Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter

It was during the Saturday-afternoon "Creature Features" that many horror buffs first discovered the joys of Hammer Studios, the British production company that reinvented horror during the '50s and '60s, infusing it with sex and gore (most of which was cut for Saturday-afternoon consumption). During the decades-long run of Hammer, the studio produced some of horror's most memorable films, including Horror of Dracula and Curse of Frankenstein, which launched the studio's two most successful franchises. One of the lesser-known Hammer films, but one of the best, is Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter, recently released on DVD.

Horst Janson stars as the swashbuckling Kronos, a former captain in the Imperial Guard who travels the countryside with his trusty companion, the hunchback genius Professor Grost (John Cater), hunting vampires. When the beautiful young women of a remote village are being killed off, Dr. Marcus (John Carson) summons his old friend Kronos, who quickly determines that the killer is a vampire. But this isn't your typical bloodsucker--this vampire drains youth and vitality instead of blood.

Made in 1972 but only released in 1974 as a double feature with Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, Captain Kronos arrived after the heyday of Hammer had long since passed. The film was poorly distributed and thus is not as well-known as many of the studio's other works. Combining elements of Gothic horror, swashbuckling adventure and western sensibilities, it was a vast departure from the standard Hammer fare. Janson's Kronos is a man of action and one of the most exciting heroes to come out of the studio, which tended to focus on the monsters. As a pot-smoking, samurai-sword-wielding soldier, Kronos is a far cry from the stuffy, academic vampire killers like those Peter Cushing portrayed in countless Hammer flicks. Predating other onscreen vampire slayers like Buffy and Marvel Comics' Blade, Kronos is cut from a similar cloth as the spaghetti-western characters portrayed by actors like Clint Eastwood and Franco Nero.

Directed, produced and written by Brian Clemens, the film has a stylish flair that draws much inspiration from the work of John Ford; indeed, at times Captain Kronos seems more like a western than a horror film. Rather than relying on the traditional mythology of the vampire genre, Clemens reinvents the bloodsuckers as a complex race of creatures. "There are as many types of vampires as there are beasts of prey," explains Grost at one point.

Best known as a producer and writer on the British television show The Avengers, Clemens uses great framing techniques to create tension and, unlike many other Hammer films, relies on a less-is-more attitude to tell his story. The result is a film the displays none of the gore or nudity frequently associated with Hammer Studios but still manages to be one of the best films the famed company ever released.