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Caroline Munro, Horror Queen of the 1970's - A Biography

by Mike Haberfelner

April 2009

Films starring Caroline Munro on (re)Search my Trash

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If horror had a female face ... it probably would be Barbara Steele's [Barbara Steele bio - click here].

That said, if you're into the more campy side of genre cinema, into films in which Dracula comes to the 20th century, men go to the center of the earth to find scantily clad cavegirls, and women prove they can do everything Luke Skywalker can but look way better, then you simply must have stumbled upon Caroline Munro every now and again.

The point is, while Barbara Steele represents straight gothic horror from the 1960's - and has several genre classics under her belt -, Caroline Munro stands for horror and fantasy cinema of the 1970's, when in her homecountry Great Britain, established horror producers started experimenting with their tried-and-true genre formulas due to shrinking audience interest ... and came up with often hilarious but sometimes quite sexy results. And Caroline Munro was perfect for this type of film: She might not have been the best actress (though capable enough to handly each and any of her roles), but she had fashion-model good looks to her credit, her face seemed innocent and sensuous all at once, her body looked great in the skimpy outfits she was often made to wear (though she never showed herself in the nude out of principle), her long legs looked great in mini skirts, and her whole appearance definitely spelled out 1970's in big letters - in other words, she was as much rooted in the contemporary settings of the 1970's as Barbara Steele was caught up in 1960's gothics.

 


 

Early Life, Early Career

 

Actually, Caroline Munro's acting initially was only a side-product of her career as a model. Born 1950 in Windsor, England, UK, her photo was entered in a Face of the Year-competition of the newspaper The Evening News by her mother and a befriended photographer when she was just 16, and sure enough, she won the competition. This led to several modeling gigs, among others for Vogue magazine the following year, and her natural good looks made sure that she became a hit with the audiences and was able to make a living out of modelling not yet 20 years of age.

Also at age 16, she did the vocals on the single, Tar and Cement. Musicians on the single included Eric Clapton, Steve Howe of Yes and Ginger Baker of Cream - which might seem a bigger thing that it actually was, as all these men were more or less at the beginning of their careers ...

 

With Caroline Munro first and foremost being a model back then, her first movie assignments were of a merely decorative nature, lending her pretty face (and body) to films including the Alberto Sordi-comedy Fumo di Londra/Smoke over London (1966, Alberto Sordi) - her debut - or the James Bond-spoof Casino Royale (1967, Ken Hughes, John Huston, Joseph McGrath, Robert Parrish, Val Guest), but her roles hardly ever ranked above extra-status.

In the 1960's however, it was still her modelling that granted her fame and visibility in the media, and she was quite a big hit back then, too. Maybe her modelling career culminated in 1969, when she was hired as the poster girl for Lamb's Navy Rum, a job that she held for no less than 10 years. She was also a much sought after pin-up in those days.

 


 

From Model to Moviestar

 

With Caroline Munro's success as a model/pin-up and her (however modest) on-camera experience, it was only a question of time until she got her first real role in a motion picture, which happened in 1969, the film in question being A Talent for Loving (Richard Quine), a Western comedy in which she played Richard Widmark's daughter. Cesar Romero and Topol were also in the cast as well as Judd Hamilton. The movie as a whole however was less than well received and is today largely forgotten, and it is important for Munro's biography mainly for two things, a) it was her acting debut, and b) she met Judd Hamilton on the set of the film, whom she would marry in 1970 (and divorce in 1982), and with whom she would make a few more films years later.

 



Considering A Talent for Loving's lack of success, it is no wonder that Munro's acting career didn't immediately take off. She had a small part later in 1969 in Where's Jack (James Clavell), a bio-pic about real life 18th century highway man Jack Sheppard (as played by former British rockstar Tommy Steele), but soon it was back to (uncredited) decorative roles for Caroline Munro, first and foremost The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971, Robert Fuest) and its sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972, Robert Fuest), with Vincent Price [Vincent Price bio - click here] in the title role and Munro playing his dead wife whom Price avenges in the first film and tries to revive in the second. Since he doesn't succeed of course, the range of Caroline Munro's role was extremely limited.

