May 12, 2007


The Curse of the Crimson Altar
(1968, aka The Crimson Cult)

The flipside of Witchfinder General – another 1968 Tigon horror film - is lacking in everything

This is another of my reviews of H.P. Lovecraft adaptions. It’s the least recommended movie in this batch of the four earliest movies based on HPL’s work.

Curse of the Crimson Altar uses Lovecraft’s ‘Dreams in the Witch-House’ as a starting point for the script. This story may be more familiar to you from the recent Stuart Gordon adaption from the first TV season of Masters of Horror (2005).

In Curse of the Crimson Altar, the short story is barely fleshed out to fill 90 minutes. Yes, there’s a man confusing a nightmare about a witch’s bizarre sacrificial ritual, with the history of the country mansion he’s sleeping in. But when our hero’s awake, the film plays more like a sex farce, occasionally punctuated by the downbeat meanderings of Christopher Lee and an ill-looking Boris Karloff. Boris certainly looks less perky than he did in Die Monster Die, from three years earlier.

Horror icons Karloff and Lee are wasted in the film, sidelined by the plot, and there’s even a throwaway Karloff ‘gag’ in the film. Also ghastly, is a scene set at a fireworks display. Boris gets an exploding firework chucked at him, while he’s stuck in a wheelchair! It looks a great deal less than respectful.

Other cast members that are essentially wasted are Michael Gough, who makes the most of a timid butler role. You can really see the pecking order of the horror stars at the time. Karloff, Lee, Gough. Squire, professor, butler. To me Gough should still have been headlining movies, not just playing butlers. His manic performances in Horrors of the Black Museum, Konga, Trog, The Black Zoo, Beserk! are all to be treasured. I’m very happy that Tim Burton kept on casting him, even as recently as Sleepy Hollow. At least his role as Alfred in the Batman films, is a butler part to be proud of.

Another wasted horror icon, (this film has survived on the credentials of the cast list alone) is Barbara Steele, rarely seen in British movies, she was usually at work in Italy, before starring in a few seventies US films (like Shivers and Piranha) and then moving into producing. Her gothically beautiful face made many Italian horror films a success, like the shocking image of her face scarred by spikes in Black Sunday (aka Mask of Satan). In Crimson Altar she is painted green, given a fabulously demonic, errrr, horned hat and given almost nothing to do in the brief dream sequences. I’m not even sure if they used her real voice. Steele is also constantly upstaged by the near nude men and women in the witchy rituals.

There’s more cheeky nudity in a student party early in the film. Breasts only being covered by pasted-on tassles was a trick used in sixties Soho strip joints, playing games with the strict obscenity laws. There’s also some fetish rubber wear on show. It’s quite revealing, but hardly sexy - a very lame orgy indeed.

Also lame are the plot, the underwritten dialogue, and the lazy direction. Some of the simplest dialogue scenes don’t even cut together very well. This is all backed up by some truly awful backing music, especially the movie’s opening theme.

The director, Vernon Sewell, must take some of the blame here. His other horror film The Blood Beast Terror (also 1968) is similarly extremely poor. I don’t want to be harsh, but I’ve seen some awful horror films, and these two films commit the crime of being not only boring, but a terrible waste of talent. With a cast and crew like this at his disposal, he has no excuse to make a dull picture.

Sewell even has Johnny Coquillon as director of photography, whose work on Witchfinder General made it one of the most beautifully shot British horror films ever. In Crimson Altar, The lighting of the dream sequences is great, but the staging and editing are criminally dull, barely making any more sense in their assembly as an Ed Wood Film.

Sewell also doesn’t seem to be bothered about making a horror film scary. The younger cast members don’t act frightened, instead playing it all as light comedy.

To pump up the certificate, there seems to be more sex than scares, with a shot of Virginia Wetherell’s bum (when she gets out of bed) and a side-on shot of her breast in the love scene. These shots could easily then be removed, as required, by any censorship.

The production company Tigon would take a huge leap forward later in the year, with the gutsy Witchfinder General (US title: The Conqueror Worm). One of the most provocative and progressive horror films of the era. It didn’t pull its punches, there was no campery, no cliches, and a surfeit of realistic violence. It’s a film for adults, Crimson Altar is just juvenile.

There’s more overlap between the two films. Rupert Davies appears in both films, as priests. There’s even a mention in Crimson Altar of the practice of ‘pricking’ suspect witches, a torture that’s graphically portrayed in Witchfinder General.

So, barely Lovecraft, barely watchable. If you’re stil interested, it’s out on DVD in the UK. But I certainly haven’t bought a copy, I just watched on old VHS, so I can’t tell you how the DVD looks.

See also my look at
Die, Monster, Die and The Shuttered Room, for more Lovecraftian tales from the same era.

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  1. I had fairly fond memories of seeing this as an impressionable teen but finally visiting it all these years later I can only imagine it wasn't the quality of the filmmaking that made them. Indeed, I can see now why this garners so much negative feedback.

    It's hard to know what happened to Vernon Sewell, an experienced director with the likes of THE SILVER FLEET (for The Archers), GHOST SHIP, HOUSE OF MYSERY and STRONGROOM among his credits, as this is borderline imcompetent filmmaking. Perhaps he simply lost interest? Or was he just too old for this sort of stuff? He would make only one more film before retiring from the business. To be honest the actors seem only marginally more engaged with the material at hand.

    I watched a download of the German DVD from CG. I had to turn the brightness right down to get rid of all the blocking...and no this wasn't a compressed AVI or XVID, I simply got rid of the extras and put the film onto a single layer DVDR, which required little or no compression (I don't recall), so I'm assuming the problem lies with the original DVD, which unlike the UK release I believe carries the uncut version.

    So it seems neither the film nor any of the DVD's can be recommended. Despite the stellar cast perhaps this is one just to forget?

  2. The cast is what keeps people coming back.