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Curse of the Crimson Altar

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Release Date: 
DD Home Ent.
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Directed by: 
Vernon Sewell
Boris Karloff
Christopher Lee
Mark Eden
Barbara Steele
Michael Gough
Bottom Line: 

 The second collaboration between Tony Tensor's recently established production company British Tigon, and the UK arm of AIP -- which had, by this stage, set up London offices in Grosvenor Square under the directorship of Louis M 'Deke' Heyward -- brought together a dream cast which would make any horror fan tremble in anticipation! But after the giddy heights scaled by "Witchfinder General" the previous year, expectations were to be comprehensively dashed with a plodding and rather stale piece of Gothic, country house witchery that never really finds anything terribly productive for its all-star cast to do! Nevertheless, the sheer venom that has been meted out over the years to "Curse Of The Crimson Altar" has more to do with these unfulfilled expectations than the film itself; while it is, indeed, completely unspectacular in every way as a piece of drama, it certainly isn't a poorly made film, and there are still a few pleasures to be gleaned from the piece as we view it bathed in the forgiving glow of nostalgia -- curtesy of this rather fine new region 2 release from DD Home Entertainment.
At this time, Tigon seemed to be alternating their projects between upcoming young genius director, Michael Reeves and the maverick veteran, Vernon Sewell. After his rather lacklustre efforts on "The Blood Beast Terror" one might expect Sewell to be the chief culprit behind this film's poor reputation, but, in fact, he does rather a good job with it -- or at least as good as can be expected given the material. Perhaps inspired by the (rather limited) involvement of British-born star of Italian Gothic cinema, Barbara Steele, the director piles on the visual Bava-isms on the film -- ensuring it looks good even if there isn't that much substance to it! The title sequence sees lurid green lettering superimposed across the baroque carving on an altar which is saturated in violet gel lighting. A modish quotation claiming provenance from an unnamed medical journal, informs us of the mind-altering effects of hallucinogenic drugs before we cut to a luridly lit sequence which is shot much like hallucinogenic dream sequences always are in sixties/seventies films: with lots of sick-making green and red filters and an echo-chamber effect on the audio track. In it, we witness Barbara Steele -- in green body makeup and gold-leafed head-dress -- as the Witch Lavinia, presiding over a satanic ritual complete with naked woman about to be sacrificed on an altar and an assembly of witnesses wearing animal masks! The presence of a big burly bloke in small, leather underpants and a curvy woman wielding a whip while clad only in leather hood and nipple coverings also gives this opening sequence the feel of a kinky psychedelic Franco flick from the period, but that is as far as it ever goes down that route -- most of the rest of the film reverts to traditional Gothic mansion shenanigans with Steele's ritualistic scenes always kept at arms length from the rest of the "action".
The scene does establish that antiques collector Peter Manning (Denys Peek) has been forced to sign away his soul to Lavinia by entering his name in a ledger before being killed. We cut to Manning's Antique shop where Peter's brother Robert (Mark Eden) is concerned by his disappearance. Peter's last trip in search of antiques resulted in a silver candleholder being sent back for evaluation and a note from Peter establishes that he last visited the mansion of a squire Morley at Greymarsh. Mark Eden will be familiar to viewers of British TV through classic roles in "Z Cars" and "Coronation Street" (where he played the villain Alan Bradley); here, he plays the traditional horror movie role of amateur sleuth who, in the process of searching for a missing relative, uncovers an evil plot -- which, in this case, is centred on a 17th century Witch whose influence is still very much alive.
Eden's unsuspecting Robert Manning sets out for the picturesque village of Greymarsh which is just about to celebrate the 1665 burning of the witch, Lavinia with a local festival that involves a bonfire and fireworks! Arriving at Morley's mansion, Manning finds a hedonistic party in progress. This seems mainly to consist of lots of nubile young women engaging in a shakily shot cat fight amid the sombre surroundings of the mansion's book-lined, oak-panelled rooms, while a "groovy" sixties soundtrack pipes away in the background! It turns out that Morley's niece, Eve (Virginia Wetherell) is behind this rather limp attempt at youthful exuberance and, despite his concern over the disappearance of his brother. Manning is not put off trying, constantly to get Eve into bed throughout the rest of the film's running time, until he finally succeeds two-thirds of the way in, providing viewers with a brief glimpse of his naked female co-star.
While the party ravings continue in the Mansion's lower quarters, Christopher Lee's squire Morley sits in contemplative, bookish isolation upstairs. Manning ventures into Morley's room and is given a warm welcome by the apparently affable squire. In fact, so pleasant and unassuming is Lee here, in his country gentleman persona, you just know he must be bad; thus rendering the film's later, clumsy attempts to convince us that the wheelchair-bound Karloff is the real villain of the piece quite superfluous! Manning explains his reason for coming to Greymarsh for the first time in what will soon become many! In fact, he will go on to explain it to just about every other character in the film, slowing things down to a snail's pace and boring the audience rigid!