 

Though The Abominable Dr. Phibes was pretty much an instant classic, Caroline Munro's role in it was less than special (let alone demanding), but it was an important initiation into the genre nevertheless, as before long, Michael Carreras, head of Hammer, spotted her on a Lamb's Navy Rum-billboard and wanted to hire her pretty much on the spot (which he eventually did, too). Hammer of course had been Great Briatin's leading horror production house in the late 1950's and during the 1960's, but - like the British film industry in general - saw itself seriously on the decline through 1970's - and sure enough, they could need a fresh (and sexy) face to infuse new blood into their cinematic output ... which has over the years grown a bit formulaic.

 


So Caroline Munro became the first and only person to ever be put under a long-term contract by Hammer (even though the contract eventually amounted to no more than 2 films), and before you know it, she was cast in Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972, Alan Gibson), a pretty campy piece of genre cinema that attempts to bring Hammer's regular characters Dracula and Van Helsing - as played by Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing respectably - to modern times ... with the predictably corny results. Still, maybe because of its camp factor, Dracula A.D. 1972 has over the years become a cult favourite. Munro by the way has the honour of becoming the first victim of Christopher Lee's Dracula in the film, playing an innocent hippie girl participating in a black mass out of pure curiosity ...

 


Caroline Munro's next (and final) Hammer-film followed in 1974, Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter (Brian Clemens), yet another attempt to breathe new life into the studio's vampire flick formula, this time by blending genre mainstays with elements of the swashbuckler movie, thus puting the film's emphasis omre on action than horror. Horst Janson plays the lead in the film, with Caroline Munro, in her first bigger role, starring as his love interest. Initially, Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter was to be the first of a whole series of films, but when it was met with little appreciation at the box office, the series was cancelled - not Caroline Munro's fault though, who looks her most sensual in this one, and one also can't deny that the film is very stylishly directed - yet Horst Janson makes a rather bland hero, and the lack of a lead villain also doesn't help things along too much. Over the years, Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter has become a cult classic nevertheless though, and it remains one of Munro's personal favourites.

 

Hammer did have a few other projects on the shelves for Caroline Munro, the most notable is perhaps an adaptation of the Vampirella-comicbook - but after a few test shots, Munro turned the role down because it would have required nudity, and lots of it, and undressing in front of the camera was something that she just wouldn't do. For the same reason she reportedly also turned down other Hammer-films as well, films that did get made with other actresses like Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971, Roy Ward Baker) and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1973, Terence Fisher).

Caroline Munro even turned down an offer from Playboy to appear naked in the magazine - which she turned down out of prinicple even though it would have meant lots of money ... what a shame, I might add.

(By the way. Caroline Munro allegedly also turned down roles in Force 10 from Navarone [1978, Guy Hamilton] and The World is Full of Married Men [1979, Robert Young] because they involved nudity.)

 


By the mid-1970's, Hammer had pretty much run out of steam, and after Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter, the company would only produce a handful films more and cease production after two half-hearted attempts at television altogether. This of course meant the company soon enough had no more use for Caroline Munro - but that said, she must have left quite an impression on Captain Kronos-director Brian Clemens, who insisted on giving her the female lead in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974, Gordon Hessler), a film Clemens scripted from a story by effects wizard Ray Harryhausen. In the film, Munro plays a slavegirl who gets to wear a variety of skimpy outfits and who becomes the love interest of titular hero John Phillip Law, while Tom Baker handles the lead villain role [Tom Baker bio - click here]. Yet the whole cast of course took backseat to Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion creatures, the raison d'être of the film - which is not the worst raison d'être, come to think of it.

 


With 1975's I Don't Want to be Born/The Monster, directed by former TV- and Hammer-director Peter Sasdy, Caroline Munro returned to the horror genre, playing the best friend of leading lady Joan Collins and an exotic dancer - which gives Munro plenty of opportunity to appear in very sexy and brief outfits. However, despite its rather stellar cast - Collins, Ralph Bates, Donald Pleasence [Donald Pleasence bio - click here] and John Steiner - the film, an uneven and very British rip-off of It's Alive (1974, Larry Cohen [Larry Cohen bio - click here]) with traces of The Exorcist (1973, William Friedkin) and Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968), is less than special and looks a little old-fashioned even for the year of its release.

