The story to this point: the good doctor of questionable moral standards, one Baron Victor von Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) escaped the guillotine he was facing at the end of the first film, Curse of Frankenstein, only to find himself beaten to death by angry amputees at the end of the second film, Revenge of Frankenstein. Luckily, his apprentice in that film, Hans, turned out to be a most capable student and was able to bring Frankenstein back from the dead, making him, in effect, the first man to successfully pull off Frankenstein’s experiment with reanimating corpses. So there you have the first two Frankenstein films from England’s Hammer Studio, two of the company’s best films and two of the best horror films ever produced. Well, you can forget all that, because although the third film in the series, Evil of Frankenstein once again stars Cushing in the lead role, and although there is a helper named Hans, just about everything else established up to that point by the previous films is chucked out the window for some inexplicable reason. Perhaps if we step back and look at some of the events that lead up to this film, we can comprehend why it seems such an oddity in the overall Hammer Frankenstein series. Or maybe we won’t. Either way, you’re getting the story, so you might as well sit back and make yourself comfortable.
Someone must have gotten the memo and said, “Jesus, another mummy movie?” After three Hammer mummy movies, which in turn had followed some nine thousand or so Universal mummy movies featuring the vengeful bag o’ rags known as Kharsis, the general consensus was that the world pretty much had all the movies it needed in which some expedition disturbs a tomb, gets yelled at by a guy in a fez, and then gets stalked by the mummy looking to avenge the desecration of the tomb. Even in as few as three films, Hammer Studio seemed to be flogging a dead…I don’t know…Pharaoh or something. Though their first film, The Mummy starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee was spectacular, subsequent Hammer mummy movies bore essentially the same plot, and I do mean “bore.”
Hammer beats George Romero to the zombie punch by a year, but needless to say their effort, though perfectly respectable, was overshadowed by Romero’s groundbreaking classic. I went into this film with mixed feelings. On the one hand, all the stills I’d seen from it looked incredible. Very spooky and atmospheric. On the other hand, my most recent experience with Hammer studio director John Gilling was the dry as a mummy’s shroud The Mummy’s Shroud. But I’m a sucker for pretty much any and every Hammer film that’s been released, and I figure it certainly can’t be any worse than Zombie Lake. It turns out, in fact, that Plague of the Zombies not only isn’t any worse than Zombie Lake; it’s much, much better. Okay, maybe saying something is better than Zombie Lake isn’t saying a whole lot, so let’s revise the praise. Plague of the Zombies is a damn good film, maybe not the caliber of film that is Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead, but certainly on par with other great zombie films like Let Sleeping Corpses Lie and easily one of the best of Hammer’s non-Dracula/Frankenstein films. Is that a mouthful?
When last we saw Baron Victor Frankenstein, he was being marched to the guillotine to face a beheading for the murders committed by his man-made man, not to mention the murders in which he himself dabbled. Well, you can’t keep a good mad scientist down, and there are none better or madder than Cushing’s Frankenstein. With the help of a prison attendant who wants access to the Baron’s peculiar talents, Frankenstein escapes the execution and sets up a new identity and a new medical practice in another town. Hey, cheating death is what Frankenstein is all about, right? All seems to be going well for the doctor, who has a bustling private medical practice and a commendable public hospital for the poor. Sure he draws the ire of the local medical society when he refuses to join their ranks, but all in all, this new Dr. Stein (put a lot of thought into that one, didn’t ya, Victor? Better than Alucard, I reckon) seems to have turned over a new leaf and started working for the good of mankind. But wait…wasn’t that what he thought he was doing the last time around?
Ho hum, the mummy again. That wouldn’t normally be my reaction, as I’m rather a fan of mummies and the havoc they wreak upon the living, but this entry into the Hammer compendium of vengeful Egyptian crypt guardians manages to do very little beyond eliciting a yawn. The Mummy’s Shroud’s problems are several, and not the least of them is the fact that it fulfills what seems to be the mummy’s curse demanding that all mummy movies be more or less exactly like all other mummy movies. This was Hammer’s third mummy movie. There is practically nothing at all on display in this film that is surprising. The plot is a rehash of the tried and true and terribly over-used mummy movie plot involving an expedition that disturbs a mummy’s tomb only to have some mad Arab resurrect the mummy and send it out to kill those who desecrated the temple. Honestly, the things you can do with a mummy are rather limited, so the spark in the story must come from telling it in a unique fashion or injecting some new element into the proceedings to keep them, at the very least, fresher than the cloth-swathed ghoul delivering terror on the screen.
Although Hammer was best known for horror films, their entry into horror actually came by way of science fiction. Up until the 1950s, Hammer was pretty much your average low-to-medium budget production house, cranking out a lot of comedies, adventure, and war films. In 1955, however, the studio released a film featuring a popular sci-fi television series character by the name of Professor Quatermass. The movie, known as either The Quatermass Xperiment or The Creeping Unknown, was a blend of science fiction and horror, as was popular at the time, and it ended up being a big hit for Hammer. Encouraged by the film’s success, they dabbled in a few more sci-fi horror films, including X: The Unknown in 1956 and a second Quatermass film, Enemy from Space, in 1957. Like The Creeping Unknown, both of these films featured elements of sci-fi and horror. But then the studio released Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula, and The Mummy in quick succession, and before you could blink twice, Hammer was the House of Horror. Their previous, largely successful forays into science fiction were all but forgotten as the studio repurposed itself to produce almost nothing but Gothic horror films for the next decade. Eventually though, even Hammer couldn’t ignore that the space race had sparked interest in science fiction.
The first Hammer movie I saw was late one night at my grandparents’ house, back when horror double bills were a Friday night TV staple. Mostly these were old Universal flicks, but occasionally if I was lucky there’d be a couple of Hammer horrors. I found these much more exciting than their earlier American counterparts, in fact I still do; vivid colour, actual gore, and an undercurrent of sex that provoked definite interest in young Dave. Also, better acting (there, I said it) and none of those awful Hollywood cockney coppers, gor bloimey Guv’nor. From then on, I was predisposed to see any Hammer film that came along, but this was pre-DVD (it was even pre-VHS, which makes me feel very old) so opportunities were limited. A few years and one wonderful technical revolution later, I discovered a video tape in Dad’s not-too-secret ‘special’ pile. It was Countess Dracula, not exactly a typical Hammer film, but it introduced me to the vision of loveliness that was Ingrid Pitt. More importantly it introduced me to Ingrid Pitt’s boobs. That was it; I was lost.
At the end of the day, I have to shrug and surrender to my baser side and say that Michael Carreras probably needed to be kicked in the shin at least once. Possibly more than once, but at least once. Allow me to explain myself. Michael Carreras was the son of Hammer Studio founder James Carreras, and he used that relationship to finagle himself a more or less permanent fixture in the hierarchy of the studio, until eventually the reigns were passed to him entirely and the whole show collapsed. Now not everything with the name of Michael Carrereas on it was an embarrassing display of nepotism. In fact, there is much about Michael’s involvement with his father’s studio that is of high merit. He served as producer for most of the studio’s best films. As a director, he was a mixed bag, but he did manage to deliver The Lost Continent, one of Hammer’s loopiest and most hilariously daft adventure films. And after directing a decidedly pedestrian follow-up to Hammer’s smash hit The Mummy, he redeemed himself somewhat by stepping in to finish the job of directing the superb Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb when original director Seth Holt passed away. No, there is much about Michael’s tenure at Hammer that is worth celebrating. It’s just that at some point in the 1970s, he lost his fucking mind.
I think by now, we’ve covered the demise of Hammer Studio in the 1970s enough times that I don’t need to go into much detail here. You should know the drill by now. The Hammer formula, which had been so bold in the early 50s and throughout the 60s, failed to keep pace with changing social values and cinematic trends so that, by the end of the 1960s, their once fierce and rebellious content looked quaint and old-fashioned compared to what everyone else was doing. Studio head Michael Carreras was thus desperate to right a sinking ship and discover some way to keep the studio afloat. On top of that, however, was lumped the general collapse of the British film industry, meaning that Carreras suddenly went from trying to save a sinking ship to trying to save a sinking lifeboat tied to a sinking ship. It is not, obviously, an enviable position in which to have been. But it was not an unwinnable situation, as other studios would prove. The key was to adapt. But it was with the task of adapting that Carerras proved singularly untalented despite — and likely because of — all else he’d accomplished.
