crimsonfeat

Curse of the Crimson Altar

One of the many things that makes Lovecraft interesting, at least for me, is the discussion of why his writing work, if it does work for you (and despite my jokes about gambrel rooftops and fishmen, it does work for me most of the time). Everyone has their own reasons. Some can be agreed upon by the larger body of Lovecraft fans. Others are acutely personal. My example has always been my tendency to go backpacking in the wilds of New England, seeing firsthand how, even in our modern, developed world, civilization can vanish abruptly, leaving you surrounded by nothing but the night and woods. Even in those small states, the amount of land that gives way to untamed solitude is vast, and when you walk into the middle of it with nothing but boil-in-bag stroganoff and a headlamp to fend off the grip of the wilderness, it becomes a lot easier to believe Lovecraft’s tales of ancient things lurking in the mountains and foothills. You look up and realize how tiny you are. You look around an realize how vulnerable you are. Wolves, bears, and rutting moose are bad enough. I guess if I had to also deal with chattering crab monsters from space, I’d find them a lot scarier than I might have while sitting at home with a dram of Glenmorangie, reading The Whisperer in the Darkness. Because as has been pointed out to me in discussion, it’s not so much the monster as it is the isolation.

And perhaps nowhere is the isolation of a Lovecraftian protagonist more apparent than when someone steps up and says, “You know what? I liked Curse of the Crimson Altar.”

A man might well have better luck convincing the local academics that the man down the street is a necromancer than he would getting someone to like Curse of the Crimson Altar. Since it was initially released, reaction to it has been, at best, disappointed. Often, people dismiss the movie as utter tosh. This was, after all, an historic meeting of horror icons, in a movie based on a story by HP Lovecraft. It should have been one the greatest horror films ever made. It wasn’t. Even I, as a fan of the movie, admit that. And most people seem to think that this historic meeting of horror icons — like almost all meetings of horror icons — is a major let-down.

During the 1960s, the big names in horror were Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee, and still representing the old guard amidst all those middle-age whippersnappers (admittedly, Peter Cushing was born middle aged), Boris Karloff. It wasn’t unusual to see Price and Karloff together. They both worked at AIP, and AIP saw fit to pit them against each other in two horror-comedies: The Raven, which almost everyone (including me) loves, and Comedy of Terrors, which fewer people love but I happen to think is fantastic. Cushing and venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee appeared together more times than a sane man would care to count. But it was always a special treat to hear that Price or Karloff was appearing with Cushing or venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee.

Unfortunately, almost every time one of these crossovers happened, the team-up (and often the movie itself) ended up being disappointing. This was usually because the stars would spend almost no time together. What the hell was the point of casting venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee in The Oblong Box alongside Vincent Price, then keeping his scenes to a minimum and only have a few seconds of screen time that puts the two men in the same room? Amicus’ delightfully insane Scream and Scream Again puts Price, Cushing, and venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee all together in the same movie, then once again, keeps them apart.

The result is always that the fan feels let down. I wanted to see Price pitting his foppish delciousness against venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee’s imposing intensity. It’s like every screenwriter who found out they were going to get to mix the American greats (I know Karloff wasn’t American, per se, but he was still our horror star) with the British greats completely fails to understand what’s appealing about that. Seeing them in the same movie, especially when one is inevitably saddled with such an inconsequential role, is not enough. We want to see them together. Matching wits. Trying to out-spooky one another. It took until 1984′s House of the Long Shadows before it occurred to someone that we’d want to see these guys playing off of and against each other in the same scenes, and that film was largely played for laughs. But contemplate that on the Tree of Woe — it took a Golan and Globus production to understand what people wanted. If that doesn’t fill you with a Lovecraftian sense of cosmic doom…

Curse of the Crimson Altar, alternately known as Crimson Cult and Black Horror, assembles a slightly different team of superfiends. Karloff is on hand, still giving it his all, as is venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee. Alongside them, looking resplendent but basically in a cameo role, is the top of the female horror star pack, Barbara Steele. Although British, Steele was better known for working in Italian gothic horror films. She appeared in several classics of the genres, including Mario Bava’s landmark Black Sunday. Rounding out the cast is the slightly lesser known (at least when compared to the likes of Karloff, Steele, and Lee) Michale Gough. Like Lee, Gough was an old British horror hand, spending most of his time as a dependable anchor of the supporting cast and eventually ending up playing Alfred the Butler in the Tim Burton Batman films. A fine actor, and one who, like Andre Morrell, deserves more recognition than he often receives.