 




The same of course goes double for At the Earth's Core (1976, Kevin Connor), a cheaply made adaptation of the Edgar Rice Burroughs-novel produced by Amicus and starring (besides Munro) Doug McClure and Peter Cushing. The main problem of the film that is a retro-sci-fi tale about a scientist (Cushing) and his adventurer-student (McClure) going to the earth's core in a giant drilling machine is that a movie of this sort does need a sizeable budget for special effects ... which Amicus simply didn't provide, so everything in At the Earth's Core looks rather corny, not at all helped by Kevin Connor's old-fashioned direction and Doug McClure's bland lead performance. In contrast, Caroline Munro actually comes off pretty well, as a cavegirl she once again looks great in skimpy outfits, and she certainly helps considerably in saving this film from being a total loss - though even with her help, the movie's little more than campy fun ...

 


 

From Bond-Girl to Scream Queen

 


As sexy as Caroline Munro might have looked in At the Earth's Core, and as dear to the heart it is to some fans, the film can hardly be considered a highlight in her career, and with the British film industry in general on the decline in the 1970's, Munro did some television work next, starring in an episode of the comedy series The Howerd Confessions (1976) starring Frankie Howerd next as well as the episode The Angels of Death (1977, Ernest Day) of The New Avengers, which saw her in a catfight with Joanna Lumley - which might be nothing special but at least it's fun viewing.

 


When Caroline Munro's acting career already seemed to go nowhere in particular though, she landed a role in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977, Lewis Gilbert), one of the better James Bond-films of the Roger Moore-era. She didn't play the lead Bond-girl/love interest, mind you - this spot was reserved for Barbara Bach -, but the seductive right-hand woman of the film's baddie Curd Jürgens. Dressed only in a bikini, she even manages to distract Roger Moore's Bond's attention from lovely Barbara Bach, but ultimately he kills her in the course of an exciting car-vs-helicopter-chase ... making her the first woman to ever directly been killed by Bond himself within the series.

It is said that Caroline Munro turned down the role of villainess Ursa (a role ultimately played by Sarah Douglas) in Superman (1978, Richard Donner) to play in the James Bond-film - which might have been good judgement, because her role in The Spy Who Loved Me was very well received. (Interestingly enough, both The Spy Who Loved Me and Superman were - allegedly - at one time supposed to be directed by Guy Hamilton - just like Force 10 from Navarone, which she - again allegedly - turned down because of nudity issues.)

 


Unfortunately, Caroline Munro was not able to ride the wave of her success in the James Bond-film.

Actually, it took her two years to make another movie, and career-wise it was certainly a step down from The Spy Who Loved Me, as her next film - even though it gave Munro her first real lead role - on the surface looked like nothing more than an Italian cheapie trying to cash in on the success of George Lucas' original Star Wars (1977) ...

Yet for many (me included), the film in question, Star Crash (1979, Luigi Cozzi = Lewis Coates), qualifies as the best film of her career, the one low budget Star Wars-rip off that was actually able to blow the (vastly overrated) high budget original out of the water, basically because it didn't take its cues directly from Star Wars itself but borrowed from roughly the same films that Lucas was ripping off for his spectacle - special effects movies like Seventh Voyage of Sindbad (1958, Nathan Juran) or Jason and the Argonauts (1963, Don Chaffey), of course Barbarella (1968, Roger Vadim), serials like Phantom Empire (1935, Otto Brower, B.Reeves Eason) or Flash Gordon-serials, and of course TV's Doctor Who. And while Lucas' directorial clumsiness and lack of imagination was ironed out by a way too big budget and an onslaught of soulless special effects, Cozzi, who had in the past (not necessarily in the future though) proven himself to be a highly versatile director (again much unlike Lucas), showed how much one can make out of an admittedly low budget and a silly story with the right amount of imagination, chutzpah, understanding of the genre and of course self-irony (something else sadly missing from Star Wars). Plus, Caroline Munro, seen in several Barbarella-like outfits throughout the film, is certainly a lot sexier than Carrie Fisher and more charismatic a lead than Mark Hamill, and Star Crash's feminist message is also a welcome change to the conservative patriarchal universe of the George Lucas-film.