Horror films had changed dramatically, thanks in large part to the pioneering films of Hammer. With the release of Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen, horror showed a marked move toward not just Satanic-themed films, but toward more cynical “evil triumphs” films. While major studios were finally deeming horror a genre worthy of their attention, low-budget and independent film makers were turning out stuff like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, far more visceral and completely different from anything that had come before and certainly much more extreme than anything Hammer was willing or even able to produce with the BBFC looming over them. The focus of horror shifted significantly from England tot he United States, and since the United States had always been a major market for Hammer’s product, they found it hard to compete with the home team. Things were no different in mainland Europe, where the Italian giallo thrillers were also pushing the envelope far beyond what British censors would allow Hammer to get away with.
The boys from Bray may have pushed the envelope in terms of sex and violence for ten years, but by the time “The End” appeared, good usually triumphed and the creature, either tragic or evil, was vanquished. But these new horror films were happy to let evil win. There was no way Hammer could compete with that, just as there was no way they could compete with a major Hollywood studio taking an interest in horror. Lower budget American horror film, largely produced by American International Pictures and their imitators, surpassed in sex and violence the Hammer product that had helped inspire them so many years before. AIP, in particular, seemed to understand that while there would always be big studio horror films aimed at adults, for horror to survive as a whole, a shift had to be made away from adults and toward teenagers. Teens, since the early days of AIP, had played a central role in the success of the studios films. Post World War II, there was a whole generation of young people who began earning money not to help the family survive, but so they could spend it on the stuff they wanted. Most films, however, were aimed either at adults or children. AIP stepped in and made movies for teenagers, and the results were solid gold.
Hammer, by contrast, had never really targeted teens as an audience. When, toward the end of the studio’s lifespan and desperate for some new revenue stream, Hammer finally tried to throw a bone to the younger generation, it was generally pretty feeble and had the feel of old men trying to write in the persona of a younger person about whom they knew next to nothing. Thus you get the goofball but not unappealing mixture of 60s mods and early 70s hippies that show up in Dracula AD 1972. But even disregarding the screwy attempts at seeming young, Hammer wasn’t speaking to the kids. Whenever AIP made a movie for teens, they were keen on making sure there were as few adults present as possible.
Those who were, were often ineffectual authority figures, crackpots, or oppressive parents against whom we rooted for the kids to rebel. In the end, it was the younger generation that saved the day, usually in some way that involved a surfing competition or young hot rodders zipping around a small southwestern town in their dune buggies. Hammer, by contrast, could never really divorce itself from authoritative paternal figures. So while Dracula AD 1972 may have been full of hep kids spewing misguided attempts at youth slang, it’s stolid old Peter Cushing who sweeps in to clean up the mess and save the day. And as photos have proven and our friend El Santo has said, you can dress Peter Cushing up in a hip hop jacket and baseball cap, but there’s still the stuffiest stuffy old man suit in the word beneath it all.
So Michael Carreras was creating a no-win situation for himself. On the one hand, he wanted to find something new and invigorating for the studio to do. On the other hand, his ideas were terrible and all seemed to revolve around comedies about people tripping while going up the steps of a public bus. On the one hand, he said Hammer needed a new direction, something away from horror or more in line with what modern horror had become. On the other hand (Hammer had a lot of hands), at the end of the day, all he could think of was to do the same old, same old, but with more nudity. He wanted to do something different, then he complained when directors tried to do something different. In a word, Michael Carreras was lost.
I don’t know what blinded him exactly other than having too many fires to deal with while being too stuck in his old ways, because the remedy he needed was right in front of him. With the tanks of both the Dracula and Frankenstein films very nearly empty, Hammer turned to three other stabs at vampire films in hopes that something might stick and give them a new franchise that would keep the studio hobbling along for at least another year. The most successful of these attempts was the Karnstein trilogy, three films based loosely on Carmilla and notable for being the point at which Hammer finally shrugged and started showing boobs (thanks largely to the involvement of AIP as a production partner). The trilogy produced two of Hammer’s very best horror films (Vampire Lovers and Twins of Evil) and one of their very worst (Lust for a Vampire). The second attempt was Vampire Circus, in which the studio attempted to put a twist on their vampire theme by looking toward the dreamier, more hallucinogenic horror films of continental Europe (specifically France and Italy). It’s a very good movie, but it was simply too weird for Hammer, and possibly too weird for most British and American audiences, or so thought Carreras.
The third attempt was a curious combination of the studio’s tried and true vampire formula mixed with a dash of the old swashbuckling “pirate movies without pirate ships” Hammer made in the early 60s, combined with something Hammer had never put in any of their previous horror films: a sense of humor. This was Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter, and it remains my very favorite Hammer film and one of my favorite films in general. A pity that Michael Carreras didn’t see things the way I did.
While Hammer in the 70s may have been flailing, that doesn’t mean they didn’t produce a lot of great movies. In fact, it was likely because the studio was in such dire straights that they were willing to try almost anything — or at least claim that they would try almost anything, sort of like how I’ll claim to eat anything at least once, until someone actually calls my bluff and tries to stuff a grub in my mouth. This meant that an influx of new talent emerged from the long shadows of Terence Fisher, Jimmy Sangster, and the rest of the extremely talented but rather aged old guard. Among the men employed by Hammer to try to freshen things up a big was Brian Clemens, best known at the time as one of the integral parts of the hugely popular British television series, The Avengers. In that way, perhaps, Hammer had hired one of the very men who was helping to destroy the studio. The success of The Avengers was unparalleled, and while it may have started out initially as just a television show, by 1967, it was being shot in color and boasting production values that would rival many films. On top of that, the series had the perfect blend of old guard, represented by Patrick MacNee as John Steed with his bowler and suits, and new — as embodied first by Honor Blackman, but then taken to a whole new level by Diana Rigg as Emma Peel. The scripts hewed to a basic formula, but they were highlighted by smart dialog and witty banter between the two incredibly likable leads. And even Steed, despite looking every bit the British gentleman, had a streak of rebelliousness and irreverence that made him appealing to younger viewers.
Production company ITC was quick to follow the example set by The Avengers, and before anyone knew it, British television was full of action and adventure series that were in color, trotted the globe (or at least parts of England made up to look like the globe), and took far more risks than more expensive, slower to adapt movies. If you were a bright young writer or director looking to do something unusual, you were much better off working on one of the many ITC shows — first espionage and, in the 70s, bad-ass cop shows. I don’t have the data to claim that these high production value shows were the main reason the film industry was hurting, but they certainly made a dent.
When Clemens got the chance to direct a film for Hammer, he went for it (The Avengers having wrapped up by that time). The story he brought with him was very much of The Avengers mode, with a sassier female character than Hammer had ever had before, a script full of wit and dark humor, and perhaps most striking of all, a hero. As Clemens described things, part of the problem he saw with Hammer’s Dracula films wasn’t so much that they were slaves to convention; it was that Dracula was the hero, or the anti-hero a the very least. Even though you knew he would die at the end, you still went to root for Dracula, because the people lined up as his nominal opponents were so incredibly forgettable and had been since the third film. Gone were the days when you had a hero as charismatic as Peter Cushing to cheer for. Dracula, Prince of Darkness had that gun-toting friar, but since him, who was there to go against Dracula? A seemingly endless parade of trembling clergymen and forgettable young blond guys named Paul. For lack of anything else, audiences began to side with Dracula — which is a testament to just how boring the heroes were, since Dracula usually had about five minutes of total screen time and spoke like three sentences.
Clemens wanted to change that, to give audiences a vampire movie where the vampires were the bad guys again and where there was a proper hero for whom people could root. For this character, Clemens drew largely upon the swashbuckling heroes of the past, and so was born Kronos, a vampire hunter — possibly immortal himself — possessed of a mysterious history, a knowing smirk, and a professor friend who, while older and wiser, is far away from the “knows what’s best for you” paternalism of Cushing’s Van Helsing. There was something of the counter-culture about both Kronos and his adviser, Professor Hieronymos Grost. Grost’s knowledge, after all, is of an arcane and in some cases profane nature, and if Kronos was a captain in some army, it must have been the same army as Oddball from Kelly’s Heroes. They seem both to have eschewed the traditional authoritative hierarchy of academia and the military in favor of just cruising around on their own, doing their own thing. This lack of respect for authority extends as well to other circles of the upper class: religious leaders, community leaders, the rich and powerful — Grost and Kronos seem happiest away from these types, camping out in a barn with a hot servant girl they rescued from being executed.
Clemens further twists the traditional vampire movie formula by proposing a world in which there are as many different types of vampires as there are types of dog, each with its own unique characteristics, powers, and weaknesses. In another nod to the film’s appeal to youth over tradition, the vampires against which Kronos finds himself pitted do not drain their victims of blood, but of youth. Likewise, the way in which you kill one vampire might not work on another (a conundrum which results in the film’s most devilishly funny scene, in which Kronos and Grost cycle through the entire array of ways they know to kill vampires, until they finally find one that works). In a way, this representation of vampires is a natural outgrowth of the theories on vampirism presented by Cushing’s Van Helsing way back in Horror of Dracula and Brides of Dracula. Back then, before Dracula became a Satanic prince of evil and conjured demon, Van Helsing framed the vampire in purely scientific terms. They were a part of our natural world, albeit a part that did not conform to the behavior one expected of creatures who looked like humans. Vampirism was a communicable disease rather than some Satanic curse or the result of corny rituals. Captain Kronos seems to pick this thread up and expand it, creating an entirely new species within which there are many natural variations.
