Saturday, January 4, 2014

Crimson Cult, The (1968)

... aka: Black Horror: le messe nere
... aka: Crimson Altar, The
... aka: Curse of the Crimson Altar
... aka: Curse of the Crimson Cult
... aka: Reincarnation, The
... aka: Spirit of the Dead
... aka: Witch House, The

Directed by:
Vernon Sewell

Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, Barbara Steele and Michael Gough all in one horror film? Pinch me, I'm dreaming. Directed by the same man who brought us the ho hum Ghost Ship (1952) and the atrocious THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR (1968), which star Peter Cushing claimed was his worst-ever horror film in interviews? I guess I'll keep my expectations low. Following the opening credits is a quote from an unnamed "Medical Journal" which tells us that the combination of hallucinogenic drugs and hypnosis may "induce the subject to perform actions he may not normally commit." This is immediately followed by a Satanic black mass set in a green-lit dungeon featuring a topless blonde with strategically placed hair getting whipped by a dominatrix wearing pasties, a woman holding a chicken, a man with a goat and a muscle man blacksmith prepping a red hot branding iron. Steele, looking extremely striking in green face paint and a feathered ram's horn headdress, pops in and announces herself as "Lavinia, Keeper of the Black Secret" in an echo voice. She instructs Peter Manning (Denys Peek) on what he needs to do, which is sign his soul away to Satan, stab the blonde sacrifice and then get branded to seal their pact.

After receiving an odd letter from Peter, his brother Robert (Mark Eden), who runs an antique shop in London, decides to head on down to Greymarshe to see if he can locate his missing sibling. He's just in time for "Witch's Night;" an annual celebration in the area that involves games, fireworks, a burning of a witch effigy and, of course, parties. While driving down an old country road he runs right into a panicked blonde in a pink mesh body stocking being chased by a car. That turns out to just be a "sophisticated game of hide and seek." On to Craxted Lodge he goes, where a wild shindig is well underway. Young folks guzzle down champagne, smoke weed and dance, and this happens to be the second 1968 British horror film I've seen in a week to contain body painting (the other being CORRUPTION), which must have been the in-thing in swingin' Brit culture at the time. Robert runs into the blonde again. She introduces herself as Eve (Virginia Wetherell) and she's the niece of the man Robert came there to see; J.D. Morley (Lee).

Despite numerous clues suggesting the contrary, J.D. claims to have never seen Robert's brother, but offers up a place for Robert to the next few days while he searches for him. John Marshe (Karloff), a professor, witchcraft expert and collector of instruments of torture, shows up in a wheelchair to tell our hero all about the witch and explains that there's always been a link between those who burnt Lavinia at the stake in 1652 and those who've mysteriously died in the area. While staying in Craxted, Robert keeps receiving warnings to get out from neurotic dim-wit butler Elder (a wasted Gough) and then starts having bizarre nightmares involving psychedelic / kaleidoscopic swirls, his brother calling out to him and Lavinia trying to force him to sign a book in blood before stabbing him. After one such dream, he even wakes with a real wound on his arm. Robert, with help from Eve, must piece together the clues before he ends up just like his dearly departed brother.

Things look very good thanks to talented cinematographer John Coquillon and all of the actors do what they can but there's only so much that can be done to try to overcome a poor screenplay and a certain overworked, predictable blandness this entire film possesses. Neither the plot nor the characters are adequately developed and the ending feels rushed in how it attempts (and fails) to tie up all the loose ends. Steele, who looks fantastic and is just perfect in these kind of roles, and Karloff, who is given most of the humorous lines, probably come off best amongst the principles, though they, Lee and Gough are strictly supporting players despite the billing order. While shooting this in January, 1968 under freezing conditions, supposedly poor Boris (who was 81 years old at the time) developed pneumonia and never quite recovered from it. That makes frigid outdoor scenes of the feeble actor - steam exiting his mouth after each line - more than just a little sad to sit through.

Curse of the Crimson Altar first hit U.S. theaters in 1970 under the title The Crimson Cult. For this initial American release, some of the kinkier moments (like the lady with the whip) and Wetherell's brief nude scenes were removed so it could secure a PG rating. All of those scenes have since been reinserted for the DVD version. Though the credits say it was based on a story by Jerry Sohl, it's actually partially based on H.P. Lovecraft's story "The Dreams in the Witch House." The cast also includes Rupert Davies in a brief role as a vicar, Rosemarie Reede as a secretary, Michael Warren as Basil, a mute, black-clad man in sunglasses who pushes Karloff's character around and Roger Avon as a skeptical police sergeant.

It was made for executive producer Tony Tenser's Tigon British Film Productions, who tried to compete with what rivals Amicus and Hammer were up to at the same time with such films as THE SORCERERS (1967) starring Karloff, Witchfinder General (1968) starring Vincent Price, THE BEAST IN THE CELLAR (1970), Blood on Satan's Claw (1971) with Linda Hayden, DOOMWATCH (1972) and THE CREEPING FLESH (1973) with Cushing and Lee.


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