So no Cushing, no Price, but that’s still a top notch cast for a horror film. And while the screenwriters had the good sense to have some of them spend more time together than Lee and Price in The Oblong Box, the movie itself ended up being a huge disappointment for most. Steele never has any scenes with the others. Gough is basically wasted. Lee is decent. Karloff… well, Karloff is Karloff. When wasn’t he awesome? It’s not the actors; it’s the movie. just not thought of as being any good. I happen to disagree.

I think I’ve written elsewhere, probably multiple times, about my weakness for horror movies about silly cults, as well as about my fascination with being the strange outsider who is initiated into a circle of wealthy, jaded, and decadent occultists. These are movie occultists, mind you. So all the chicks are hot, the guys are all wearing suits from the 1970s, and everyone has a remote country manor with one of those long tree-lined driveways and a roundabout in front of the house that is partially littered with small sportscars. I come into their midst with naught to my name but a rucksack and a leather jacket, and though perhaps at first they intend to amuse themselves by destroying me, it is I who ends up destroying them, exploiting their jaded nature and turning them against each other — but not before lots of liquor drinking, sordid parties, and sex rituals. All that stands between me and my dream is 1) I don’t think these groups of people exist, and if they do they aren’t calling me, and 2) I don’t know enough about brandy, and the older members of such groups always seem to want to talk about and consume brandy.

My affinity for this myth of the interesting, erudite Eurotrash occultists makes me particularly prone to liking movies about such people. While everyone else is bored to tears, I’m endlessly entertained by movies that consist of lengthy scenes of guys in well-appointed manors leafing through books in the library, or scenes of drunken Satanic revelers stripping down and writhing about to some studio music library version of acid rock. And then if you march everyone down into the cellar to plod about in a circle whilst wearing robes and muttering “Hail Satan” — well, all that nonsense makes me pretty happy. So I can’t argue convincingly against the charges that Curse of the Crimson Altar is full of nonsense and padding. All I can do is shrug and admit that this particular type of nonsense and padding happens to appeal to me.

Curse of the Crimson Altar draws its story partially from Lovecraft’s Dreams in the Witch House. I feel about Dreams in the Witch House that it’s somewhat longer than it needs to be and, despite some good moments, isn’t a successful story. It’s the tale of a young scholar who rents a room that happens to be the nexus point for entering a dreamlike alternate reality — a portal opened largely thanks to the presence of the ghost of a witch and her bizarre little familiar, Brown Jenkin. I’ve poked fun at Lovecraft for some of the monsters he tried to pass off as terrifying. Really, Brown Jenkin should be among the more absurdly unscary of the author’s creation. But it’s not the monster so much as it is what the monster represents. Brown Jenkin — “it had long hair and the shape of a rat, but that its sharp-toothed, bearded face was evilly human while its paws were like tiny human hands” — ends up being creepy and effective perhaps because we can relate him to the real world. It’s not hard to imagine what he looks like, and when we do, there’s something completely grotesque, disturbing, and flat out evil about the wee beastie. Dreams in the Witch House has other monsters — strange globules, sentient trapezoids — and while sufficiently alien and bizarre, they are a more abstract threat that this horrid little rat man who creeps around behind your dreams and chews on your heart.

The academic soon finds tangible evidence that his sojourns into the other dimension are more than dreams. The old hag who accompanies him grows increasingly hostile, insisting that he sign his name to some cursed book, manipulating him into taking part in the kidnapping of babies. Finally, he must summon all his willpower to oppose this vile witch and the bizarre beings in the other plane of existence, a rally that leaves him in bad shape, to say the least. When at last the house itself in which he lived is abandoned and demolished, workers discover a grisly secret hidden within the walls.

Dreams in the Witch House wasn’t well-received. In fact, it wasn’t received at all. August Derleth, who published Lovecraft’s first stories and was a lifelong correspondent (even writing some tales within the Cthulhu mythos himself), dismissed the story as a particularly poor example of Lovecraft’s writing. Lovecraft himself seemed to have little love for the story, remarking to Derleth, “Your reaction to my poor Dreams in the Witch House is, in kind, about what I expected — although I hardly thought the miserable mess was quite as bad as you found it. The whole incident shows me that my fictional days are probably over.” And indeed, Lovecraft’s writing slowed to a trickle after 1932, and his primary contribution to horror literature seems to have been him and Robert Bloch killing each other off in their own respective stories. Despite their shared low opinion of the story, Derleth submitted it for publication anyway, and Weird Tales picked it up. Unfortunately, most people agreed with Derleth. I agree with Lovecraft — it’s not a good story, but it’s not that bad. In fact, there are a few things I quite like about it.

