Composer: Laurie Johnson
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From James Bernard’s thunderous score for Horror of Dracula to David Whitaker’s eerie Vampire Circus, Hammer scores and the undead have complemented each other like cobwebs and crypts. The studio’s talented composers specialized in a big, full-blooded orchestral sound, instantly evoking images of sinister bats, heaving corsets, fanged vampire brides and determined Dracula hunters. But by the 70’s, Hammer realized that their vampire formula was getting a bit long in the tooth. So they gave it an often-nutty transfusion in the coming years with bloodthirsty tarts (Twins of Evil), Kung-Fu zombies (Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires) and hippy familiars (Dracula A.D. 1972).
But perhaps no Hammer spin on the undead remains as beloved, or artistically successful as 1974’s Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter – especially for its gloriously Gothic, swashbuckling score by Laurie Johnson. While many remember Johnson’s pulse-pounding theme for Captain Kronos, few Hammer aficionados know about the Englishman behind it. First coming to prominence with his humorous, military underscore for Dr. Strangelove, Johnson’s other memorable genre soundtrack would include First Men in the Moon, episodes of The Avengers (and its spin-off The New Avengers), as well as putting his spin on Bernard Herrmann’s killer baby music for Island of the Alive.
It was through his Avengers work (a show whose theme he also composed) that Johnson first came to the attention of the show’s writer and producer Brian Clemens. His talent for dashing adventure and black humor would lead to him scripting such notable features as And Soon the Darkness, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. Yet Captain Kronos would somehow be the only film that Clemens would direct. And Johnson’s flair for dark, symphonic romance would be right in step for the coolest vampire hunter since Van Helsing.
First seen riding through the English hillside with his faithful assistant Grost, Laurie Johnson immediately establishes Kronos’ Germanic swashbuckle with a galloping, brass melody that stands as one of Hammer’s best themes. Yet most of Captain Kronos sticks to creepy strings, subtle clock-of-doom percussion and brooding brass valor. This is a soldier who’s as much a detective of undead doings as he is kick-ass vampire slayer. There’s also no mistaking the macabre romance of Bernard Herrmann in Johnson’s work (he’d conduct Obsession and orchestrate It Lives Again for the maestro). And with its dark winds, growling trumpets, low oboes and winding melodies, Herrmann’s spirit possesses Captain Kronos in a way that’s far more affectionate than ghoulish. From its lush orchestrations to eerie bells, Captain Kronos plays like the Hammer score that Herrmann would have composed.
But for all of Captain Kronos’ heroic brooding, there’s also a knowing black humor to it, especially in the methodical drums of “Doctor is a Vampire / Peace at Last,” where Kronos figures out the best way to kill the undead with a particularly reluctant victim. A Cimbalom also appears as a voice of the mystery vampire he hunts, a sound that conveys the ageless nature of Kronos’ prey, while also firmly setting the film in the 1600’s. And when victims fall under the vampire’s gaze, string shimmers instantly evoke the sounds of the undead’s trademarked stare. While most of this isn’t as ragingly symphonic as the kind of scoring that marked James Bernard’s Dracula soundtracks for Hammer, Captain Kronos remains suspenseful throughout its listen, especially with Johnson’s tight, thematic construction driving the captain to his final symphonic sword parries, playing his confrontation with the film’s aristocratic bloodsuckers with large, orchestral stabs.
Buysoundtrax has done a terrific job of putting this long-awaited vampire hunter back in musical business, with exceptional liner notes by horror music expert Randal Larson tuning us into the film’s history, and Johnson’s exceptional talents. But the icing on Kronos’ cake is a collection of instrumental sweetners and sound effects that went into musically outfitting this soldier of darkness. Here’s hoping that Buysoundtrax continues plundering the Hammer crypt for the remarkable scores like Kronos that lie within.
To buy the Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter soundtrack, click here.