Sunday, 14 July 2019

Charmed… Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter (1974) & Hammer Scream Queens, Phoenix Cinema Vampire Festival

To the four actors on stage before us, a part in a Hammer horror film could have been “just another job” with there being rent to pay, but it also provided the chance to find their way in this most competitive of careers at a time when British film was not exactly flourishing. Their backgrounds may have varied but in a profession in which filmmaking might only reward the truly inquisitive, they knew they had to make the most of any screen time, even if you were just being burned at the stake.

Judy Jarvis (nee Matheson) was formally trained and, as she put it, a “jobbing actor”, for whom working with people of the calibre of Peter Cushing was invaluable experience on a par, perhaps, with her time at the Liverpool Playhouse when, in between productions, she had to work shifts at George Henry Lees to support her room and board. Screaming as Mr Cushing burned her at the stake in Twins of Evil may not have been on an artistic level with her stage work at say, the Bristol Old Vic, Broadway or Sir Tyrone Guthrie's production of Measure for Measure, but it was part of her journey as a performer. It may also, as she said, have been the longest scream in cinematic history.

Caroline Munro, Judy Jarvis, Bruce G. Hallenbeck, Pauline Peart and Madeline Smith 
Madeline Smith would also learn from the actors around her and even chat up the crew to find out how the process worked, the lighting being important to any performer; just look what von Sternberg did for Marlene or Stiller for Garbo… All were at pains to stress the importance of collaboration and how script, director and crew could make or break any performance opportunity.

For Caroline Munro working with Christopher Lee enabled the self-trained actress to considerably raise her game: “I didn’t really have to act it because Christopher Lee was there and he was absolutely magnificent… The turning point was working with him as I hadn’t been to drama school and hadn’t done all the normal stuff you were supposed to do.” She learned on-set and acting became very instinctual for her, self-taught and "very driven by my feelings.”

There was similar praise for Peter Cushing who Caroline described as “… totally present which therefore made you present…” whilst Madeline echoed that thought: “…he totally inhabited the part and it inhabited him!” She described his work ethic on Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974) when he’d go through the script every night making notes and additions even though his wife had just passed away.

The Queens on stage - both this and above courtesy of Miranda Gower-Qian, Phoenix Programme Director
Both Madeline and Judy feature in an upcoming documentary on the actor from Rabbit and Snail Films; it’s due for release in August details are on their website - link below.

The event was part of a Vampire Film Festival which saw screenings of key films at the Phoenix Cinema along with contributions from film makers. Tonight's was introduced by American horror expert Bruce G. Hallenbeck (author of The Hammer Vampire: British Cult Cinema) who talked about Hammer’s revitalisation of the vampire genre, showing clips from Dracula which he’d first seen aged five. Hammer didn’t create the vampire film but they perfected it commercially making cinema darker, more sexual and more graphic than anything seen before.

Another clip from the company’s last film, The Satanic Rights of Dracula (1973), featured Pauline Peart and a gaggle of glamourous blood-suckers being destroyed by sprinklers possibly containing holy waters. The reality was far from glamorous as the actress had to wear contact lenses that made her ordeal all the more uncomfortable: “I had to scream because I had contact lenses and my eyes were burning!”

Pauline Peart on the left coping with her cruel contacts
“I hate funerals! You must die, everyone must die!”

Hammer adapted J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella Carmilla with a lose trilogy starting with The Vampire Lovers, featuring Ingrid Pitt and Madeline Smith in one of the most talked about films of the seventies... in my school at least. It was followed by Lust for a Vampire and Twins of Evil both of which built on the successful formula and included Judy Jarvis (nee Matheson).

Madeline Smith and the great Ingrid Pitt in The Vampire Lovers
A clip from our main feature, Captain Kronos, followed showing the Captain rescuing Caroline Munro from the stocks for the crime of dancing on a Sunday, as she stands up, her hair is thrown back and that knowing smile gives a hint of the energy and adventure to come. Yes, Hammer is camp, but as Kronos was to show, not without its share of decent directors, writers and, of course, actors not the least of which are these famous Scream Queens.