First and foremost would be the emphasis on mathematics and geometry as the keys to understanding these other realms and supernatural beings. Didn’t Einstein once say something to the effect of “I believe in God but think he has more to do with physics than metaphysics?” Or was it ghosts? Or maybe I’m thinking of Robert Anton Wilson and werewolves. Something. Point is, Dreams in the Witch House is firmly rooted in an idea I share: tat the supernatural is nothing more than a part of the natural universe we can’t yet comprehend, and unlocking these mysteries has a lot less to do with wearing a silly robe and chanting new agey incantations than it has to do with advanced mathematics and physics. Just as early witchcraft had to do more with simply understanding the world around you, or just as fire was once thought to be magical and the sound barrier unbreakable. Or how Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing in Horror of Dracula regarded vampirism not as some supernatural affliction but as a comprehensible scientific or medical condition that just happens to manifest itself in ways that seem supernatural because we’d not seen them before.

I also think that the final scenes of the story, when the walls are torn down and reveal their horrible secret, are effectively chilling. But I also agree that, on the whole, The Dreams in the Witch House, meanders and never quite gels the way Lovecraft’s best material does. His best work creates threats and terrors that exist beyond the comprehension of man — but not so far that we can’t grasp to some degree the nightmares they represent. There’s a sense of helpless frustration mixed in with the scares, born of the realization that we are being menaced by something we can’t even fully grasp. The Dreams in the Witch House relies on this same set-up, but it just doesn’t pull it off as well, leaving the bulk of the creepiness to the more concretely understandable threats of Brown Jenkin and baby murder.

As with Re-Animator, tackling one of Lovecraft’s lesser stories isn’t a bad idea. For starters, there’s room for improvement. And if you make changes or muck it up, no one is going to cry foul that loudly. It gives a filmmaker a little room to move about, where as scrutiny would be much closer if you were tackling one of the more beloved of Lovecraft’s stories. However, although Curse of the Crimson Altar is only a loose adaptation, it could be that people recognize the same faults in it as were recognized in the original story. Lovecraft “does not appear to have thought out the details of the plot satisfactorily. It seems as if HPL were aiming merely for a succession of startling images without bothering to fuse them into a logical sequence,” write the authors of An HP Lovecraft Encyclopedia. Many of the criticisms of Curse of the Crimson Altar read similarly, though with more judicious use of adjectives like “boring.”

British television actor and bit part player Mark Eden stars as Robert Manning, an antiques dealer who leaves London for the remote English countryside in order to find his brother, who has suddenly gone missing while out looking for antiques. The trail leads him to a small town that has one of those houses where, whenever you mention its name, the locals get all skittish and hostile. It turns out the house is owned by a guy named Morley (venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee), though it’s better known for being used as party central by his wild niece, Eve (Virgina Wetherell, who had a role on Dr. Who in 1964). And the parties have been raging, since the town is in the midst of celebrating the burning of Lavinia Morley, Black Witch of Greymarsh, some hundreds of years prior. Lavinia (Barbara Steele, for the brief scenes when the witch appears) goes down fighting, as all witches do, spitting curses and vowing vengeance from beyond the grave. The townspeople celebrate the occasion by burning effigies, capering about, getting drunk, and shooting off fireworks.

Morley is, of course, of the same family as the witch, but he seems genial enough. Though he insists that Robert’s brother never stayed at the manor, he’s more than happy to allow Robert to use it as a base camp, free of charge, as he continues his search. Seeing as the manor is full of half-nude teenagers getting stoned and wriggling about, Robert agrees. He soon meets Morley’s creepy butler (Michael Gough), who seems to want to utter some dire warning tot he young man but has trouble expressing himself. Something I’ve always believed, as a man who travels a lot and frequently finds himself lodging in strange and unfamiliar, sometimes slightly squalid and sordid conditions: if, as you are checking in and bringing in your baggage, a corpselike butler shamble sup to you and warns you that the inn/B&B/motel/flophouse is cursed and only grim death and horrors shall await you if you stay the night, then by all means, stay the night, because it will probably be more interesting that continuing on down the road to the Econo-Lodge, where there’s nothing to do but check your email and watch Over the Top on that weird hotel cable television which, despite being cable television, still manages to somehow be all static-y like an old UHF antenna connection.

