Friday, October 27, 2017

Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968)

A while ago I posted one of those 8mm digest films you used to be able to buy in the pre-video era, which compressed Curse of the Crimson Altar into eight minutes.  That somewhat disjointed collection of 'highlights' is probably no less confusing than the ninety odd minutes of the full movie.  With a plot which seemed, in part at least, to have been borrowed, uncredited, from H P Lovecraft's The Dreams in the Witch House, the film seems largely to have been an excuse to bring together three name horror stars:  Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff and Barbara Steele.  Whilst the idea of trying to accommodate horror icons representing three different generations of the genre, (forties classic horror star Karloff, fifties and sixties Hammer icon Lee and Steele representing the nascent Italian horror movie which was beginning to make its presence felt in the English language market), might seem intriguing, the execution leaves much to be desired.  Of the three, Steele's role feels perfunctory - she appears only in a series of dream sequences, covered in lurid green make up and wearing a bizarre head dress - while Lee gets more screen time, his role is badly underwritten and he seems on auto pilot.  Only Karloff seems to be relishing his role, giving a full blooded turn as the local wheel chair bound eccentric academic with an interest in medieval torture devices.

The plot sees antique dealer Mark Eden visit an isolated village in search of his missing brother, only to stumble into the middle of the villagers' annual celebration of the burning of a notorious local witch several centuries earlier.  Most of this takes the form of a Guy Fawkes-like burning of an effigy in the Village green, but there's also some debauchery going on up at the local Manor in the form of another of those tedious swinging sixties parties where bearded young men pour champagne over the breasts of semi naked women.  Which all sounds rather more exciting than it actually is.  It turns out that they are friends of the owner's niece - Virginia Wetherall - her uncle being none other than Christopher Lee, who seems only mildly annoyed by all the commotion as he sits in his library smoking his pipe and wearing a tweed jacket.  Invited to stay at the Manor - his last address for his brother, although Lee denies any knowledge of him - Eden experiences a series of dreams involving Steele as the witch Lavinia, who presides over his 'trial', and finds himself sleep walking.  The crazy butler (another lunatic performance from Michael Gough) tries to warn him off before himself vanishing, whilst Lee's friend Karloff (who also has a weird sidekick, a black clad mute), hints at mysterious forces being at work.

As it turns out, Lee is a descendant of Lavinia and is hypnotising people with a spinning lamp shade and some strobe lights (yes, really) into hallucinating the visions of his ancestor, with the aim of revenging her by luring the descendants of her accusers (of which Eden and his brother are two) to the Manor and murdering them.  Karloff is onto him and, as it turns out, has been using Eden as bait yo try and unmask Lee.  It all ends in a fiery conflagration with Lee chased onto the roof of the blazing manor, where he turns into Lavinia, who cackles maniacally before the credits roll.  As I said, none of it really makes much sense, especially the final image of Christopher Lee transforming into Barabara Steele (although I'm sure that some people will see it as being symbolic of, well, something).   But, despite the deficiencies of the script, it's all very nicely put together by veteran director Vernon Sewell (who also directed the barking mad Blood Beast Terror for Tigon).  Although the pace is sedate and the plot meanders all over the place, Curse of the Crimson Altar does, at times, manage to conjure up a degree of atmosphere and sense of weirdness (particularly in the early scenes at the Manor, when Eden witnesses a semi naked girl being chased by several young men in a sports car).  In essence, it is the cinematic equivalent of the kind of pulpy potboiler you might have found in the pages of Weird Tales or similar horror magazines of the thirties and forties, promising all sorts of lurid thrills but, in reality, full of lots of padding, over complex plotting and cliched characters.

The film is a curious mix of traditional horror (witch's curses, spooky old houses, Boris Karloff and the like) and swinging sixties permissiveness, (wild parties full of bright young things, hallucinogenic dream sequences and some brief nudity), which isn't atypical of horror movies of its era.  The number of horror films being produced in the UK in the late sixties would seem to indicate that the genre was in rude health.  But the truth was that times and audience expectations were changing.  The tropes of traditional Gothic horror successfully exploited by Hammer were beginning to wear thin and audiences were looking for something new.  Consequently, companies like Amicus and Tigon began to experiment with the form, the former enjoying success with films with a much more 'realistic' portrayal of their horror elements.  Even Hammer were trying to diversify, putting as much effort into its psychological horror films as it was its Gothic shockers.  Curse of the Crimson Altar occupies a curious place in Tigon's eclectic horror output, coming hard on the heels of the much harder edged and non-supernatural historical horror Witchfinder General, but replacing that film's realism and violence with the supernatural.  The use of supernatural agencies to propel its plot also sets the film aside from other contemporary set Tigon horrors like Michael Reeves' The Sorcerers (which uses a science fiction device and features an especially scuzzy version of 'Swinging London') or Michael Armstrong's Haunted House of Horror, a proto slasher movie which eschews the supernatural in favour of human agency.

Although far from being a classic and a minor entry even in the inventory of Tigon, I retain a soft spot for Curse of the Crimson Altar.  For all its faults, it does capture something of the feel of small town, non metropolitan England in the swinging sixties, where ancient traditions and rituals sit side-by-side with mini-skirts and pop music.  Its wintry looking locations add atmosphere and a surprisingly realistic feel (it was shot mainly on location rather than in the studio), while its creaky script provides several unintentional laughs.  Most of all, it was to be Karloff's last UK movie and, despite clearly being in poor health (the wheel chair, sadly, wasn't a prop), he gives the impression that he's enjoying himself, easily switching between avuncular and genial village eccentric and steely witch hunter.  Curse of the Crimson Altar was, for several years, a regular feature of the BBC's late night schedules and, lately, has turned up as part of the Hooror Channel's regular rotation, so is relatively easy to catch.



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