Although I can’t say for certain if it was intended as such, it also works as a pointed satirical jab at the vast proliferation of ways in which you could kill and resurrect Dracula that were created out of necessity to facilitate yet another sequel. By the end of things, vampires were being killed by stakes, crucifixes, icy creeks, hawthorn bushes, lightning, windmills…who could keep track? So in the world of Kronos, you never quite know what will kill a vampire. Tradition does not work. Nor do you know exactly what effect its bite will have on you. As I said, I don’t think it’s an accident that the vampires in this film prey upon the young and drain them of their youth. In the climate of the 1970s, it’s the established powerbase exploiting the young, crushing them under the weight of an increasingly creaky traditional society, draining them of their vitality even as the vampires feed upon it for their own energy.
Although other Hammer films had taken swipes at certain established authority figures — witness, for example, the corrupt men in Taste the Blood of Dracula, or the ineffectual and cowardly priest in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave — this one the first time since perhaps The Pirates of Blood River that the studio gave audiences an uppity, charismatic, young firebrand willing to buck the system. Hell, Kronos even smokes the occasional 18th century doobie! At last, there was a Hammer movie and a Hammer hero that young people could actually get behind and perhaps even relate to. Someone who was more like one of them rather than like a parent, standing around waiting to disapprove and tell the whippersnappers how to properly do things.
Clemens’ movie is different right out of the gate. Just as he was a Hammer outsider, working with a cast composed largely of newcomers and outsiders, he also went outside the norm in searching for a composer and a style of music to accompany the film. He tapped Laurie Johnson, who had worked previously on The Avengers, among many other projects for film and television, to give the movie a theme that stood in stark contrast to the masterful but overly familiar “Hammer horror sound” created primarily by James Bernard. Bernard’s scores were heavy, bombastic, and thunderous. Johnson’s theme for Captain Kronos, however, is fast-moving and much lighter. It’s a combination of a theme from a swashbuckling film with the theme from a horror film, very much a reflection of Grost and Kronos themselves. Where as Bernard’s themes stalk and stomp, Johnson’s theme here gallops and parries.
Far away from the three piece Harris tweed and pocket watch look of most vampire hunters, Kronos is a mixture of pirate and soldier in appearance, with bushy blond hair and a rapier. Grost, by contrast, is a bespectacled, goateed hunchback, though he’s far from grotesque. They are two halves of a whole — the muscle and charm in Kronos, the brains and wit in Grost. For the lead role, they cast German actor Horst Jansen, and he certainly looks the part. Tall, confident, sexy, and swaggering. Even though they’re in the same profession, there’s very little of Van Helsing about the man. Kronos looks less likely to have been spending his days steeped in researching of arcane folklore and more likely to be lying on the beach, a tan young woman on one side and his surfboard on the other. What he learns, he learns through experience or via the wise counsel of Grost. Unfortunately, Jasen’s limited English results in something of a wooden performance, though for me it never really mars the film, as he’s carried by John Cater as Grost, a more than capable actor who is so good and so charming in his role that you don’t even notice most of the time that he’s a hunchback — though on occasion I mistook him for Lenin. Luckily, Grost is way more fun to be around and is a lot less likely than Lenin to have you executed for some trifle.
The duo is en route to a town that has been plagued by a series of mysterious attacks on young people who are found after the attack drained of decades and aged to the point of death. Kronos stops to liberate a beautiful young gypsy woman (Caroline Munro, recently featured in the studio’s Dracula AD 1972), who has been condemned for something Kronos and Grost find idiotic by men whom Grost and Kronos find equally idiotic. Thankful for her liberation, she swears servitude to the two adventurers, and while neither man seems overly keen on having a slave, neither does any man seem to find much fault in being accompanied everywhere by Caroline Munro in a peasant blouse with a plunging neckline. And later, when she offers herself to Kronos, he does what any man would do, and does not hesitate. A hero who smokes weed and enjoys sex? Where do they come up with this crazy stuff?
Kronos and Grost have been summoned by their old friend, Dr. Marcus (John Carson), who resides in the beleaguered town and knows that his two friends specialize these days in dealing with such peculiarities. Kronos, in particular, has it in for vampires, as both his mother and sister were killed by one. And while the process of draining a victim of youth rather than blood is slightly beyond the pale of a traditional vampire, Grost recognizes that tradition only accounts for a small percentage of what people know or don’t know about vampires. Soon the gang is on the case, sword fighting and riddle solving their way to the culprit behind the strange murders.
The overriding philosophy behind this movie seems to be that Hammer horror hadn’t been scary for a long time, and it wasn’t going to be scary anymore. So why not make one that was exciting? And that’s exactly what Clemens did. Captain Kronos moves fast and boasts plenty of action. Jansen may be a bit stiff with his lines, but he looks good in a fight scene, and he gets plenty of them. Clemens’ experience with television meant he knew a lot about taking a meager budget and limited sets and making them seem far more lavish and expansive than they actually were. The result is one of the best looking films Hammer made during the period. Clemens made a lot of use of outdoor locations, which when coupled with the tone of the story makes Captain Kronos feel much more epic than the largely soundstage-bound Dracula films. He pulls off an epic feel, or at least a mini-epic feel, in much the same way John Gilling did when directing the “pirate movies without pirate ships” for Hammer a decade earlier.
The supporting cast is top-notch. Cater and Carson are old hands, and they deliver the goods as all solid British pros know how to do. Caroline Munro was on the fast track to becoming an icon, and while her role here as the gypsy Clara isn’t as iconic as, say, the space bikini in Star Crash, it’s still a role that is both energetic and sexy. There’s something about the woman that simply transcends everything. They really don’t make them like her anymore, do they? While her role here may not be as meaty as the lads’, it’s still one of the best developed female roles Hammer ever had. There’s no doubt as to why she became an icon. She has more charisma than my brain can even process.
If Hammer was looking for something new, a franchise upon which to hang the fortunes of the studio, they had found it. Captain Kronos is just that good. Unfortunately, Carreras was waiting around like one the youth sucking vampires from the movie. In Carreras’ own words, he visited the set one day to see how things were going and was aghast at what he saw. Clemens and his crew, Carreras felt, were not handling the material with the proper gravitas. Instead, they were making light of things, having a bit of fun, injecting a wicked sense of humor into a previously humorless genre. Clemens did not, according to Carreras, get it. He didn’t understand the proper tone of a Hammer horror film the way the old guys did. In other words, Carreras hired Clemens to give him something fresh and inventive, and then he got pissed off when Clemens gave him just that.
As much as Carrereas’ attitude irritates me, and as much as it embodies everything that was wrong with Hammer’s attempts to adapt to the changing times, it’s hard to lie the failure of Captain Kronos to become a franchise player entirely at the feet of the floundering studio head. Audiences had already lost interest in Hammer. The studio was done for. It would have taken a miracle to save it, and while Captain Kronos is cracking good entertainment, it’s not a miracle. Along with audiences, distributors had lost interest in Hammer as well. One of the things that had kept Hammer afloat was their fruitful partnership with American distributors. But those days were over, because Americans were doing Hammer better than Hammer, and under a ratings code that was far more liberal than what the British Board of Film Censors wanted to be. As such, it took almost two years for Captain Kronos to get released, and by that time, the game was over. Hammer had used up the last of its audience good will, and viewers didn’t embrace the film despite the fact that the few reviews it received were generally positive.
It’s a shame, isn’t it? Clemens vision for Captain Kronos as a film series was pretty cool, with Kronos appearing throughout different periods across the centuries, carrying on his battle with the undead and revealing that there was a much longer history behind the man than has hinted at in the first movie. When it was evident that there was no way Hammer was going to make it, and thus there would be no second or third Kronos film, talk shifted to production of a television series. Nothing ever came of that, either, and with the exception of a few appearances in a Hammer comic book, Kronos faded from existence until more recently, when it was rediscovered and people started thinking, “Holy crap, this movie is great!” Now it enjoys a lace in many people’s top five Hammer films, making it sort of the On Her Majesty’s Secret Service of the vampire movie world.
