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Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter

(Directed by Brian Klemens)

By the mid-70s Hammer studios were no longer the powerhouse of British horror that they once were, and poor box-office for their gothic tales meant some brave experimentation went on with their offerings. “Kronos” was actually filmed in 1972, but not released until 1974. It was designed to bring a new kind of vibrancy and imagination to the now-staid Vampire movie, and the plan was for Kronos to become a franchise in the way that Frankenstein and Dracula had become, but by time it hit the cinema that was no longer a financially viable option. Often cited by film critics as one the last great horror productions by the studio, it has become a fan favourite with remastered screenings at several festivals, and is noteworthy for a number of reasons. It was the only feature film to have been directed and written by the ubiquitous Brian Clemens, who gained much fame for his work on cult TV shows such as “The Avengers” and “The Professionals”. Set in an unspecified era (possibly Napoleonic), the basic plot sees the swashbuckling Kronos (played by German actor Horst Janson) ride dramatically across the countryside to hunt vampires. He’s aided by his hunchbacked assistant Professor Hieronymus Grost (John Cater), and hindered by a surprising new variation of the cursed bloodsuckers.

Despite the lack of success at the time, there’s a lot to admire about “Kronos”. For a start it dares to play fast and loose with vampiric lore. The main antagonist here is a cloaked Grim Reaper character, which sucks the life from young girls instead of blood. Cue unsettling shots of suddenly-aged damsels, and a core whodunnit? narrative. It’s stylishly shot with plenty of colour and interesting visuals; such as the shadow of a crucifix changing into the Vampire. It even pre-empts Indiana Jones action, with a wonderful set-piece that’s built up for a bar fight, and ends abruptly with Kronos quickly slitting the throats of three ruffians before they have a chance to move! In some respects it’s a great deal more mature and restrained than most of the blood n’ bewbs epics that predated this. As far as supporting characters go, the uber-smart Horst is treated with respect and dignity instead of the typical disfigured henchman, and Caroline Munro’s gypsy love-interest is at least given some depth rather than just being some random excuse for a romp in the hay (although that still happens). Janson looks the part of the hero (even if his voice is dubbed by Julian Holloway from the “Carry On” films), and the whole vibe of the supernatural vs. slashing-swords has a fresh and invigorating feel that is unusual for the genre at this time. It’s a shame that Kronos never ventured out for more cinematic adventures.

It's Alive

(Directed by Larry Cohen)

<!-- @page { margin: 2cm } P { margin-bottom: 0.21cm } --> “Alive” was made by cult director Cohen, the filmmaker and screenwriter justly famous for giving cinema genre offerings that had plenty of imagination and subtext with their low-budget scares. As far as this film goes, it actually had a false start in 1974, due to botched marketing and release by Warners Bros. Cohen actually convinced the company to re-release in 1977, and with revived interest in the genre they orchestrated some genius promotion on TV and Radio (“There is only one thing wrong with the Davis baby. It's alive!!"). The film was a delayed box-office success as a result… some three years later. It also contains a great soundtrack from composer Bernard Herrmann, and cool SFX from the legendary Rick Baker (who apparently used his wife to make the larger-sized body cast of the mutant babe during close-up shots). Shot almost like a 70s cop drama or documentary, the plot details the shenanigans of a monstrous killer infant born to a normal US family, which turns out to have originated from side-effects from an experimental medication.

Whilst the basis of the core story obviously has foundation in the “Thalidomide” scandal from the 50s/60s, the narrative is played out as a typical monster-on-the-loose B-movie, with the climax even playing out in the storm drains like 50s sci-fi thriller “Them”. But Cohen (who also wrote the story) layers it with so much sub-text and extra clever touches that it becomes much more. The title itself alludes to (Universal’s) “Frankenstein”, and is someone who the father (John P. Ryan wonderfully angst-ridden throughput as Frank Davis) finds himself linked to, with his hatred/love for his creation. The theme of a killer baby could have been a hilarious mistake, but there’s something inherently creepy about the hideous wails and furtive scampering that draws shudders instead of laughs. And whilst the bug-eyed, razor-clawed little tyke is usually only glimpsed in the shadows (apparently modelled on the “Star Child” from “2001”), with basic effects that are primitive by today’s standards, it’s still unsettling. The fact that it is basically an innocent, driven by fear and instinct, adds some emotion and depth to what could have been a shallow story. Cohen adds some real distaste for corporate greed and consumerism as well.

There’s also a genius final line, which led onto two direct sequels in later years; “It Lives Again” in 1978, and “Island of the Alive” in 1987. An ill-advised remake was released in 2009, and it got shot down in flames by Cohen himself in a negative review.

From Beyond the Grave

(Directed by Kevin Connor)

<!-- @page { margin: 2cm } P { margin-bottom: 0.21cm } --> One of the last great horror anthologies from the British studio, this Amicus film has a “Twilight Zone” feel to it and a lovely twinkling performance from Peter Cushing. Sometimes known as “The Undead”, it was also titled as “The Creatures”, “Tales from Beyond the Grave”, and “Tales from the Beyond” at various points in its lifetime. The movie consists of 4 stories, with the wraparound narrative coming in the form of a ramshackle little Antiques shop called “Temptations Limited” (“Offers you cannot resist”). The store’s unnamed proprietor is played with a sinister geniality by a heavy-browed Cushing, and each tale spirals out from a “cursed” item that is purchased from him by the lead characters. So we get; a haunted mirror that’s thirsty for blood, a stolen medal that leads to witchcraft, a snuff-box (“I hope you enjoy snuffing it!”) that witnesses an elemental’s vindictive nature, and (in the best story) a door that opens into the Spirit realm. The film boasts an incredible array of UK acting talent, which includes; David Warner, Ian Ogilvy, Donald Pleasence, Diana Dors, and Lesley Anne-Down amongst many others.

