Monday, July 10, 2017

Review: Curse of the Crimson Altar

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2017
Images from the Internet

Curse of the Crimson Altar [aka The Crimson Cult]
Directed by Vernon Sewell
Cheezy Films / MVD Video
87 minutes, 1968 / 2017

In my life, I have been a member of three cinema-related fan clubs: for Pamela Franklin, Peter Cushing, and William Henry Pratt. Who was that last one, you ask? Well, when he started acting in 1919, he changed his name to Boris Karloff.

Karloff had quite the illustrious career thanks in part to the ego of Bela Lugosi, but that’s not what this review is about. Despite that profession, as with many genre actors of b-films from the studio years, his golden age was not quite filled with gems. With the exception of Peter Bogdanovich’s stunning Targets (1968, the same year as this one), Karloff arguably hadn’t made a standout film in quite a while, and that would be true until his demise in 1969 (although his pictures were being released until 1971).

Boris Karloff, Mark Eden, Virginia Wetherell
This British flick, now rereleased by the wonderfully relentless Cheezy Films, was originally put out by Tigon British Film Productions; the US version of The Cult of the Crimson Altar [TCotCA] was release two years later as The Crimson Cult by American International Pictures (AIP); I saw it at the Thalia revival house in the mid-‘70s with Targets. Honestly, I don’t remember it at all. Tigon was no Hammer Studios; it did, however, produce some cult classics, such as 1968’s Witchfinder General and 1971’s The Blood on Satan’s Claw. And yet, TCotCA had four major horror stars, namely Karloff (born in England, then moved to Canada), Christopher Lee (d. 2015), Michael Gough (d. 2011), and the enchanting Barbara Steele.

The film is certainly a child of its time: Britain was post-Sgt. Pepper’s, and psychedelia was certainly on the mind of the public, if only in its infancy of hippie-dom. As with most youth cultures, since movies are written by adults catering to a young demographic, this is more how the writers probably imagined the scary times that were a-changin’ at its highest peak, trying to appeal to teens and young adults, yet scare the middle aged parents and up who were curious to find what all the noise in the papers and telly was all about. The motorcycle gang films of the period just before this used the same formula.

Christopher Lee
For example, early on in TCotCA, there is a wild party (though “the boys were wearing ties,” as the Shangri-Las sang in “Sophisticated Boom Boom”) with lots of drinking (drugs are assumed, considering the relatively strict film permission laws), half naked women in bikinis and underwear dousing themselves with alcohol while the guys drink the run-off, or having paint stripes across nearly bare boobs, and all the wild, chaotic laughter over formulaic and forgettable music. A standout moment is when two couples play “chicken” in the main room with the women on the dudes’ shoulders, attacking each other with paint brushes. It made me tense as I kept thinking, “Watch out for that chandelier!” (yeah, I’m gettin’ old…).

There is, however, a nice-yet-subtle self-referential humor, such as the following dialog:
Female lead: It’s like a house in an old horror film.
Male lead: I know what you mean; it’s like Boris Karloff is going to pop up at any moment.

As for the story, there is an introductory scene about a certain character who’s more felt than seen going forward in the story, while we meet an evil supernatural being in a low-cut blouse named Lavinia Morely (the Barbara Steele), the “Black Witch of Greymarshe” (but her skin is blue, not black nor grey…never mind). You can tell she’s beyond human because her voice is so highly reverberated, it’s hard to make out what she’s saying-aying-aying-aying.
Barbara Steele
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the UK, Robert Manning (then-television actor Mark Eden, who gets equal billing) is wondering whatever became of his brother Peter, so he goes in search for him, winding up at a strange and isolated manor, where he runs into said party. In the wings are the owner (Christopher Lee), and his slow-but-faithful man-servant, Elder (Michael Gough). The party is run by his deep voiced and skin-tight clothed niece, Eve (Virginia Wetherell, who has an Angelique Pettyjohn-type appeal).

 Karloff the Great makes his entrance in a wheelchair (he suffered from severe arthritis in his later years) as Professor John Marsh, in order to catch Manning – and the audience – up with the history of Lavinia, or as we critics like to call it, the exposition. He explains the party is to celebrate Lavinia, as the participants march through the woods in a scene that is reminiscent in hindsight (as this came first) to The Wicker Man (1973). Lee was also in that one, and actually both roles are similar. It’s also interesting to see both Karloff and Lee together, considering they played some of the same icon horror creatures, Frankenstein’s monster and the Mummy (although Karloff was Im-Ho-Tep, and Lee was Kharis…yes, I knew that from memory, and yes, I’m showing off).

I could go into a whole rant about the subtle yet rampant sexism that goes on, though it was common enough in that time period. Beyond the party scene where many of the women are nearly naked (to be fair, there are a few skimpily clad men, as well) and the sacrifices are all female, there’s a moment when Marsh is dishing out a rare brandy and states, “Completely wasted on women” (even though it’s Manning who it proves to be unappreciative of the high-end hooch). But it’s important to note that it’s not just then: when marching through the woods in the ceremony with torches, the party revelers chant “Burn the witch! Burn the witch!” which has the exact tone of the more modern “Lock her up! Lock her up!”

Michael Gough
The thing about the main male protagonist, Manning (aka “Bob”), is that he is an absolute boor and brute. I found him totally unlikeable. When he isn’t insulting his hosts and the local traditions (which the audience accepts, I’m positing, because of the assumption they are evil, and that makes it okay) or trying to get Eve in the sack by grabbing and kissing her in unsolicited fashion, he just clamors around like a buffoon. For example, he’s warned to leave by someone, and then doesn’t, but that’s to be expected. However, he tells everyone which person told him that without anyone even asking. What an ass. Bull in a china closet, he is. I kept wishing him harm, but that would make the film way too short.

Considering the age of the film, it’s a decent copy, though it’s hard to tell if it’s from a negative or a video. Cheezy Films has once again managed to find a version that is watchable of a somewhat fun film, relatively speaking for its time period and b-level. What should be a considered a big bonus is that they found the original British version, which is somewhat different than the American release (for example, the British government detested violence like the US government was scared about nudity, so there was more of the latter there than the former).

There are few surprises and an amazingly small body count. While it doesn’t live up to what Hammer produced, this is certainly worthwhile a watch if merely for the historical document of who was involved onscreen. Thankfully, even with an obnoxious protagonist, the story is still decent enough (and is certainly, in rear-view mirror viewing, dated). It’s a hoot, anyway, and is an enjoyable night’s screening.

The only extras are chapters and a few similar-period British horror trailers.

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