Robert also makes the acquaintance of local egghead Professor Marsh (Boris Karloff). Like all academics in horror movies, he studies the occult and has a collection of medieval torture implements. He also has a prize brandy collection, and Robert gets on his bad side as soon as the professor offers him a glass of one of the finer brandies then watches with anguish as the young man shoots it like it was Jameson’s. As a whisky nerd who has watched friends do similar things with fine single malts, I immediately identified with Karloff’s pained expression. That’s 40 year old Invergordon! Don’t drink it like it’s Jaegermeister, for crying out loud!

Unlike Robert, we know that the missing brother has run afoul of some local witch cult that worships the long dead Lavinia. We also know that either Marsh or Morley is behind the disappearance, but the movie is coy with letting you know which one is evil. I’m pretty sure that even if the eventual villain was parading about in a novelty devil costume like Anton LaVey, Robert still wouldn’t be able to figure it out. Clue after clue is served up to him on a silver platter, but the man is too obtuse to figure out even the most trifling of details. Or perhaps he’s just too focused on bedding Morley’s sexy niece. By and by, Robert starts having strange dreams, ones in which he is attendant at a PG-rated Satanic orgy where everyone encourages him to sign his name in the usual big leather grimoire of evil. Presiding over this otherworldly Burning Man festival is Lavinia, blue-skinned and adorned with a giant horned headdress. The image of Barbara Steele in this get-up became something of an iconic image, showing up as a still in a lot of books about horror movies, even if the movie itself wasn’t discussed. And it is a powerfully cool image — one that only sets me to thinking, “Hey, if I could get blue Barbara Steele and green Liz Taylor from Doctor Faustus together…” And the chilling Lovecraftian revelation i have about my own being? That the devil could get me to sell my soul pretty easily if it meant I was attended to by a couple blue-green women.

The dream sequences, and Robert’s tendency the sleepwalk, are the primary components taken from Lovecraft. This version of Lavinia is obviously a far cry from the gnarled old hag of the story, and the movie sees fit to replace all the mathematics and philosophical mumbo jumbo with mild sex and nudity. In this, it’s similar to AIP’s Dunwich Horror, released a couple years later and similarly interested in sexing up a sexless horror story. I guess modern screenwriters just can’t understand how Lovecraft could write so many stories full of cults and tentacled things and not indulge in a bit of Robert E. Howard/Edgar Rice Burroughs style nudity. Or maybe they just knew it was 1968 (or 1970), and horror fans wanted some tits. sadly, the makers of Curse of the Crimson Altar didn’t see fit to throw Brown Jenkin into their movie, though I’m hoping some day to get my own movie made, where Brown Jenkin and Chupacabra drive across the American southwest in a sporty MG, solving people’s problems so long as those problems can be solved by chewing out someone’s heart.

While I’ve already said that I like this movie, I will also say that I agree with those who say it could have been a whole lot better. With a game cast of horror stalwarts and source material from HP Lovecraft, there was a lot of potential for the movie, and much of it remains unrealized. In particular, given venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee’s affinity for literature, one would hope that he’d flex his muscle to get a really solid rendering of a Lovecraft tale, similar to what he did with Dennis Wheatley’s book for The Devil Rides Out, made the same year as this movie. That one ended up being one of Lee’s finest performances, and one of Hammer’s best horror films. Unfortunately, Lovecraft doesn’t get the same consideration here, and we’re left wondering what it would have looked like if someone like Hammer had taken a Lovecraft adaptation seriously. Instead, it was Tigon who produced Crimson Altar, and no one seems to have had much regard for the source material. Or if someone did, it was lost in the jumbles of writers. Most of the problems with this story, I feel, stem from the fact that three different screenwriters were involved. Generally, the more people you have working on a script, the more convoluted and disconnected it becomes. That certainly seems to be the case here.

