘ back-to-back partner, Rasputin, the Mad Monk – what bliss it must have been, to be young in such days as those.)

Andre Morell also turns up in plenty of Hammer movies, usually in supporting or character roles, but this is probably his best part for the company, and he’s very good in it – you can imagine Peter Cushing playing the role, but where Cushing would be smooth and mercurial, Morell is bluff and steely and it really works. Sir James is a take-charge kind of guy, not above grave-robbing, house-breaking, or stabbing someone who’s upset him in the throat (the last is a little startling), and he’s much more likeable than Tompson or his daughter, both of whom are a bit wet and much prone to put-your-hands-to-your-face-and-look-away-in-anguished-horror acting. John Carson does his best with a really thankless task as evil Clive and his sideburns.

I have, as usual, been somewhat facetious about The Plague of the Zombies, but – and very much to my surprise – even 46 years on from its original release, parts of this film still really deliver on the big screen. The saturated colours, a typically lush and evocative James Bernard score, and Gillings’ direction all combine to generate genuine energy. There’s a set piece scene where Pearce rises from the grave, followed by the appearance of a pack of other zombies, which has a horrible, delirious quality that honestly gave me shivers. It’s very easy to dismiss Hammer horrors as safe, cosy, dated pieces of camp – but some of the old dark energy still remains, only needing a proper print and a big-screen revival to conjure it back into existence. And if this is true of an only-okay Hammer movie like The Plague of the Zombies, it’s tantalising to imagine what it would be like to watch a really great one, back on the big screen where it belongs…

(At which point I discovered that, as part of the same season, the same cinema was hosting a for-one-night-only revival of, not just one of my favourite Hammers, but one of my favourite films of any kind, Quatermass and the Pit. Wonderful news!

Except for the fact I’m unavoidably sixty miles out of town that night.

Bugger.)

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