CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR (1968 Britain)

Curse_of_the_crimson_altar_posterAh 1968, the year that keeps turning up all over these film reviews. The year quite a lot happened actually. Although this is strictly a B movie in terms of quality, it is one of the most colourfully entertaining products that came out of England from that era. Images from this motion picture keep turning up in those books written by Jonathan Rigby and David Pirie.

Any enthusiast of old British horror cinema are as familiar with those photos of Barbara Steele as they are with their own family album snapshots. In other words, this must have got quite a few things right for it to intrigue all the fanatics out there in a way that say, The Blood Beast Terror, (1967) despite starring Peter Cushing, does not.

This one is all about the cosy build-up scenes. You won’t be satisfied with the destination so just enjoy the journey. This didn’t frighten anyone at the time it was released and forty-seven years later it isn’t going to start now. I don’t like blood and gore anyway. Visually, you won’t be bored though. I have a lot of affection for this most fluffy of horror pictures.

348552-1Boris Karloff was a wonderful actor and amazing man, since he kept appearing in films well after his physical life was over. This effort, while released in England around December 1968, opened in the US in 1970; making it a fourth post-mortem appearance for BK. But what virtues does this film have? It is old fashioned in every stage of execution.

This script may have done the rounds years earlier. By the time it was made a certain amount of titillation could be added to reflect the swinging sixties before they disappeared: an artiste paints a pair of titties in a party full of weekend warriors, while a bare bum rushes to open a bedroom door. Not sure how others view these things, but I nearly fainted.

Antiques dealer Robert Manning (played by masculine no-nonsense Mark Eden) is looking for his missing brother, Peter. Last seen at a sumptuous country mansion owned by a Mr Morley (Christopher Lee). Robert is invited to stay by Morley while the locals celebrate the burning of a witch, Lavinia, 300 years before. Before long our hero meets a wheel chair ridden old professor of witchcraft (Boris Karloff) and his mute assistant.

The professor warns Manning that he is the last descendant of the men who persecuted old Lavinia. Robert lives an enviable life style. His secretary is quite a nice looking bird. Or piece. Take your pick as to how she would have been described back then. She is not just his employee either. His life is most satisfying if it wasn’t for his pesky brother going missing.

81199390282214653935_thumbA very wooden Christopher Lee gives Mr Manning the run of his country estate. Although just a house guest, our hero turns out to be quite the glutton. He helps himself to Lee’s niece, takes up residence in the ‘grey’ room, with its four poster bed, plus the free food. Is he satisfied with that? No. He has to threaten virtually everyone with his “where’s my brother?” mantra too. He gets physically violent with the butler and tries to tell the local police how to do their job. Mark Eden is so in-your-face he has Mr Lee on egg shells throughout. He also gets to utter the best in-joke line in horror film history: “As if Boris Karloff is going to pop up at any moment…” a few minutes before the great man actually does.

The musical score is one of the strangest you’ll ever hear. Strong orchestrated melody at one end, sickly feeble organ at the other. Highlights include cult actress Barbara Steele (not Shelley) looking groovy with green skin and a headdress made out of a ram’s horns. Yes I said groovy but NOT sexy in any way for me. Something about Ms Steele is a little too reptilian. Others drool over her but I feel she comes across as depressed and creepy in every role she was ever in. Not all of these actresses from the year dot have my royal seal of approval. That aura of alienation made Steele ideal for horror though.

Meanwhile Christopher Lee and Boris Karloff trade pleasantries over a few glasses of brandy that’s “as rare as gold but infinitely more precious.” Character actor Michael Gough is skulking around as the village idiot-turned butler. Mark Eden gets to sample a 60s version of Zopiclone and it gives him the DTs. The climax is beyond lame and confirms the suspicion that this is not a serious horror film, just an excuse to assemble a classy cast in a grand old house. It’s all very civilized and very English in that fictional way that recalls the vibe of novelist Dennis Wheatley. I’m not sure why I like it, (probably the fabulous house and picturesque village setting) I just do. It is a genuine 2nd rate classic.

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