If, in the 1960s Hammer was the king of British Horror, and Amicus the duke, then Tigon was the foppish penniless count who sashays in on his better appointed relatives (AIP, ironically enough) and fleeces them out of cash so he can spend more time in the velvet-walled parlors of the local brothel, sipping wine and regaling giggling prostitutes with witty tales that require dramatic gesticulation. The studio was founded in 1966, and Curse of the Crimson Altar was only their third production. However, one can’t blame the infant status of Tigon for the film’s missteps; in the same year, they produced Witchfinder General, starring Vincent Price and generally considered to be one of the best horror films of the 1960s. The studio’s other notable horror films include Hannie Caulder, Virgin Witch, Creeping Flesh, and Blood on Satan’s Claw. Their stock in trade, obviously, was low-budget horror, and a willingness to show more nudity than AIP and Hammer — a tendency that probably stems from the fact that their second biggest type of film after horror was sexploitation, including the somewhat disappointing sci-fi sex movie Zeta One and the generally well-regarded Au Pair Girls, directed by Val Guest). Like Amicus, Tigon benefited from being able to contract cast and crew who’d learned their trade at Hammer. All three studios benefited from a partnership with American International Pictures.

Crimson Altar came about largely because of a partnership forged with American International Pictures, and it was AIP that secured Boris Karloff for the production. At the time, Karloff was crippled by arthritis and suffering from emphysema (it would finally kill him a year later), but he went about his work with a dedication and professionalism that impressed everyone, including the famously professional venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee. In fact, as serious as Lee so often was, he sometimes seemed like a giddy schoolboy during the production of Crimson Cult. He wrote multiple letters to fan clubs, commenting on Boris Karloff and how amazing it was to be working with him. And while everyone pays lip service to the old guys, I have no doubt that Lee was completely authentic in his praise and excitement. It really must have been something for the man whose career was launched by movies like Hammer’s The Mummy and Curse of Frankenstein to finally be working with the man who made the cinematic versions of those characters not only famous, but enduring icons in culture.

Speaking of Lee’s professionalism, if ever it was in doubt (and even though I poke fun at him, I can’t think of any time I’d question his commitment to his craft, even when he’s in a Chuck Norris film) consider this. For the weeks preceding the production of Curse of the Crimson Altar, Lee suffered through a back injury that left him unable to get out of bed (one of the professional hazards of working on Jess Franco films, I guess). Even during filming, he was in constant pain and worried that he might re-aggravate his back and find himself immobilized again. Yet still he soldiered through, noting multiple times that Karloff was even worse off and was out there doing his job, in the cold, in the rain. So Lee gave it his all as well.

Barbara Steele probably came on because both AIP and Tigon had been responsible for distributing her Italian films in their respective countries. And Steele had worked for AIP on one of their Poe films. It’s a shame that one of her only British films was such a lackluster role for her. She could have done amazing things at Hammer during the 60s. All three of the major stars (I love Gough, but he’s not quite on their level) also worked previously with Bava. Steele in Black Sunday, as I said, Lee in The Whip and the Body, and Karloff in Black Sabbath. Tigon and AIP had ample faith in the marquee value of their cast’s names to pull people in — certainly more than they had faith in the name of HP Lovecraft. No reference was made anywhere in the film’s credits or press material to Lovecraft or The Dreams in the Witch House.

If there’s blame to be placed for why Curse of the Crimson Altar turned out less than it should have, it probably has to be placed both on the screenwriters (Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln) and on the director (Vernon Sewell). Haisman and Lincoln were both new to screenwriting, having been brought in for this movie after working on episodes of Dr. Who. Writing for a show like Dr. Who doesn’t necessarily prepare a writer for creating a streamlined movie script. Dr. Who‘s stories often played out in chunks, spread over multiple episodes, meaning that whatever filler was in them was often unnoticeable since you’d be watching only one small chunk in any given week. The format also allows for more meandering. Once again, these things aren’t as noticeable when they are broken up into small episodes, but when they’re all crammed into one single run-time, the faults become more noticeable.

For their part, Haisman and Lincoln seem keen to lay the blame elsewhere, claiming that their script was poorly treated. In fact, they even asked to have their names removed from the final product, though how much of that is because their work was poorly realized and how much of that was just personal damage control is up in the air. Incidentally, Lincoln went on to become an amateur historian of some considerable controversy. In the early 1980s, he co-authored the book Holy Blood, Holy Grail, the first pop history work to make the claim that the Holy Grail was actually symbolic for the womb of Mary Magdalene, which bore Christ’s son and continued his bloodline. And as pretty much everyone knows by now, that book became the basis for most of what went into Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code.