FBTG doesn’t own the same ghoulish or bloody extremes that were shown in the previous Amicus anthologies such as “Asylum” and “Tales from the Crypt”. Instead, it has an almost sedate English ghost story feel about it. There are occasional splashes of blood and off-screen stabbings, but mostly it’s about atmosphere. The perennial die-if-you-do-bad morality remains the motif, which results in one tale having a happy ending when Cushing confirms that he hasn’t been robbed at its climax (“Well done!”). “The Door” is especially successful in creating a spooky atmosphere with its NetherRealm ghoul and likeable characters. There’s also a nice revelation about the Proprietor at the end, the rare sight of seeing Pleasence play alongside his daughter (Angela), and a wonderfully batty performance from Margaret Leighton as an eccentric psychic. Each story comes from UK genre author R. Chetwynd-Hayes, and has a real old-fashioned appeal. There is some conjecture that the film partially inspired Stephen King’s 1991 story “Needful Things” or the “Friday the 13th” TV series from the late 80s. Be that as it may, the film has been championed by celebrities over the years as classic Brit horror, with Mark Gatiss (“Dr Who”, “Sherlock”) presenting special screenings in London.

Black Christmas

(Directed by Bob Clark)

Although Halloween and Michael Myers can rightfully claim to have kickstarted the slasher sub-genre in in 78, audiences got their first real dose of it back in 74 with Bob Clark's Black Christmas, a delightfully dark horror film that involves one of the most potty mouthed killers on record. In fact, the film had a direct influence on John Carpenter himself, so in a way, it planted the slasher seed. It was actually a commercial success at the time, making back eight times the budget in ticket sales in North America alone. Again, a remake was released in 2006 – which was produced by Clark himself – but it bears no resemblance to the original in terms of story or quality. The script, written by A. Roy Moore, was inspired by an urban legend "The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs" (referenced in other movies such as When A Stranger Calls and Urban Legend) and a series of murders that took place in Montreal. Morbidly, the film's TV premiere in January 1978, was postponed due to the murder of two co-eds on a university campus in Florida. The similarities between the incident and the plot of the movie was too much for TV execs, who thought it would be bad taste to air it. The perpetrator of the Florida killings would turn out to be none other than Ted Bundy.

You can certainly see why it might be an issue. The plot of Black Christmas revolves around a group of sorority girls who, whilst getting ready to leave for the holidays, start receiving offenive anonymous phone calls. The local police don't seem too bothered (when do they ever?!) but when a 13 year old girl is found murdered in a park and one of the college students goes missing, they begin to realise that they have a big problem on their hands.

Although Pepeing Tom (1960) introduced audiences to the concept of killer POV's, it's utilised brilliantly in Black Christmas. Through the killers eyes, the audience is forced to stalk the unsuspecting college girls and the mixture of voyeurism and violent death scenes are a potent cocktail. The fact we never see the killer too (although there are obviously a few obvious candidates to who he/she is) just makes the whole thing even more unsettling. It's a film that feels ahead of its time in many ways – but the thing we admire most about it (apart from Margot Kidder) is just the gnarly, claustrophobic feel of it all.

Fun fact: Appparently it was Elvis Pressley's favourite horror movie and he would watch it every Christmas. Who knew!

The Phantom of the Paradise

(Directed by Brian De Palma)

Brian De Palma is probably best known for gangster movies like The Untouchables and Scarface – as well as action flicks like Mission Impossible. Horror audiences will undoubtedly also be familiar with one particular movie he made in 76 – the cult classic 'Carrie'. However, some genre fans won't be quite so aware of an intriguing little flick he made two years previously – a little film called 'Phantom of the Paradise'. De Palma isn't really known for his musical rock opera horror comedies, which makes this film all the more special. Initially panned upon its release (although it did receive an oscar nomination for its music), it has since gone on to be viewed in a much more positive light by critics and general audiences. And rightfully so, because there is a lot to enjoy.

As the name would suggest, the story is loosely based on The Phantom of the Opera, but it's also part Faust and Dorian Grey too – and If that heady combination doesn't get you excited, shame on you! In POTP, Winslow Leach, a talented singer/song-writer has some of his work stolen by a music producer who plans to use it for the opening of his new concert hall – called The Paradise. When Leach discovers this he breaks into the producers mansion to confront him – but he is arrested and thrown into prison, where bizarrely, he has all his teeth ripped out and replaced with metal ones. Big mistake. Leach soon escapes from prison and seeks revenge on thos that have wronged him.

Sounds awesome huh? Well, it kinda is. It's partly tragic, partly kitsch, partly horror-comedy. It all makes for a unique viewing experience. Add to that some imprssive visuals and a beautiful soundtrack and it's little wonder why it's finding new admirers 45 years after its release. Some will find the mixture of styles and sub-genres jarring and confusing. But if you just sit back and let it all wash over you, you'll have a lot of fun.

Fun fact: The movie was subject to four separate law suits, including one from the estate of The Phantom of the opera, another from Marvel comics for the use of The Phantom.

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