Which is doubly fitting since that once-maligned entry into the James Bond Franchise was saddled with a stiff leading man and found itself situated in a time when the series was trying to recover from the loss of the iconic Sean Connery (and the rise of social discontent). Like Horst Jansen, George Lazenby was top notch in the action scenes though, and just as Horst had a cool sidekick and a gorgeous gal, Lazenby was carried by a cool ally and the best Bond girl of all time, The Avengers‘ Diana Rigg.
What’s more, it’s a shame Hammer couldn’t pull out of the collapse. Maybe if Captain Kronos had been a bigger box office hit, and maybe if Michael Carreras had shown a little faith in the film, then Hammer could have made good on that tantalizing poster art for movies they intended to make but never had a chance to get to. Don’t tell me you don’t want to see Zeppelin vs. Pterodactyls or didn’t hope Hammer wold make good on all that cheesecake nudie sci-fi artwork on the poster for When the Earth Cracked Open. Sure, they probably would have ended up less like the insanely awesome movies in my mind and more like one of those “lost world” films from Amicus Studio, but you know what? I loved those “lost world” movies from Amicus, so I would have been pretty psyched to watch something in which cheap looking little models of biplanes and blimps go head to head with wobbly pterodactyls on strings.
But those are exercises in what might have been, and while fun, the fact is there was never a Zeppelin vs. Pterodactyls or a Captain Kronos series. No Kronos fighting vampires down through the ages. What we have instead is a single Captain Kronos that happens to be an incredibly good film. It’s really everything I want from my entertainment. Fast paced, witty, irreverent but also a very good entry into the genre with which it is toying. I don’t think I’d argue that there aren’t flaws for people to find in the film, but if they are there, I’m not really all that concerned with finding them. Had this been the last film Hammer made, it would have been a perfect swan song. Our heroes, riding off beyond the horizon to face down evil. Would we ever see them again? Who knows?
Instead, Hammer ended up with a few more death twitches and even more misguided attempts at finding a new market. Among these were an ill-advised attempt to replace the lost American market with the exploding Hong Kong market by partnering with the Shaw Brothers studios to produce two films: the plodding action caper Shatter starring Stuart Whitman and Shaw Bros superstar Ti Lung, and the entertaining but ridiculous Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, starring Peter Cushing and Shaw Bros’ star David Chiang. Both were attempts to cash in on the rising kungfu craze, and both failed. In the case of Shatter, it was hard to convince audiences that they should stop watching Bruce Lee and Five Fingers of Death and concentrate instead on a movie in which Stuart Whitman wanders around. It was like trying to convince Hong Kong audiences in the 80s to stop watching Jackie Chan and embrace Steven Seagal. Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires featured Cushing as Van Helsing, traipsing around China, but it never really feels like an actual Dracula film — possibly because venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee finally made good on his boast and refused to appear in the picture, even though Dracula transforms into a Chinese guy in the very beginning of the picture. Instead, it feels like a Shaw Brothers kungfu film into which Peter Cushing wandered by accident. It’s pretty fun, in my opinion, but there’s no mystery as to why it wasn’t the film that salvaged Hammer’s reputation.
The end to Hammer horror finally came in 1976, in the form of To the Devil…A Daughter, Hammer’s painfully horrible attempt to cash in on the devil worship movie craze that seized us in the 70s. Too bad the film was dreadful — in my opinion the only completely unwatchable horror film Hammer ever made. It’s too bad Kronos wasn’t around to put that one down before it sucked so much life out of us. But so it goes, and whatever might have happened doesn’t change how much I enjoy Captain Kronos.
I suppose I’m happy to be watching these films after the fact. I’ve never felt that Hammer films were stodgy or old-fashioned, or that they had dated poorly, but that’s probably because I’m watching them from a vantage point removed from the original cycle. If I’d been able to write reviews in the late 60s or early 70s, I probably would have been complaining about the lack of originality, so on and so forth. I love Hammer films. I love the old ones. I love the ones from the 70s. Heck, I even enjoy failures like Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb and Lust for a Vampire. In nearly two decades of film production, Hammer made one solitary horror film I can say I hate. That, my friends, is not a bad record, and I guess if I’d been in the shoes of Michael Carreras, I would have been as confused as he was. But then, I’m just a writer and a fan, not the head of a studio. I expect more from him than I would from myself, what with how it was his job and all. I appreciate everything the pioneers did — Jimmy Sangster, Terence Fisher, James Bernard, John Gilling — my God but they made some incredible films. And I love the years in which Hammer was trying to figure the strange new world out. I love Twins of Evil, Vampire Circus, Taste the Blood of Dracula, and I don’t hate Lust for a Vampire or even Horror of Frankenstein. So flailing or not, misguided or not, with the final credits having rolled on Hammer (I’ll believe the persistent “we’re back!” press releases and announced productions when I see at least one final product), all I can do is raise a glass of brandy to them (I prefer scotch, but what would Peter Cushing say?) and say, with complete earnestness, “Thank you.”
At various points in various reviews, we’ve discussed the painful demise of Hammer Studios and the Hammer horror film, so rather than rehash it here yet again, I direct you to Taste the Blood of Dracula (the review, I don’t mean I’m actually directing you to taste Dracula’s blood, should you have any lying about), Dracula AD 1972, and Satanic Rites of Dracula, all of which ramble on and probably repeat the same information about Hammer’s inability to sustain itself into the 1970s and in the face of a brutal collapse of the British film industry. I also point out on several occasions that, despite the fact that Hammer was a rudderless ship adrift in a tumultuous sea, many — in fact, most — of the horror films they made in the 1970s were of exceptional quality. It’s a shame that the worst horror film they ever made, To the Devil…A Daughter was their last, and thus the swan song for a studio that deserved much better.
Dracula films had been, along with Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein films, the studio’s bread and butter, but Hammer experimented from time to time with non-Dracula vampire films, with varying degrees of success. The first of these, oddly, was the first sequel to the studios smash hit Horror of Dracula. The Brides of Dracula finds Peter Cushing reprising his role as Dr. Van Helsing, but other than a few mentions here and there, Dracula is out of action for this film, and the action instead focuses on a second bloodsucker. Hammer had it in their head that the film series would be about Van Helsing, cruising around Victorian Europe fighting the various vampires Dracula had spawned, or something to that effect — sort of like the Sons of Hercules, only instead of huge bodybuilders in tunics, it was a skinny British guy in a greatcoat. Hammer’s reasoning may have seemed sound at first. Peter Cushing was their biggest star, after all, and venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee was, at the time, just promising horror film newcomer Christopher Lee.
But Hammer sorely underestimated the appeal of promising horror film newcomer Christopher Lee and, more importantly, the desire to actually see Dracula in any film that used the name Dracula in the title. So while Brides of Dracula is a spectacularly entertaining film, wasn’t what audiences or distributors were looking for. When Hammer dipped its tow back into the Dracula waters with Dracula, Prince of Darkness, they made sure that Dracula — played once again by now venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee — was in the movie. But Hammer still liked to toy with the occasional non-Dracula vampire film, usually with great artistic success. 1963′s Kiss of the Vampire is wonderful, for example. But after the release of Dracula, Prince of Darkness, Hammer went into “all Dracula, all the time” mode, and any script for a vampire film had to be a Dracula film, because otherwise, the British public would miss out on another round of venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee complaining about Dracula movies.
Time passed, and many Dracula films came and went. So many, in fact, that eventually Hammer had no idea what to do with the guy. He’d been killed once and for all more times than The Ramones had farewell tours. So in 1970, as the studio was entering its downward spiral years, someone decided to revive the old idea of a Dracula movie without Dracula. This time, however, distributors nipped the temptation in the bud, and Taste the Blood of Dracula has the iconic count crowbarred into the script so he could stand in the shadows and provide a running countdown of the people who had been killed. It’s quite a good movie, but Dracula himself is more superfluous than usual, and he was pretty superfluous in most of the films. The count would limp on through a couple more features, including Scars of Dracula (which I like more and more as the years go on) and Dracula AD 1972, before The Satanic Rites of Dracula put the final stake through the heart of the franchise, completing Dracula’s transformation from a raging force of nature into a supernatural demon and, ultimately, into a cartoonish spy movie style mad villain. All he lacked was a TV transmitter that allowed him to broadcast taunts directly onto an oval-shaped monitor on the wall of Van Helsing’s study.
At the same time the Dracula films were making their grim march to the grave, however, Hammer did succeed in bringing one corpse back from the dead: the idea of a vampire film unrelated to Dracula. This came in the form of The Vampire Lovers, but more specifically, it came in the form of star Ingrid Pitt and the newfound permission to feature nudity in their films. The Vampire Lovers was enough of a success that it spawned two loosely connected sequels — the weak Lust for a Vampire and the exceptional Twins of Evil. It also opened the doors for a flailing Hammer to try and find some way of mixing the old with the new, of sticking to the tried and true vampire film that had supported them for so many years, but without relying on Dracula. Modern twists on old formulas, if you will. This lead to two of Hammer’s very best vampire movies, and had the studio had more time, more money, and more faith in its product, they might have had themselves two new franchises capable of carrying the studio through hard times when madcap On the Bus comedies could not. One of these films was Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter. The other was Vampire Circus.