Director Sewell was more experienced, but he’d never been a director of particular acclaim, and he doesn’t really showcase a flare for making the movie interesting. It’s quite possible that his age worked against him. Despite the stabs at hipness, Crimson Altar feels like an older movie, especially when measured against the far more visceral Tigon production Witchfinder General, which had been directed by a much younger man. Roger Corman directed Vincent Price in a series of horror films that were almost nothing but dialogue and atmosphere, yet the films feel like much more is happening in them. Like Gordon Hessler, who inherited the Poe series when Roger Corman moved on, Sewell just doesn’t seem to have the right touch. What I’d really love, and what I think would have really made this movie great, is if it had played out behind the scenes more like Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter — meaning, wouldn’t it have been cool if instead of Dr. Who writers, they’d had writers fresh off The Avengers? The quirkiness of that series lends itself much better to the ghoulish creepy cult material than does the more reserved approach of Dr. Who.

But then, I’m wallowing in what’s wrong with the movie after already mentioning that I liked it. Luckily for Sewell (because I know he was worried), I like movies full of British guys looking for sinister things in old houses and books, and I like movies with creepy cults, and I like Barbara Steele painted blue. The dream orgies manage to be bit spicier than similar “sick sexual rites” we were seeing in the otherwise superior The Devil Rides Out, or even in The Dunwich Horror, which was released two years later but never the less conceived of horrifying occult sex rites as a bunch of community theater harlequins capering about and waggling their heads into a fish eye lens camera shot. I mean, don’t get me wrong — these scenes are still absurd, but at least they get to show some flesh. Unfortunately, most of it belongs to a pasty guy of marginal physique.

Curse of the Crimson Altar not only dares slip in a bit of nudity; it also slips in some S&M, in the form of a guy in one of those leather Tom of Finland get-ups (but with the distinct lack of a Tom of Finalnd character body), but with antlers glued to his… is he wearing a motorcycle helmet? Sure, why not? I’m guessing all the otherworldly demon types were showing up in their awesome devil cloaks, and then Barbara Steele really goes all out — and then they all moan in disappointed disbelief as this one chump show sup wearing leather undies and a motorcycle helmet, calling it his evil outfit. “Awww, Tim, did you put any effort all into your costume? This is like last Halloween, when you went as a cardboard box by just putting on a cardboard box.” And he’s all like, “Come on, did you see these antlers I glued on the helmet? These things are awesome!” — totally ignoring the way more majestic cornucopias Barbara Steele is wearing.

The acting is also good when it needs to be. Mark Eden is thoroughly forgettable, but these sorts of heroes usually are. Their job is to wander from scene to scene repeating, “What’s going on?” and “I know he’s hiding something” without ever actually doing anything, and in that capacity, Eden is acceptably present. Karloff, although old and stuck in a wheelchair, manages to bring plenty of charm and energy to his role, and a touch of the sinister just to make sure you don’t forget that he might be a murderous cultist. And venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee turns in his usual performance, which is as always, imposing, impressive, and thoroughly professional. He even gets to show off some of the charm that his roles rarely allowed him to indulge. I know we’ve given venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee a hard time over the fits he threw about his Dracula films, and the fact that he still seems to bear a grudge against Hammer (in the commentary track for one of Hammer’s pirate movies, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster seems genuinely hurt and confused by Lee’s attitude toward the work they did together at Hammer), the man was an incredible presence in most any horror film in which he appeared. I still like Cushing and Price better, but let it be said that if I tease Lee, it’s affectionately.

Faring less well are Gough and Steele. Michael Gough does his best with a silly character, but there’s not much with which he can work. If you want to see Gough strut his stuff, I say check out Konga or Horrors in the Black Museum. He’s absolutely fantastic in those, among other roles. And then there’s Barbara Steele. For my money, the greatest female actress who ever worked in horror. She was a great actress, and her otherworldly beauty was undeniably enticing but never the less strange. Crimson Altar represents one of the very few British horror films the British actress made (she also appeared in AIP’s Pit and the Pendulum in the United States, alongside Vincent Price), and I think everyone was disappointed tat, although she looks fantastic, she’s on screen for only a couple minutes and has almost nothing to do other than sit in a chair and look around her during the dream sequences. It would have been wonderful to see her let loose with a more substantial character, but unfortunately that wasn’t to be. If Crimson Altar has committed any offense worthy of being tsk-tskable, it’s the way in which it wastes Steele’s talents.