Star Crash did reasonably well at the box office, especially when considering its low budget, and scantily-clad Caroline Munro was at least partly the cause of that, and there were serious talks about making a sequel to the film, talks that lasted for quite some years, but that ultimately came to naught as in the late 1970's/early 80's, cinemas were literally flooded with cheap Star Wars-clones, and it was at best doubtful that a second Star Crash-movie could replicate the success of the first one (though Bitto Albertini's totally unrelated piece of space erotica Giochi Erotici nella 3a Galaxia from 1981 was internationally sold as Star Crash 2 and even featured some effects lifted from Cozzi's movie).

 

Apart from Caroline Munro, Star Crash also stars former child evangelist Marjoe Gortner as her male companion, Christopher Plummer as the emperor of the universe, and pre-TV-star David Hasselhoff as the emperor's rather useless son who ultimately has to be saved by Caroline Munro's character Stella Star. Yet the co-stars most important for Munro's future career are her own husband Judd Hamilton, playing a robot, and Joe Spinell, playing the baddie of the piece.

 


Flix.com

The following year, Munro would reunite with the two men under William Lustig's direction for Maniac (1980), one of the most disturbing and relentless films of the first slasher-era (this being the late 1970's and early 80's). The film was executive produced by Hamilton - who doesn't appear onscreen in this one - and Joe Spinell, who also plays the lead, a notorious woman-hating serial killer, and the whole film actually belongs to him, as his performance is disquieting to the hilt and strongly disturbing, even more disturbing than all the in-your-face gore-effects that hit exactly the right note with contemporary audiences.

Caroline Munro plays the one woman with whom Spinell's character is able to start a normal relationship, and when his urges to kill her finally do come through, she is also the only woman able to put up a fight and escape him ...

Fans who saw Caroline Munro mainly as a glamour model and star of (relatively) high-profile British films were less than pleased to see her in a cheap American genre film, but due to its relentlessness, Maniac has become an instant cult classic with genre fans, and is today probably the film she's best remembered for ...

 


Flix.com


Riding on the crest of the wave of Maniac's success, Hamilton (this time acting as co-writer, co-producer and co-star), Spinell and Munro (as lead actors) re-united once again in 1982 to make another slasher movie, the Cannes-set Fanatic/The Last Horror Film (David Winters), in which Spinell gives another disturbing performance as a star-stalking momma's boy - but this time he turns out to be the hero in the end. Munro plays the object of Spinell's desire, an attractive horror star, but unfortunately her role is seriously undermined by an impossible partly bleached hairdo that I don't believe was thought to be attractive even in the eighties.

Fanatic was never able to rival Maniac, either in terms of intensity nor in terms of success, and thus it was the last film of the trio Munro-Spinell-Hamilton.

Munro divorced Hamilton in later 1982 but continued her career pretty much unphazed, while Spinell could be seen in many supporting roles in bigger and smaller Hollywood productions after that, while always dreaming of eventually making a sequel to Maniac, his biggest success and personally most satisfying film - a hope that was cut short by his death in 1989. In a twist of bitter irony, he had just finished shooting a promo-reel for his proposed Maniac-sequel.

 

Based on her success in Maniac, the roles Caroline Munro got offered during the 1980's were predominantly in slasher movies, but pretty much from all over the world:



  • Don't Open 'til Christmas (1984) is a British production co-produced by Dick Randall and directed by veteran actor Edmund Purdom (who also plays the lead), and is your typical seasonal slasher. Of all things, Caroline Munro (who has a bit of a background in music) was asked to perform a disco tune for this one.
  • Dick Randall also co-produced the British-American flick Slaughter High (1986, George Dugdale, Mark Ezra, Peter Mackenzie Litten), and it's pretty much as good (or as bad?) as its title.
  • El Aullido del Diablo/Howl of the Devil (1987, Paul Naschy) took Caroline Munro to Spain to appear in director/wirter/star Paul Naschy's self-referential and self-ironic horror flick [Paul Naschy bio - click here] -  a film that sadly enough though never got much exposure anywhere in the world.