Both films felt very different from any of Hammer’s previous vampire films. Vampire Circus, in particular, is probably one of the weirdest feeling films Hammer ever produced. It’s not psychedelic, mind you, but it’s like one of those psychedelic themed novelty records made by some old guy still trying to be hip with the kids. Or like Psychedelic Shack by The Temptations. That’s a good album, but no one was really going to buy The Temptations as a trippy psychedelic band, especially in 1970. Similarly, Vampire Circus is a really good film, possibly even a great film, but it never quite succeeds in feeling “modern,” not when it’s up against something like Blacula, for example, or the glut of Satanism movies that were coming out around the same time. Instead, Vampire Circus becomes its own really weird creature, rather unique and unlike any of the vampire films that came before it. In fact, though you could draw a connection to the old Universal House Of… movies because of the inclusion of a traveling gypsy circus, Vampire Circus has more in common with a film like Freaks or The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao than it has with Hammer’s previous vampire films.
The best and worst the film has to offer is right at the front, before the credits even role. A simple yet eerie and effective intro finds a local village man and his daughter in the woods. The little girl is tempted away from her father by a woman we know just isn’t quite right. The father, upon noticing, shrieks with terror and clamors to rescue his daughter, but it’s too late, and she disappears with the woman inside a creepy looking castle. The distraught man then rounds up a posse to carry torches and shake pitchforks at the inhabitant of the castle, a mysterious and threatening character named Count Mitterhouse (TV bit actor Robert Tayman). So far, so good. Everything has been really creepy in the same way the picture on the cover of that first Black Sabbath album is creepy. Yeah, it’s just a grainy photo of a weird looking chick in black robes standing in a clump of dead trees with a spooky house behind her, but it’s always scared me a little, even today. That woman would have definitely been in league with Mitterhaus, and if she lead you back to her lair with the beckoning of a slender (apparently green) finger, you’d be in for about two minutes of passionate spooky lovemaking and nudity, and then she’d rip your throat open or somehow manage to have gotten you lashed onto a series of hooks that pull off your skin or something like that.
However, what awaits within the walls of the castle is a bit different, and this is where the worst comes into play. Mitterhaus is absolutely ludicrous. He’s like a spoof vampire played by a drag queen in a disco musical written, directed, starring, and only seen by the world’s most flamboyant drag queens, and then at the end they all agree that the play was good but Mitterhaus was a little too campy for them. When you’re too campy for a theater full of drag queens, you are definitely too campy for a Hammer film, especially one that is otherwise so weird and serious. Not that Mitterhaus doesn’t have his strong suits as a character. For one, he lives in a cool castle populated by a couple sexy naked orgy women. He has lovely taste is sashes. And the fact that he’s kidnapped and lured a little girl into his sleazy lair gives the character an air of scummy, almost pedophiliac menace that really makes him a villain. You could always root for Dracula, even when he was at his worst and whipping Dr. Who with steel switches, but Mitterhaus just gives off a creepy uncle vibe. All this in and of itself is good for the movie, but Tayman’s performance is just ridiculous. It’s all mincing and eye rolling and silly face making. Even when he’s slaughtering his would-be attackers, he’s less frightening than he is…well, like a flailing dancer who got lost on his way to a John Waters film. Everything about the character is well written, but it’s like having it all and then delivering it in an Easter bunny outfit.
Still, when the worst thing about your film is that your vampire is a little too campy, that’s not bad. And when I say it’s the worst thing about the film, one has to measure that on a relative scale. Because silly though he may be, it’s hardly enough to spoil the film. In a way, I guess it makes Mitterhaus even more formidable. It’s like having your ass kicked by Mick Jagger’s character from Performance. You keep telling yourself, “This can’t be happening! He’s much to fey to kick my ass!” But that thought doesn’t stop him from doing it.
Eventually, Mitterhaus gets a stake through the heart and makes a face like a disgusted Southern bell who just won second place in the county fair beauty contest. With his dying breath, or whatever it is vampires have, he curses the town, swearing that the children of his killers will die to give him life again. Once again, it’s all really well done, easily one of the best vampire film intros ever, but it’s hard to take seriously with Mitterhaus camping it up to a degree that even Shatner and Vincent Price would tell him to take it down a notch. But with him in the grave the film can settle down and find its groove.
And that groove, as I’ve already said, is a mighty quirky one. The story picks up some years later. The town has been quarantined due to an outbreak of plague, and anyone caught attempting to leave the boundaries of the town is shot by unseen soldiers, or whoever is in charge of shooting people who try to escape from plague infected European towns. But other than tat, live seems OK. The elders, most of whom were in on killing Mitterhaus, while away their days figuring out plans to get the quarantine lifted. The village doctor doesn’t believe in vampires or that old queen Mitterhaus’ curse. Young people are in love. The inn, believe it or not, is not owned by Michael Ripper. In fact, there are very few familiar faces in this town, and no Hammer heavies in front of or behind the camera.
To this blighted town, though no one can explain how they get there, comes the Circus of Night, a small time, fairly creepy affair that employs, among others, a scary dwarf harlequin, an accordion playing mute strongman who will eventually grow up to be Darth Vader (David Prowse),a gypsy matron, a naked bald chick who does sexy tiger dances, a couple of potentially incestuous acrobatic twins who can turn into bats, and a hot young guy who can turn into a panther. Desperate for anything to take their minds off being a quarantined plague town cursed by a campy yet ass-kicking vampire, overlook the peculiarities of the circus and settle down for some good old fashioned family fun.
And man, what a circus it is. I attended a few circuses when I was young, and I remember a guy named Gunter who put his head in a lion’s mouth, and then I think a clown shot another clown with a seltzer bottle and they fired someone out of a cannon. That was cool and all, but I kind of wish I went to the circus where a tiger ran out and turned into a naked, chick painted with tiger strips, who then proceeded to do sexy dancing while being “tamed” by a guy before they finally just end up writhing around on the ground and practically doing…you know…it. And people seem to be amused by but not terribly upset by the fact that the people in this circus seem to be able to shapeshift into bats and panthers, or that a dwarf keeps grinning and running around making surprised “O mouth” faces. I guess they chalk it up to gypsy magic. Things aren’t as much fun once members of the circus break out the fangs and start preying on the children, usually after corrupting them in some sexual fashion. Each kill brings Mitterhaus a step closer to resurrection.
Vampire Circus benefits from the fact that Hammer was lost at sea, allowing new(er) directors to take a chance in hopes that something, anything, would stick and keep the studio afloat just a bit longer. That coupled with the relaxing of regulations regarding nudity meant that writer Judson Kinberg, in his first of only two career screen credits, could be much more explicit about the sexuality that has always existed in Hammer’s vampire fare. When first we meet Mitterhaus, he’s cavorting in bed with two naked women. He’s a rakehell and hedonist with a bit of the Marquis De Sade about him, and Vampire Circus gets to show more of that than they ever did in the past. He’s also a child murderer and has questionable taste in chest-exposing frilly shirts. Hammer’s Dracula was a combination of animal rage and desire, driven to do things not because he takes pleasure in them, but because it is his instinct, his thirst.
Mitterhaus, on the other hand, seems to take great pleasure in his lifestyle. He’s less animal, more decadent. Similarly, his minions in the circus use explicit sexuality to ensnare and kill their young victims. Emil the Panther seduces the burgomaster’s daughter and feeds on her during a series of sexual encounters. The incestuous acro-bats similarly seduce young men and women to take part in funky threesome action. It is not just important that they deliver fresh blood to Mitterhaus; they must also thoroughly corrupt their victims. Their master seems to draw as much power from this as he does from the fresh blood they dribble on his moldy corpse. If only he’d known that by the 1970s, all it too to bring Dracula back to life was a random bat flying into his window and dribbling some blood on his face. Heck, by the final Dracula film, you didn’t even need to bring Dracula back to life. He was just there, already in action (as much as “sitting behind a desk” can be action), and Hammer seemed to be saying, “Look, at this point do you even care how Dracula got brought back to life?” By comparison, Mitterhaus has to work pretty hard at it.