Eve was played by young Virginia Wetherell, under contract to AIP. Like many in this movie, she did a tour of duty on Dr. Who eventually ended up marrying Ralph Bates, who had been tapped by desperate Hammer Studio execs in the 1970s to be the fresh new face of the now struggling studio. He never really got the chance, though, as Hammer too often balked at passing the torch (Taste the Blood of Dracula was supposed to be Bates’ film, but when American distributors complained, venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee as Dracula was shoehorned back into the plot). As far as pretty young things go, I think Wetherell acquits herself well, especially while surrounded by so many legends of the genre.

The other thing this movie does smartly us shoot on location. While Hammer (and AIP) preferred to shoot in the studio, where they could control everything, Tigon opted instead to seek out a suitable location ion the outside. They found a magnificent old house that gave them pretty much everything they could hope for and cost substantially less than having to rent a sound stage and build sets from scratch. Shortly there after, both Hammer and AIP horror films started doing a lot more location work. In fact, AIP’s Cry of the Banshee filmed at the very same manor as Curse of the Crimson Altar. The location work also gives the film a much more expensive look despite a low budget. The rooms, winding hallways, gardens, nearby lake — if Sewell isn’t great at pacing his movie, he’s at least good at pointint the camera at his locations and drawing out the inherent spookiness they possess.

As an adaptation of Lovecraft, it’s a wash, even if you happen to like the film. Despite the source material, nothing of Lovecraft’s ominous mood makes it into the movie. Gone is the sense of of some sort of cosmic doom lurking just on the other side of our reality, ready to leap through the tiniest of rips in the fabric of reality and unleash misery upon humanity. Instead, we have a very standard issue devil cult. But overall, I like it. Not a lot, but I like it. It has its moments. It has Lee and Karloff. It’s not the sort of movie I’m passionate enough to push on others, and not the one I’d fight for the reputation of against someone who has already decided they don’t like it. But if you don’t mind creaky, old fashioned horror movies (despite the hip young mods jazzing it up in the parlor, it’s obvious from their dialogue that this is an old fashioned movie) who don’t live up their potential, that aren’t really scary, and aren’t particularly impressive, then you might appreciate Curse of the Crimson Altar as much as I do. Sad as is may be, I can happily sit and watch movies like this all day long.

Release Year: 1968 | Country: England | Starring: Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, Mark Eden, Barbara Steele, Michael Gough, Virginia Wetherell, Rosemarie Reede, Derek Tansley | Writers: Mervyn Haisman, Henry Lincoln | Director: Vernon Sewell | Cinematographer: John Coquillon | Music: Peter Knight | Producer: Louis M. Heyward | Alternate Titles: Black Horror, Crimson Cult

13 thoughts on “Curse of the Crimson Altar”

  1. ” it took a Golan and Globus production to understand what people wanted. ”

    But I thought that the whole point of the Go-Go Boys was that they unfailingly understood what The People wanted to see, and unfailingly dished it out out in spades. Isn’t that precisely why they were so successful, and so despised….by the bosses of other studios who could never catch the zeitgeist quite like The House of Chuck?

  2. I agree about stories with weird cults, and the more confusing, the better. And I like “arty” films, but only as long as a lot of people PICK ON them for it! That’s why I prefer the artiness of Barbara Steele in her priestess get-up in this movie (or any given part of something like “Tommy”) to something admired the world over like a Bergman or Fellini film.
    And I guess I agree about the “supernatural” being an unknown part of the “natural world.” But whether that’s true or not, I would be very sad if “wearing a silly robe and chanting new agey incantations” ever went away completely.

  3. I’ve had “..Crimson Altar” on DVD for years, but I don’t think I was even aware the script was based on Lovecraft until now (unless I’d forgotten).

    You’d think some of the character names etc. would be a dead giveaway, but I guess I wasn’t paying enough attention when I watched it to pick up on that.

    Anyway, like most people it seems, I remember being pretty disappointed with the whole thing and writing it off as “two or three awesome scenes and a whole lot of tedious hoo-hah”, but looking over the screenshots above makes me think it’s about time I gave it another go.

    “Dreams in the Witch House” is probably my favourite Lovecraft story by the way, but each to their own. I’ve always been blown away by the deeply strange way it manages to fuse ahead-of-its-time mindbending science fiction with archaic witchcult imagery, at the same time as featuring a genuinely frightening central premise and a classic Lovecraftian collapse into screaming, illogical madness. Derleth, as more of a traditionalist gothic storyteller, probably didn’t like it much because it doesn’t have a strong narrative drive and doesn’t make much sense, but I think Lovecraft was often at his BEST when he stopped making sense, when he leaves the various weird threads & images of his story just hanging, daring the reader to piece them together…

    Funnily enough, I watched Stuart Gordon’s version of “Dreams in the Witch House” just last night (the one he did for the ‘Masters of Horror’ series), and thought it was really impressive – well worth a look as part of your Cthulhu Reviews thread, if Teleport City would stoop to reviewing a 50 minute TV episode.