Hallenbeck asked the four how they felt about this epithet and their response was refreshingly honest all round with some, no doubt, well-practiced zingers. Madeline Smith said that, in the Vampire Lovers she did indeed “…scream a lot, because Ingrid was biting me on an unspeakable place… “ There were also screams of frustration from Ingrid Pitt who hated her fangs and then a moment of reflection as we considered the time when her vampire teeth fell out into Kate O’Mara’s cleavage and “all the crew offered to retrieve them…”

Peter prays and Judy screams...
You were left with a picture of four people who had made the most of their opportunities, been kind and supportive and received the same in return. People who are happy to share such positive experiences with good humour and a smiling sense of perspective. Hammer films were part of a democratised industry which broadened opportunities and supported a very successful British studio against the odds. How fitting that those of us who watched and enjoyed can now examine them in more detail and listen to such enlivening accounts of the process as well as the personalities.

Like a lot of popular culture, productions that were only ever meant to have a limited commercial existence have gone on to enjoy a digital after-life and to be not only re-assesed critically but also enjoyed by new generations. There were plenty here tonight who are now viewing these films for the first time and in the broader context of their cultural significance. As Judy concluded: “It’s wonderful... to have this recognition so many years later. Thank you!”

Screening: Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter (1974)

Horst on a horse
Made on a micro-budget of £160,000, Brian Clemens’ Captain Kronos was a thoroughly enjoyable mix of swash-buckle, folk horror and rather a-typical vampirism. It was intended to become part of a series featuring Horst Janson as the dashing blade and it’s understandably one of Hallenbeck’s favourites and that's high praise given that he’s seen them all and many times too.

Thinking of the elements highlighted by the Q&A, it was noticeable how strong the script was for this film as well as the cinematography of Ian Wilson and Laurie Johnson’s spirited score. There were lots of knowing references and, darn it, jokes such as when Dr Marcus (John Carson) touches Kronos war-wound and says he knows he has guts as he’s seen them. There’s even a bar scene in which a “guest-starring” Ian Hendry and two henchmen face off against Kronos only to be dropped by a swift flash of his blade: the sword play is stylishly unlikely until a prolonged battle at the death which probably carried a large part of the film’s stunt budget!

Hello Ms Munro
Kronos and his aide, Professor Hieronymus Grost (the excellent John Cater, one of so many experienced stage actors who would lend gravitas), are vampire hunters – even more fearless than Roman Polanski’s from 1968. They rescue a peasant girl Carla (Caroline Munro) and set off to the scene of the strangest of vampiric killings, young women hypnotised and then sucked of all vitality, left for dead looking like old crones.

There is indeed an energy and honesty from Caroline Munro in this role and she clearly had the instinct to go with her screen presence as she rose to the level of those around her. Her Carla adds a vital element to the hunters, bringing out Kronos’ human backstory and allowing the Professor to explain their methods. Handsome Horst Janson is also very good as Captain Kronos and having had a heavy German accent, is well-voiced by Julian Holloway who I had no idea was the son of Stanley...

Don't talk to strangers
As the young girls keep on being picked off, the intrepid team use dead toads to track the path of the vampires who will animate the amphibians should they pass over them. The finger of suspicion and the steel sword of vengeance soon point to the mansion of the Durward family who’s father Kronos had fought alongside: the most feared of swordsman. Is it the son, Paul (Shane Briant) or the daughter Sara (Lois Daine) or is there an even darker secret? Well, what do you reckon?

I liked the visual dynamics of the film with excellent use made of tight angles to accentuate tension and maintain the sense of forboding even amidst the comfort of a family home or a tavern. This is a skill the best of the Hammer films always used and here the menace and the "horror" are mostly in the mind with the anticipation of another bloody cut-away all set in the pastoral peace of the Hertfordshire countryside. 

Love the design of this room - all made vulnerable by the camera angle
It's hard to think of a more positive and affirming evening at the cinema so well done Phoenix, ace programmer Miranda Gower-Qian and all concerned, especially the Scream Queens - it was a pleasure to meet you all. This was also the first time I’ve seen a hammer horror film on screen since I was a teen sneaking into the Liverpool ABC near Lime Street, at least this time I didn’t have to fib about my age!

The Peter Cushing documentary featuring contributions from Judy Jarvis and Madeline Smith is due in August, details on the Rabbit and Snail Films website which also features snippets of other productions and interviews. There's also an interview with Judy Jarvis on her career and her Hammer films.

Captain Kronos lives on with a graphic novel from writer Dan Abnett and artist Tom Mandrake, it comes with an introduction from Caroline Munro.

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