Tackling sexual politics has always been tricky for Hammer, and they’ve always walked the “have your cake and eat it too” thin line of cramming their films with naked sex appeal and heaving bosoms while skirting censorship issues by half-assedly grafting on “but in the end, the pure ones prevailed. Hooray!” final scenes. By their own admission, this was usually to keep uppity vicars and morally outraged censors off their backs while still being able show plenty of half naked women. As a libertine, rakehell, and dandy cad about town, I always roll my eyes when movies see no other outcome but tragedy for anyone evil enough to actually enjoy sex and a spot of hedonism. Victorian horror films usually counter that by expressly showing that it’s not the sexuality so much as it is the repression of sexuality that causes things to go sour. But the end result is the same. People who like sex usually die.
But ultimately, what it comes down to is that I am not inclined to worry myself about the sexual politics of Vampire Circus. These movies, like most movies, have to jump through so many hoops to satisfy so many cranky people that eventually, almost all politics, sexual or otherwise, are confused to the point of contradicting themselves, sometimes even in the same scene. I’m much happier to lie back in my reclining throne, slosh about my goblet of wine, and bark, “Send in the naked tiger dance woman!”
On the other hand, I do spend a lot of time thinking about other philosophical question as relates to entertainment. For instance, did every singer for a psychedelic 60s British band have a fling with a vicar’s daughter, and are all vicar’s daughters hot, blonde free spirits yearning to run naked and free through a field of barley? But then, I’m from the United States. I actually don’t even know what a vicar is. What is it, like some sort of a sports car? I did once have a crush on a Methodist minister’s daughter, but that doesn’t roll off the tongue the way “vicar’s daughter” or “son of a preacherman” does.And anyway, it turned out she wasn’t a repressed girl yearning to rebel against her strict upbringing by letting me unbutton her blouse. She wanted to teach me about God, and I wanted to fondle her boobs in the choir balcony during church lock-ins. Needless to say, our relationship was as successful as my entire career as a churchgoer.
Anyway, where was I? I’ve gone and gotten myself all distracted now. Let’s move on to the general air of weirdness that’s instantly generated by setting a film in or around a traveling circus. In a way it’s a cheat, like those movies that film on location on the plains of Africa or the steppes of Mongolia and then expect awards for their sweeping, epic cinematography. The land itself did all the heavy lifting; all you really needed to do was set up the camera and pan around a spell. Similarly, old time traveling circuses are inherently creepy and awkward, just as they are inciting and mysterious. They infuse anything around them with those same characteristics. Vampire Circus definitely benefits from the “old time traveling circus weirdness” vibe that seems ingrained in our very psyches. It still works on me. I’m middle aged and I still dream of going to a parking lot circus and meeting some raven-haired gypsy beauty who will tell my fortune and embroil me in supernatural brushes with death as we fight the dark fate looming on my horizon. Or barring that, I dream of sitting around with carnival strippers and Johnny Eck, drinking whiskey and swapping stories about the rubes.
When I was little, I used to go with my Grandpa Bud to horse shows during the Kentucky State Fair every year. It was a pretty sweet deal for a little kid. You got to set up a campsite in a veritable city of horse stalls, sleep in the stalls (the horses were across the aisle in other stalls), and basically have the run of the fair. And the Kentucky State Fair, at least back then (I haven’t been in ages) was huge. There was a flea market back when cool stuff could be found at flea markets instead of on eBay, with all the flea markets now just selling OxyClean and ShamWows. The flea market took up two buildings the size of stadiums, and you could wander through all the weird junk and 4H dioramas for days. But best of all was that no one gave a rat’s ass about security, so even as young as I was, I was allowed to wander in and out of every building, through every door, every nook and cranny. I crawled through tiny maintenance access tunnels, wandered around in boiler rooms where hissing pipes seemed to go on for miles, and best of all, was never told to shoo off the midway, even in the middle of the night.
I’d sneak out and wander around, doing my best to avoid the teenagers who were doing the same but apparently had some sort of activity the boys and girls would do together. Not sure what it was. I got to watch people setting up and breaking down rides and attractions, pal around with creepy old men running the bumper cars and moon walk, and best off all, got after-midnight rides on the various disappointing spook house type rides which, despite being disappointing, continue to this day to delight me to a disturbing degree. Somehow, I did all this without ever once being molested or murdered by someone’s deformed son they kept locked in the bowels of their haunted house attraction.
At the time, I was high on a number of movies that involved similar settings. I saw Freaks at an early age, and it was right around the time Disney released Something Wicked This Way Comes. he Kentucky State Fair never had any stripper tents or freak show, but it was still pretty awesome running around in the middle of the night, with all those lights still flashing and the occasional hair trigger animatronic gorilla growling at me. Watching Vampire circus is sort of like wandering down a deserted midway int he middle of the night. There’s something undeniably spooky about it, but it’s also got this hallucinogenic allure. Whether born of myth or reality, circuses always have the air of something else going on, just behind the tent flap. Secret things, a whole other world to which you are not privy and only the select few can see. Ground down by daily humdrum, this world of beautiful gypsy fortune tellers and good natured strongmen, of devious managers and shifty mesmerizers, seems a much better alternative. Ignoring, of course, the backbreaking work and touring schedule, and the fact that if you join the traveling spooky circus, you may thing you are going to romance the gypsy girl or the sexy guy who turns into a panther, but mostly, you’re probably just going to be cleaning up chimp shit and taking care of Dracula’s corpse, which is in a poorly made display case.
But that doesn’t matter, does it? Carnivals, traveling circuses, gypsies — these things are awesome, pure and simple. And they infuse Vampire Circus with an atmosphere that is unique among Hammer horror films. In this strange world — almost, but not quite like our own — everyday items take on a sinister second nature. Most Hammer films aren’t scary these days, even f they are still quite good. But a film like Vampire Circus, while not exactly scary, manages still to be very…unsettling, perhaps. This works on a meta level as well. This is a Hammer film. Parts of it are very Hammer-esque. But it’s also not quite the same. The location shooting makes it different, for one, and the cinematography is off-kilter. There are no familiar faces. Certainly no Peter Cushing or venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee, but also no Michael Rippers, not even Ralph Bates. I was hard pressed to pick out any recognizable faces other than Anthony Higgins and Thorley Walters, and no one really gets all excited when, “That new Anthony Higgins film opens this week.” Not that this a cast of newbies, or that the cast lacks talent. Quite the contrary. Many of the faces are familiar from other movies, other television shows (Lalla Ward undoubtedly being the most recognizable thanks to her role as Romana in Doctor Who), but none of them are really familiar as Hammer stalwarts. It’s like walking into work one day and seeing that everyone has been replaced by someone else who does the same job, does it well, and is likable. You get along with them, even enjoy their company, and you certainly respect their work; you just can’t help glancing nervously around from time to time and wondering where the hell Michael Ripper went.
Thing is, I don’t think this movie would have worked as well if there had been familiar faces in it. After all, Hammer was ostensibly trying to break from the past, and nothing would signify that attempt quite as much as keeping the old guard off camera. If I see Peter Cushing, I know I’m in familiar territory, and I relax and enjoy the ride. But with a cast I don’t know, I have no idea what to expect. Who’s going to live, who’s going to die? Beats me. I just have to sit on the edge of the seat and watch the movie. Keeping the big guns off screen also means that B-teamers and background players get a chance to step forward and strut their stuff, proving why so many Hammer films are so good. Even the people who don’t have any lines are good actors. The lack of familiar faces onto which we can latch means that the characters get caught up in the bizarre events surrounding them far more easily. If it was Cushing out there, we’d expect him to say, “My God, man, it can’t be! Mitterhaus is dead!” Then he would competently go about exterminating the vampires and saving us all. But Cushing isn’t there to protect us, and that uncertainty is palpable.
Of the cast that is present, most are forgettably competent, which is kind of how they need to be for the film to succeed. The film continues Hammer’s trend of featuring young protagonists in hopes that would lure kids into the theater. This really started in Taste the Blood of Dracula and Scars of Dracula, and culminated in the groovy hep kids in Dracula AD 1972, though they still needed Peter Cushing to show up, research some books, and make a grim face of determination as he engaged Dracula in their latest final showdown. In Vampire Circus, bot the heroes and the villains skew young. Some adults are on hand, of course, though their primary function is to prove too weak to stand up to these freaky young vampires. Our nominal heroes Dora (Lynne Frederick, who went on to star alongside Peter Sellers in The Prisoner of Zenda) and Anton (John Moulder-Brown, who looks like some of the Pauls from Hammer’s last few Dracula films) don’t make much of an impression, but they are serviceable enough when surrounded by so much oddness.
