The Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968)
"What obscene prayer or human sacrifice can satisfy the devil-god?"
When his brother disappears, Robert Manning pays a visit to the remote country house he was last heard from. While his host is outwardly welcoming, and his niece more demonstrably so, Manning detects a feeling of menace in the air with the legend of Lavinia Morley, Black Witch of Greymarsh, hanging over everything.
Made by Tigon British Film Productions, one of the lesser upstart rivals to Hammer and Amicus back in the British horror heyday, The Curse of the Crimson Altar has good pedigree, with some claims made to be based around the H.P. Lovecraft story Dreams in the Witch House (though this isn’t mentioned in the credits) and with a host of recognisable genre actors, but it never once promises to live up to the expectations it raises. It has somewhat of a novelty value though as it was the last film of the legendary horror actor Boris Karloff to be released during his lifetime Already wracked with arthritis and wheelchair-bound, Karloff became gravely ill during filming and died in 1969. A handful of Mexican films were posthumously released, where Karloff’s scenes had been shot back-to-back within one month in the spring of 1968, but this was his English swansong. And not exactly a fitting swansong for one of horror’s most famous actors.
It’s obvious from early on that the main character, Robert Manning, is in the middle of some huge conspiracy which doesn’t look like it will end well for him (think The Wicker Man) and with the only real clues pointing rather blatantly to Morley, there’s not a great deal of detective work needed to figure out what is going on. It’s not like The Curse of the Crimson Altar even makes an effort to make the mystery seem difficult to figure out because there’s no sense of urgency to build it up. The narrative never once kicks into a higher gear and the characters seem to dawdle around the sets and locations for a good chunk of the film, talking to each other and generally doing things that aren’t very exciting. Director Vernon Sewell had made plenty of films before his brief dabbles into the horror genre towards the end of his career and its clear that he was a bit out of his depth with the material, struggling to really inject it with any energy or zest. Christopher Lee, starring here, once regarded The Curse of the Crimson Altar as one of the worst films in his career. Funnily enough, Sewell also shot The Blood Beast Terror the same year as this, a film which Peter Cushing also called the worst film he’d ever made. To have helmed two films, both of which were described as their worst films by the legends that were in the leading roles, was not exactly a good thing to have on a CV.
There are brief moments where the quintessential British horror elements of old threaten to emerge, such as fog-shrouded exterior shots at night which are expertly lit and highly atmospheric, or the revellers at the party attempt to recreate Lavininia’s burning with a parade through the grounds of the house. But for all of the good camera work in some scenes, the atmosphere is totally ruined by others. A handful of dream sequences, where Manning dreams of Lavinia and ends up seeing virgin sacrifices and a dominatrix dishing out torture, are drenched in a green hue but hint at a kinkiness and sexual undercurrent that never fully comes out. The party scenes involving the youth of the 60s come off dreadfully dated, partly the fault of the creative minds behind the film. When you think that Tigon had The Witchfinder General causing all sorts of upset at the cinema only a month before this was released with a hot up-and-coming young director at the helm, responding well to the demands of the younger audience, and then they churned this out with Sewell, who was in his sixties and totally out-of-touch with the target generations, at the helm then you realise what a ridiculous backwards leap the studio had made. It’s no surprise to see that Tigon only lasted until the early 70s before calling it a day.
With the really poor script not allowing for any surprises, The Curse of the Crimson Altar has only one way of travel and that’s very slow and predictable. Even an explosive finale, involving the mansion catching fire and burning down, should have guaranteed that the film would go out with something of a bang, but alas even this is a damp squib. Perhaps the only saving grace is the presence of genre legends Christopher Lee and, in his last British film role, Boris Karloff. Lee was always the consummate professional and never phones it in, attempting to raise the profile of the material, but as already stated earlier in my review, his character is literally one of only a handful of people who Manning meets and, well it’s Christopher Lee for crying out loud. He might as well have a big flashing sign over his head warning of his villainy. But he can’t keep the film up single-handedly.
Mark Eden, starring as the hero of the piece, is well out of his depth when up against a couple of genre pros. Karloff, in poor health when filming and even more so after catching pneumonia on location in the old mansion, looks every day his eighty-two years of age here and it’s a sad sight to see one of the forefathers of the horror genre slumming it at this late stage in his career, wheelchair-ridden to add insult to injury. Karloff gurns and grins for the camera like a man possessed but at least manages to infuse his old character with some degree of menace and shows Karloff’s natural authority whenever he’s on-screen. The Curse of the Crimson Altar also boasts genre regular Michael Gough in a role as a nervous butler and Italian actress Barbara Steele as the witch of the title, looking like an extra from Star Trek with her head-to-toe green body paint.
The Curse of the Crimson Altar is certainly not a terrible British horror film but rather a very dull and rather pointless one which doesn’t set out to do much and delivers exactly that – not much. There’s a lot of wasted talent both in front of and behind the camera but even miracles worker directors like Terence Fisher or Roy Ward Baker would have struggled here. Karloff’s farewell is a morbid curiosity which even his most devoted fans would find difficult to get through.
The Curse of the Crimson Altar
Also Known As: The Crimson Cult
Director(s): Vernon Sewell
Writer(s): Mervyn Haisman (screenplay by), Henry Lincoln (screenplay by), Jerry Sohl (from a story by)
Actor(s): Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff, Mark Eden, Virginia Wetherell, Barbara Steele, Michael Gough, Roger Avon, Michael Warren
Duration: 89 mins