Just before Karloff's entrance we are treated to what must surely be the most cringe-making example of knowing, self-referencing humour in the history of cinema: while Eve and Robert climb a staircase to Robert's room, the hero remarks how creepy the place is, "You expect Boris Karloff to leap out at you at any second!" he remarks. Oh, how droll! Mere minutes later, of course, Karloff does indeed turn up -- but there is not much leaping going on, with the icon confined to a wheelchair and looking very much to be on his way out of this world! With a horridly mottled complexion and looking exceedingly ill throughout, Karloff is still able to give a compelling performance as the great expert in Witchery, Professor Marsh. His characterisation is a beautiful balancing act between amusingly avuncular and suspiciously menacing old man that eventually comes down on the side of the angels when it is revealed that Lee's Squire Morley is the reincarnation of Lavinia and is plotting to kill the last direct descendent of her accusers -- which turns out to be Robert Manning!
Every night, Manning is being hypnotised by Morley in an attempt to get him to sign Lavinia's ledger and give up his soul; but eventually the cob-webbed witching room where all this takes place is discovered to be hidden behind a panel in Robert's room and the big finale of the film features Karloff struggling from his wheelchair in order to save the day! In fact, this film probably finished off the poor man: while filming the damp, rain-swept night-time exterior scenes, Karloff contracted pneumonia to add to the crippling emphysema he'd already developed while working in chilly Italian studios for Mario Bava's "I tre volti della paura"! It is painful to watch him struggling to rise from his chair and take a few steps in one scene, but the veteran actor overshadows both Lee, Steele and everyone else in what turned out to be his final screen performance.
Backing up the three main attractions there is also a small role for Michael Gough as the eye-rolling retainer Elder, and a cameo from Rupert Davies as a local vicar who, after appearing as Maigret for the BBC a few years previously, found himself mostly confined to British horror movies such as "Witchfinder General", "Dracula Has Risen From The Grave" and "Frightmare". Gough has since become famous for his over-the-top, slightly camp performances, although he had given more noteworthy turns alongside Christopher Lee in Hammer's "Dracula" and in the best segment of Amicus's portmanteau picture, "Dr. Terror's House Of Horror". Here he is very much in camp mode -- stuttering and slurping his way through his small amount of screen time as the retarded son of a Greymarsh tenant farmer, kept on out of loyalty by squire Morley but eventually ignominiously knocked-off when he begins getting in the way of his bosses dastardly plans!
The performances certainly help to keep a certain amount of interest in the film, despite a hackneyed witchcraft story-line and the plodding pace of the piece. The major drawback though is probably the fact that there aren't really any kills worth speaking about ... at all! True, we see the missing Peter Manning get knifed by Barbara Steele but the event actually occurs off screen, as does Michael Gough's demise. Apart from these two bloodless killings -- nothing! In the end we truly are forced to rely on the visual stylings of director of photography, Johnny Coquillon and Art director, Derek Barrington for our kicks.
Coquillon gives us a much more luminous Technicolor aesthetic -- more in the style of Bava's best Gothic extravaganzas -- than the rather more pastoral style he is justly famous for. Barrington decks out the Old Grim's Dyke House location, found by associate producer Gerry Levy, with all sorts of lethal-looking torture instruments and country house bric-a-brac; while the cob-webbed, attic witching room is full of evocative satanic paraphernalia -- all brought to life in vivid Eastman colour. Director Vernon Sewell was blessed with a marvellous location in the form of Old Grim's Dyke and he takes full advantage of its creepy corridors, dark winding staircases and beautifully furnished drawing rooms; while the surrounding areas and house exteriors are also utilised to inject atmosphere and authenticity into proceedings. The site was turned into a fully-functioning studio setting and Tigon and AIP used it again for "Haunted House Of Horror" and "Cry Of The Banshee" respectively. Peter Knight lends the piece a score smothered in jazz riffs which, although wildly inappropriate in terms of Gothic British horror, certainly adds to the italian-ate feel.
DD Home Entertainment have produced a very nice special edition DVD of this much maligned film. The print used is mostly extremely rich and colourful -- although a few scenes here and there are faded -- and it is presented in anamorphic widescreen. This is as good as the film has looked for some time though, and the atmosphere of the piece comes across nicely. The disc includes a number of extras in the form of an animated photo gallery, a British trailer and another wonderful Christopher Lee interview conducted by Hammer historian, Marcus Hearn in which Lee talks movingly about his friendship with, and admiration for, Boris Karloff. Once again, DD Home Entertainment include a full-colour, twenty-four page glossy booklet with the disc, which is full of information on the production history of the film curtesy of Marcus Hearn and "English Gothic" author Jonathan Rigby. It also features lots of photographs and posters.
Not a great film by any means but this is a lovely presentation and it is very much still worth a look.

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