  • Flix.com

  • The Spanish-French co-production Faceless (1988) was what could have been a highlight in director Jess Franco's career, as he had quite a stellar cast on his hand - besides Caroline Munro there's Helmut Berger, Christopher Mitchum, Brigitte Lahaie, Stéphane Audran, Telly Savalas, Howard Vernon, Anton Diffring and of course Lina Romay ... but unfortunately, the name-cast also meant loss of freedom for the eccentric cult director and thus Faceless turned into one of his least remarkable films, merely another retake on his own Gritos en la Noche/The Awful Dr.Orlof (1962). Munro plays Telly Savalas' daughter, but spends most of her screentime locked away in some dungeon until she's saved by hero Mitchum.
  • In 1991, Caroline Munro re-teamed with Luigi Cozzi of Star Crash-fame for Il Gatto Nero/The Black Cat, a film only allegedly based on the story by Edgar Allan Poe and at one time intended to be the third part of Dario Argento's Three Mothers-cycle (with Argento-collaborator Daria Nicolodi even having helped with the film's script). Yet where Star Crash was a tongue-in-cheek camp masterpiece and Argento's initial Three Mothers-films genre classics, The Black Cat is nothing of the sort, just an attempt to churn out a horror film on a budget hardly high enough to pay for sets and costumes let alone special effects - and this shows on film clearly enough.
  • In a departure from her horror films, Caroline Munro also appeared in the TV-movie Maigret (1988, Paul Lynch) in the late 1980's, a murder mystery starring Richard Harris as Georges Simenon's French detective.

As low-profile as many of these productions sound (and in some cases are, actually), during the 1980's, Caroline Munro was also in talks for a few high-profile projects that never came into being, like a feature film based on the television series Doctor Who, in which she would have played the companion to David Bowie's title character (at least that's what was rumoured), and the lead in Cutthroat Island, a film that was eventually made in 1995 by Renny Harlin starring Geena Davis.

Also, from 1984 to 1987, Caroline Munro hosted the popular gameshow 3-2-1 on Yorkshire Television, appeared in a couple of music videos by Meat Loaf and Adam And, and she tried to break into the music business in 1984 with the Gary Numan-produced Pump Me Up - a dance single that hardly sold at all, though. Music always remained one of Caroline Munro's passions though, as in more recent years, she recorded several songs with Gary Wilson under the name Wilson Munro.

 


 

Fade-out ... Not Quite

 



In 1990, Caroline Munro got remarried, this time to George Dugdale, one of the co-directors of Slaughter High (and co-director with Peter Mackenzie Litten of the criminally underrated Living Doll [1990]), and the couple soon had two children.

Caroline Munro decided to take a break from acting to concentrate on her kids and family, to return to the screen only on the rarest of occasions, like Jeffrey Arsenault's low buget vampire flick Night Owl (1993) also starring John Leguizamo and former Andy Warhol-starlet Holly Woodlawn, or Peter Mackenzie Litten's Aids-drama To Die For (1994).

 

Over the years though, Caroline Munro's popularity within fan circles hardly at all faded, so with her children having grown older, she now and again returned to acting in the 2000's - and wouldn't you know it, she did finally get a part on Doctor Who, even if not on the big (or even the small) screen but on an Big Finish-audiobook, Omega, with Peter Davison (who played the character on TV in the early 1980's) in the lead.

 




Flix.com

Apart from that, Caroline Munro could also be seen playing supporting roles in the films  Flesh for the Beast (2003, Terry M.West) - a piece of horror erotica in which she shares a scene with fan-fave Aldo Sambrell -, Domestic Strangers (2005, Jeffrey Arsenault), and The Absence of Light (2006, Patrick Desmond) - a film with a stellar B-supporting cast including Tom Savini, David Hess and Tony Todd.

All of these are American independent movies that above all else prove one thing of course: That Caroline Munro has left her mark on genre filmmaking, that there still is an international fanbase for her, and that though her youth may have faded (she turned 50 in the year 2000), that doesn't mean that fans are likely to ever forget her ...

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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