This anonymity applies to the crew as well. There’s no Anthony Hinds here, no John Gilling or Terence Fisher. Instead we have first-time director Robert Young and first-time (almost only time) writer Judson Kinberg. Bringing in some fresh blood helped Hammer shake the formula up while still allowing it to remain recognizable. Vampire Circus feels much more like a continental horror film, like the dreamy, often illogical horror films of Italy or France where ambiance and imagery is more important than logical procession and and solid plot. This was pretty new territory for Hammer. Hammer horror may have relied on the fantastic, but it often presented it in as scientific and logical a fashion as possible for a horror film. Although Vampire Circus still follows a logical narrative — things still make sense — where as French and Italian horror films would not, it still boasts a very dreamy, supernatural state of being. That said, it also differs significantly from continental horror films in that there is a lot more action — plenty of vampire attacks and wanton point blank assassination of circus animals by drunken villagers. It may be dreamy, but it’s rarely ponderous.
Apparently, Young was given more or less free reign by Michael Carreras to do what he wanted, and Young wanted to make the film unusual. He certainly did that, and even though he ran out of time and had to edit around missing scenes he’d not had time to shoot, the film was ultimately one of Hammer’s most innovative. Unfortunately, it wasn’t one of their most successful. Critics and fans alike seemed confused. After years of complaining that Hammer product was stale and old fashioned, they seemed upset that Vampire Circus wasn’t stale and old fashioned. Sometimes you just can’t catch a break, can you? Young went on to work steadily in film and television, and in 1997 directed the all time classic…ummm…Blood Monkey. And no, that isn’t one of my frequent typos. The movie is not Blood Money, but Blood Monkey. F. Murray Abraham was in it, so you know it was classy.
It’s a shame that, as of this writing, Vampire Circus remains missing in action in the United States. In fact, I believe it’s missing in action in England as well. It’s really one of Hammer’s most impressive, quirkiest efforts. I’m afraid that I’ve gotten lost and dreamy in my review of the movie as well, and at this point I’m making no sense and ought to just wrap it up by saying that regardless of how bad things were for Hammer in the 70s, the movies that came out of it were usually very good and very interesting. I don’t know that Vampire circus had the franchise potential Captain Kronos had, but I could have seen a series of films tracing the horrors that follow around a sinister circus of shape-shifting bloodsuckers. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way, and Vampire Circus ended up being a one-time deal. It’s a really good one-time deal, though, so if you get the chance to check it out, do it. It’s a much better way to have ended Hammer’s vampire film cycle than was Satanic Rites of Dracula.
After taking several years off, the 1950s saw the return of the pirate movie, thanks largely to the efforts of Walt Disney. In 1950, Disney produced a colorful, fast-paced, and smartly written adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic adventure tale, Treasure Island. Two non-Disney sequels — the directly related yet immensely boring Long John Silver and the dubiously connected Return to Treasure Island — followed in 1954, and a TV series came out in 1955. Plus, it seemed like every other episode of “The Wonderful World of Disney” featured either pirates or kids in coonskin caps solving a mystery in a spot called Pirate’s Cove. Along similar lines, Disney released a classic version of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and in 1958, the first of the Sinbad films featuring special effects by Ray Harryhausen showed up. While these last two weren’t pirate movies per se, they still had the air of old fashioned high seas adventure and swashbuckling about them.
So someone at England’s Hammer Studios, possibly Anthony Nelson Keys or Michael Carreras, walks up to screenwriter Jimmy Sangster and says to him, “Jimmy, old boy, we want to make a pirate film, and we want you to write it.” Sangster, fresh off the astounding success of his scripts for Hammer’s most famous films — Horror of Dracula, The Mummy, and Curse of Frankenstein, among others, excitedly agrees. It’ll be fun to bring the Hammer style into the realm of swashbuckling pirate movies. Sangster’s mind is undoubtedly already formulating a story when Keys and/or Carreras adds, “Only here’s the thing: we don’t have any money for a boat, so don’t write a script that features a pirate ship.”
A pirate movie without a pirate ship? Sangster, by his own admission, was somewhat baffled by the whole idea. Of course, pretty much every pirate movie sets a good deal of its action on land. Errol Flynn’s Captain Blood spends at least as much time on land as he does standing in heroic poses at the wheel of a ship, yelling “avast” and “me hearties.” But he does spend time standing in heroic poses at the wheel of a ship, yelling “avast” and “me hearties.” And his films feature plenty of ship-to-ship action, raids, and cannon fire. Ditto the Disney films. Plenty of on-land action, but also plenty of ship-to-ship shenanigans. It’s hard to believe that even the tiny budgets within which the average Hammer Studio film had to operate couldn’t be stretched in some way to come up with a pirate ship for their pirate movie, since hard to believe that anyone would make a pirate movie without a ship. But no. Sangster’s task remained the same: write a pirate movie without a pirate ship.
By 1962, Hammer had become synonymous with horror films, even though the studio’s output before the release of the above-mentioned “big three” delved into pretty much every genre, as most studios would. But once Dracula, the Mummy, and Frankenstein were released, it was all about Hammer horror. Any other type of production was pushed to the back burner, both by the studio itself and by the public, who proved in those early days to have a near insatiable appetite for the lurid, colorful style of sex and blood Hammer routinely used to outrage critics and members of the decency police. But the desire remained, however flickering, to make sure Hammer didn’t become just a horror factory, and doing a period piece pirate film seemed like a nice fit. They could recycle most of the props and costumes from their other films. And although they weren’t horror films, pirates lent themselves to easy adaptation to horror film tropes, what with all the skulls and creeping about and stabbing each other that went on in them. They just couldn’t have a boat, although they were afforded a few seconds of stock footage of someone else’s boat to show during the credits.
In some ways, perhaps, this rather large restriction ended up helping Sangster, because the end result is a cracking good adventure story in which you barely even notice that the pirates never set foot onto a ship. Onto a raft, yes, but never a ship. I’d expect no less from Sangster, who is, in my opinion,easily one of the best screenwriters who ever entered the business. Unable to fall back on pirate movie standards like the cannon battle and a scene of guys with swords clenched in their teeth swinging from one ship to another, the harried screenwriter delivers instead a landlocked pirate film that, in many ways, plays out like an American western, albeit one with far more men adorned with a variety of colorful silk scarves.
American Kerwin Mathews — Sinbad in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad — stars as fiery young Jonathon Standing, the member of a Huguenots settlement on a remote island somewhere that I don’t think is ever clearly defined. The Huguenots were basically the early Protestants, frequently at odds with Catholic kings and churches and prone to being persecuted and going to war with dominant Catholics throughout the 1500s, well into the 1600s. The island settlement, then, is one of relative secrecy, and it is lorded over by a council of religious elders who dole out law based on strict Protestant interpretations of the The Bible. This apparently worked well for many years, but by the time Jonathon Standing comes around to make out with buxom Hammer glamour regular Marie Devareaux, the council has become largely corrupt, creating tension throughout the townsfolk, who feel that the elders have given in to petty power obsessions and greed rather than dictating the word of God. Jonathan’s own father is the head of the council, but even if some vestige of an honest and noble man still exists within old Jason Standing (Andrew Kier, actually the same age as Kerwin Mathews), he is too weak-willed against the other members of the council for it to matter. In fact, when Jonathan himself violates the rules of the town by comforting the abused wife of one of the council members, Jason condemns the popular young man to hard labor in the colony’s prison — a virtual death sentence, we learn. The conviction of Jonathan only serves to make the crowds angrier, but like most angry crowds, there is much muttering beneath the breath and complaining, but no one is quite ready yet to take up the torches and pitchforks.
In prison, Jonathan fares poorly, as his popularity with hoi polloi makes him a target of the sadistic guards. So it isn’t long after his clothes have been reduced to prison regulation tatters that he escapes, leading his captors on a wild chase through the island’s swamps before coming face to face with Count Dracula! Well, with venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee, here playing French pirate captain LaRoche and sporting a deformed hand and an eyepatch. LaRoche makes about as nice as a ruthless, cold-hearted pirate can and cuts a deal with Jonathan. In exchange for the Huguenots not telling anyone LaRoche and his crew use the cove as a rest stop, LaRoche will…actually, I sort of forgot what his end of the bargain was.
It doesn’t really matter, because as soon as Jonathan leads them toward the settlement, the pirates start killing and making demands about a treasure they claim is hidden within the town. Jonathan knows they are mad, that there is no treasure, but that doesn’t stop the motley band of cutthroats from laying siege to the town. The townsfolk rally to their own defense and seem to be holding their own for a while, but their wooden walls were meant to defend against wild animals and jungle critters, not well-armed pirates. LaRoche and his gang soon capture the town, promising to hang people until the elders give up the treasure. It’s up to Jonathan and his young friends to wage a guerrilla style war against the occupiers, culminating in a fairly unsurprising revelation about the alleged treasure and the giant statue of the town founder and a fairly exciting duel between Jonathan and LaRoche.
