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Curse of the Crimson Altar

Other // Unrated // March 21, 2005 // Region 2
List Price: $30.14 [Buy now and save at Sendit]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted April 15, 2005 | E-mail the Author
Note: This is an import title in PAL format from Great Britain. Though available online and at many specialty shops throughout America, a region-free or Region 2/PAL player is required when viewing this title.

Curse of the Crimson Altar (aka The Crimson Cult, 1968) is a barely-adequate tale of devil-worshippers enlivened by DD Video's typically excellent bevy of supplementary material. It's a shame its once-in-a-lifetime casting of genre heavyweights Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, Barbara Steele, and Michael Gough are let down by a highly illogical script, an uncredited adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's The Dreams in the Witch House, that's an almost total disaster.

The story is simple: antiques dealer Robert Manning (Mark Eden) travels to a remote English countryside in search of his missing brother, Peter (Denys Peek), who is somehow involved with a satanic cult. Robert has no luck finding Peter, but is invited to stay at the manor house, The Lodge, belonging to Morley (Christopher Lee), cared for by stuttering manservant Elder (Michael Gough) and frequented by mysterious Professor John Marshe (Boris Karloff). Morley haughtily denies his brother ever visited him, but then cheerily invites him to stay rent-free as long as he'd like. Robert arrives just as the local community is in the midst of commemorating the burning of Lavinia Morley, Black Witch of Greymarsh (Barbara Steele, seen in psychedelic dream-like sequences).

The main problem with Curse of the Crimson Altar is that it requires its characters to behave in ways that pad out the running time but otherwise go against any kind of storytelling logic. There's clearly something sinister going on, and yet despite a mountain of clues suggesting that Peter's life may be in grave danger, he not only continues to hang about Morley's house, he even finds time to romance Morley's niece, Eve (Virginia Wetherell, later the nude "actress" in A Clockwork Orange). Even after a) learning that his brother may be dead; b) learning that Morley's been lying to him; c) discovering a secret passage to a room used for satanic sacrifices, and d) being warned by a hysterical Elder to "Get out while there's still time," the antiques dealer seems only mildly concerned.

Similarly, in an effort to keep the audience guessing who is behind all the mysterious happenings, both Karloff and Lee alternate between sinister gregariousness and petulant tolerance toward Peter, but the effect is strained and schizophrenic.

There are other peculiarities as well, such as the unexplained presence of a Hollywood-style cobweb-making machine, and Robert's crack about Lee's house looking "like Boris Karloff's going to pop out any minute!" This attention-getting in-joke is odd when one considers that Robert doesn't react at all once Boris Karloff finally appears.

Despite these many inadequacies The Curse of the Crimson Altar is still fun for horror fans who are likely to enjoy watching four genre icons hard at work. This was Karloff's last film of any consequence; the much-superior Targets was filmed before this and premiered earlier. The cold and damp exteriors featuring the actor were filmed in the dead of winter and may have hastened his already declining health. (In one shot a Roman candle goes astray, hitting Karloff right in the wheelchair.) In spite of this, the old man's fire still burns brightly in several scenes which take advantage of his marvelous, melodious voice.

The rest of the cast, unfortunately, is wasted. Lee is stuck playing yet another martinet type, while Gough's manservant is of the variety Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney, Jr. used to play when they were too sick to do anything else. Barbara Steele is wasted most of all as Lavinia Morley; she has little to do but prance around a single, cramped set in bright blue make-up, wearing a headdress adorned with a ram's horns and peacock feathers. The set looks cheap with the air of an S&M porno movie, and its introduction so early in the film has the effect of giving away much of the mystery. Her scenes were probably shot in a single day.

Video & Audio

DD Video's release of Curse of the Crimson Altar is presented in 16:9 anamorphic wide screen, and transfer-wise is a big improvement over the company's last batch of genre titles, Island of Terror and The Blood Beast Terror. Colors here are bright and vivid, and there's much less age-related wear than those earlier releases. The good news is that Peter Knight's original score is intact; latter-day home video versions in America had replaced his music with an electronic score, presumably because of rights issues. This is a British Board of Film Censors-approved cut, which is missing a few seconds of moderately graphic footage seen in the American version, but I'm told the missing frames have a negligible impact on the film as a whole. (There are, however, numerous close-ups of women's breasts -- being painted, dripping with champagne, etc. -- so much so that it almost becomes a fetish of DP John Coquillon.) The mono sound is generally clean, and there are no subtitle options.

Extra Features

Extras include a U.K. Trailer, in 4:3 full-frame format, and a modest Gallery of production stills. Better is the 24-minute, awkwardly titled Christopher Lee Interview about Boris Karloff, shot at the same time as his interviews on Terence Fisher (on the Island of Terror DVD) and Peter Cushing (on The Devil's Men). Lee discusses everything from Karloff's Anglo-Indian roots to his famous lisp, as well as working together on this and a few other projects. He does a pretty uncanny imitation of Bela Lugosi's Ygor at one point, and tells a surprising story about how, when they first worked together, Lee was too shy to mention to Karloff that he was essentially reinterpreting many of Karloff's most famous roles.

As usual with DD Video's British fantasy film line, the best supplement is the 24-page, Full-Color Booklet, full of useful and fascinating information by Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby on the film's production. Included are production stills, poster art, a complete list of cast and credits, and a bibliography.

Parting Thoughts

Curse of the Crimson Altar has a lot of familiar elements that ultimately don't fit together, but the pieces themselves are occasionally fun, and DD Video's deluxe treatment of this title, particularly the great booklet (a collector's item all by itself) and Lee interview, push this very slightly over the edge into recommended territory.

Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.







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