  4. I would be very sad if “wearing a silly robe and chanting new agey incantations” ever went away completely — Oh, I agree.

    Prof: Yeah, that was what Cannon did, though it still surprises me that it took so long. But what Cannon also did was pander to everything you wanted to see, yet still find some way to make it vaguely unsatisfying. Thus, House of the Long Shadows (available for download from Tachyon City, by the by).

  5. I share your enthusiasm for this one (also, Comedy of Terrors) and pretty much for the same reasons. I’m fully aware that it’s a middling-at-best movie that kind of squanders its terrific cast, but it squanders them while giving me lots of groovy 60s drug party action with go-go dancing and tasteful debauchery, and I’ll never get tired of that stuff.

    Also, I’m pretty sure Michael Gough isn’t in Revenge of Frankenstein. But he sure was great in Konga.

  6. I’ll be honest – I’m such a nerd that I enjoy imagining all of this UK weirdness happenning in the same ‘universe’ – i.e. the events of “Night of the Demon” taking place at the same time as “Quatermass and the Pit”; Adam Adamant and the Avengers and the Cybermen invasion and this movie all being around south-east England at the same time, and “Breakfast at the Manchester Morgue” and “Doomwatch” and “The Wicker Man” all a few years later. I think it’s the fact that the same performers seem to turn up everywhere.

    Although, having got used to them as erzatz best-friends/clever uncle figures, it’s incredibly disturbing watching Peter Cushing and Andre Morell as Winston Smith and O’Brien. Really odd.

    Oh, and by the way, I crack up more and more everytime I read the phrase “venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee”. I’m considering making my own T-shirt so that fellow T.C. citizens can recognize me.

  7. I know what you mean about Barbara Steele in this movie and Elizabeth Taylor in Doctor Faustus. In the latter case, I’ve never REALLY had what you would call “a thing for her.” But with her weird make-up in the “Roxanne” and “Diana” scenes of Doctor Faustus, that movie is an exception.

  8. I also like this one more than critical consensus allows – mock occult rituals and stuffy elderly gentlemen being favorite tropes of mine.

    I second Ben’s recommendation of Gordon’s Dreams in the Witch House (and also his Poe episode in Masters of Horror‘s second series). He’s also sexing it up a bit, to the dismay of a certain part of Lovecraft fandom, but who cares about them?

    The story its based on is one of my personal favorites, too, probably because it tries to fuse more classical horror elements like the witch with the more SFnal ideas of late period Lovecraft – one of the many things Derleth never got about what’s noteworthy about Lovecraft.

  9. The best thing about making a movie in England is that, even in microbudgeted horrors, you almost always get good acting. There is such a pool of talent over there that its easy to find professionals who will work for food. The one exception is British actors trying to sound like Americans. They just cannot ‘hear’ the American accent. (I think Hugh Laurie sounds silly as ‘House’. Since the US is full of British immigrants, why couldn’t they just have let him talk naturally?)

  10. I’ve noticed what you mean, but I’ve never heard it mentioned. There’s a kind of “slurring” that seems to go with a put-on American voice (not always, of course, but frequently).

  11. I’m surprised I’ve missed this review for so long. And to think it came from wondering from ‘Turkish First Blood’ to Godfrey Ho and so on to here. What a strange path we travel. As always, a very fine review. Also a Lovecraft fan, it’s disappointing to hear that another production missed the mark on providing a Lovecraftian feel. And look, it’s available on ‘Instant Watch’ from Netflix… adding.

    I have a question, though- do you have “venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee” set as a hot key? :)

  12. This never occurred to me to me now, but Haisman / Lincoln’s first Doctor Who outing (The Abominable Snowmen) has all the Love craft stuff, and all the stuff that went on into their other work – warrior monks; an ancient priory guarding a terrible secret; a sentient trapezoid which is a gateway to a dimension of unimaginable evil intelligence, and robot yeti. Maybe “Crimson Altar” could have used some robot yeti. And some warrior monks.

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