Despite the lack of a pirate ship, Pirates of Blood River has a tremendous amount going for it. Chief among its many assets is the cast, buoyed by a likable Kerwin Mathews and an exceptional venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee, who gets to stretch his acting chops a little more than usual in the role of LaRoche. Lee was a big star by 1962, but two of his biggest roles had been entirely speechless, and one afforded him like three lines and five minutes of screen time. He was known, therefore, far more for the characters he played than he was as venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee the actor. Pirates of Blood River lets him come out from behind the bandages, scar make-up, and fangs and, in their place, wear an eye patch and speak with a French accent. LaRoche is a good character, one that interests viewers because it’s obvious that there is much more to the him than we are ever allowed to discover. How did he lose his eye? What happened to his hand? How did he become a pirate? Why is he so haunted and determined?
None of these questions are ever answered, and that allowed LaRoche to be interesting without being over-exposed. We are teased with his mysterious past, but it’s never demystified for us. Free from the fetters of playing a creature, venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee seems to really be giving it his all, channeling perhaps Basil Rathbone’s backstabbing French pirate from Captain Blood. He also handles the swordplay well. The duel between he and Mathews is excellent, and even though he is tall and lanky and playing a guy with one eye and a gnarled arm, you never really doubt that venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee could whup you if he wanted to.
Propping up the pirate end of things are some of Hammer’s most reliable supporting players, including Michael Ripper in a rare non-innkeeper role. Here he is LaRoche’s supposed best friend, though it’s obvious LaRoche doesn’t consider anyone a friend. Ripper really gets to ham it up, speaking with a bombastic uber-pirate style that would make Long John Silver himself proud. Also int he cast of scalawags is a young Oliver Reed, though he’s not really around terribly long. The entire crew tears into their roles with joyous abandon, as merry and drunk as they are threatening and violent. On the other side of the fence is another set of villains: the town elders. Just as ruthless, just as greedy, only far more devious about it. Caught in between these two forces are Jonathan and the townspeople who respect him as a voice of reason and proponent of liberty. It’s very much a “freaks versus the squares” cultural battle and not unlike what we would see a few years later in Mario Bava’s Danger Diabolik: hip young people caught between two opposing yet similar monoliths of status quo society.
For Diabolik, it was a corrupt government and organized crime; for Jonathan, it is a corrupt theocracy and a bunch of pirates. In the end, neither side appeals to our free spirits, and they chose to reject them both. Hammer often found itself in trouble with religious authorities because of the content of their films. They usually weaseled their way out of it at the last second by having Peter Cushing clutch a Bible or something, thus proving that the film was good and moral. In the case of The Pirates of Blood River, despite the absence of a Frankenstein monster, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster really gets to lash out against religious intolerance and hypocrisy. The elders start out kind of jerky, and then you think maybe Jonathan’s father will have some sort of a change of heart at some point. But he only gets worse, and he is willing to see every single person in the town butchered rather than give up the treasure about which only he knows. In the end, he gets his just desserts, as does the dastardly LaRoche, leaving Jonathan to start society anew.
Although this was a decidedly non-horror adventure film, there are still horrific elements in the movie, as there would be in other of Hammer’s subsequent pirate movies. The opening sequence, in which Jonathan is discovered making out with a married woman, is probably the film’s most horrific scene. Pursued through the swamp by vengeful town elders, the poor woman stumbles into the titular Blood River, which happens to be infested with piranhas. As originally filmed, the poor girl screams and thrashes about as blood bubbles up all around her. The piranhas themselves are wonderfully realized by nothing more than having rapidly moving ripples spread out across the water.
Hammer wanted the film to receive a much more family friendly rating, in the spirit of increased returns and inspired no doubt by the exciting but family-friendly Disney pirate films. The scene was eventually cut down to remove the blood, and then restored years later for the film’s long-awaited debut on DVD. It’s a chilling scene, and director John Gilling plays it wise by letting the imagination do most of the work. The screaming and the blood is graphic enough. He doesn’t undercut the power of the moment by cutting to a shot of a rubber piranha. I do regret, however, that they don’t cap the scene with a shot of a perfectly intact, bleach white plastic skeleton bobbing to the surface. That’s always classy. But I guess Hammer was saving all their skeleton-related pirate hijinks for Night Creatures.
I don’t know what other cuts Hammer made to the film that have since been restored. The sword wounds are all pretty bloody. Not Lone Wolf and Cub geyser of blood bloody, but when a guy gets impaled, the sword on which he was impaled comes back all covered in grue. Still, I suppose that’s about as family friendly as Hammer was capable of being, and it’s family friendly enough for me. i don’t come from the school of thought that maintains all children’s fare must be bloodless, harmless, and never ever scare the wee ones. I’d much rather take my family to see Pirates of Blood River than a movie where a sass-talking CGI animal learns a skill that helps him win a contest while referencing pop culture.
That does bring us to another of the film’s sundry assets: director John Gilling. By all accounts, Gilling was difficult to work with even under the best circumstances. In the case of Pirates of Blood River, it seems he was nearly intolerable. Gilling wasn’t meant to be the director originally, but the man they’d assigned to the job had been in a spot of trouble with the American Un-Activities Committee, that embarrassment of a Congressional organization that spent so much time and money trying to ferret out commies and liberals int he motion picture industry. Kerwin Mathews was nervous about working with such a man, fearing that the long arm of stupidity would reach him even in England and ruin his career back home. Not that, by 1962, Mathews had much of a career.
But it was enough that the supposedly bankable American was uncomfortable, so the director was replaced by an unenthusiastic John Gilling. As a director, coming into a production for which there is already a script, a cast, a crew, and sets is usually thought to be rather an unenviable situation, and Gilling wasn’t shy about letting his displeasure be known. Still, however big a jerk he might have been on set, the end results were usually fantastic. That was certainly the case in 1966, when he directed one of my favorite Hammer horror films, Plague of the Zombies. And it’s the case with this film as well. Pirates of Blood River, even without a ship, is a fast-paced, well-made adventure tale. As cranky as Gilling may have been, there’s no doubt that he still put himself into making the best possible movie he could.
Released in 1962, it’d be a little disingenuous to claim that the movie was influenced by something like Vietnam, even though there is a definite counter-culture air about the story. More than likely, and as I alluded to earlier, the film was influenced both by previous pirate films and by Westerns. The Huguenot settlement, with it’s rough-hewn wooden walls, has the look of a pioneer fort. And the pirates laying siege to it is reminiscent of Western movie Indians doing the same. However, at some point in the film, the roles are reversed, and the pirates become the victims of hit and run warfare waged by Jonathan and his band of fighters who, despite being outmanned and outgunned, use their intimate knowledge of the jungle around them to pick the pirates off a few at a time, leaving the brigands harried, demoralized, and eventually, mutinous. That the pirates are French only supplies another link to the emerging conflict in Vietnam, but as Sangster has never mentioned this in an interview, I think it’s more a case of coincidence and hindsight equipping us with the ability to infuse the film with influences and meanings that aren’t there. Still, it’s kind of fun, and it keeps film studies professors in business and away from actual film work, where they would do untold amounts of damage with their crackpot experimental videos.
So make a pirate movie, they told Jimmy Sangster, one in which the only time the pirates are in the water is when they board a poorly made raft that sinks shortly after being launched. Whatever the challenges may have been, he pulled it off. And Hammer pulled it off. The Pirates of Blood River was well received by audiences, and in true Hammer fashion, that meant they would do their best to milk the popularity for as long as they could. Over the next couple of years, Hammer produced several more pirate films, usually with the same cast. They even sprang for a mock ship for one of the films, and they intended to recycle it for other pirate films until it caught on fire. Captain Clegg, also known as Night Creatures, was released in 1962 as well and continued the Hammer style of making pirate movies set entirely on land. In 1963 came The Scarlet Blade (the only Hammer pirate film that, as of this writing, remains unavailable on DVD). And in 1964, with The Devil Ship Pirates, they finally sprang for that mock-up of a ship, even though that film, like the others, takes place largely on land and sets. But that was about it for Hammer pirate movies. The ship accidentally caught on fire and thus couldn’t be reused (though the burning was incorporated into the film). As if that accident signified something more, production of Hammer swashbucklers more or less came to a close with that film as the studio focused itself almost entirely on horror films.
So while it may not have the panache of an Errol Flynn movie or the budget of a Disney live action film,and while it may not have a pirate ship in it, The Pirates of Blood River is still a solid adventure tale, with plenty of action, a dependable cast, and a look that fools you into thinking this is a much higher budget film than it actually is. It’s nice to see these old Hammer swashbucklers getting some attention.