Thursday, January 6, 2011

Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968)

This movie opens with Barbara Steele painted blue.

The review could end here - I am that easy to please. But I know that you would not be satisfied with this, my darling readers, and so I must press on.

Curse of the Crimson Altar is supposedly taken from the H.P. Lovecraft short story "The Dreams in the Witch-House". I don't know how anybody worked that out; it's not mentioned anywhere in the credits and the similarities with Lovecraft's story are, "both feature a house with a witch in it." Fortunately the movie has a lot more going for it than simply being another botched Lovecraft adaptation.

The story involves antique dealer Robert Manning (Mark Eden) searching for his missing brother, Peter. As the audience has already seen Peter in the opening sequence (where he is very clearly referred to by name) we know that he has been inducted into a cult, sacrificed a woman on an altar, and had something branded onto his chest, but Robert doesn't know that.

Robert heads off to Craxted Lodge at Greymarsh, from where Peter had sent him some antiques before disappearing, noting that this town is where their family originally hails from. When he arrives, the first thing he encounters is a screaming, half-naked young woman being chased by a car. When he tries to intervene, he discovers that it's just "a rather sophisticated kind of hide and seek." Inside the Lodge he finds one of those wild parties that you get in '60s horror movies: body painting, joint smoking, people pouring champagne all over each other... but all the guys are wearing suits.

In a marked contrast to the heroes of most of these sorts of movies, Robert immediately grabs a drink and looks like he's having a whale of a time. But he has to tear himself away to go and find J.D. Morley (Christopher Lee) and make enquiries about that damned missing brother. Morely's manservant Elder is played by yet another horror movie regular, Michael Gough.

Faced with two oddly-behaving horror stars who are clearly lying to him about the disappearance of his brother, Robert does the sensible thing and decides to stay at the lodge and try to make time with Morley's niece Eve (Virginia Weatherell). Even the arrival of yet another horror icon, Boris Karloff, does not dissuade him. Karloff plays Professor John Marsh, the local witchcraft expert, and despite being in very poor physical shape and spending most of the movie in a wheelchair, he gives a wonderfully crotchety performance. His first conversation with Robert is gold: first he accuses him of mocking Graymarsh's traditions, then he gets angry at Robert's failure to appreciate fine brandy, and as a cheerio he invites him to come and see his collection of instruments of torture.

Speaking of Graymarsh's tradition (and of torture), Robert has apparently arrived on their most fĂȘted night: the anniversary of the town burning Lavinia Morley as a witch a hundred years before. They still all like to get together and burn her in effigy, because nothing brings a community together like a good lynching.

Now that all the ducks are in a row, the movie can get going. Elder is sent to do Lavinia's bidding by a revolving lamp that speaks with Barbara Steele's voice.

Robert starts doing the horror movie investigating game: checking out the graveyard, searching for secret passages, reading the church records, etc. It seems that everywhere he goes, he keeps running into Professor Marsh and his scary mute bodyguard. He also starts having weird hallucinogenic dreams in which Lavinia tries to lead him down the same path as his brother...

I don't think I need to tell you that I thoroughly enjoyed Curse of the Crimson Altar. It's true that I thought that the protagonist was a jerk, the story was convoluted and simplistic and predictable all at the same time, and that it didn't make good use of the slew of horror icons at its disposal. It didn't even put Barbara Steele in any of the same scenes as Boris Karloff or Christopher Lee, which is a real shame as it was he only movie she ever shared with either of them. But on the other hand it had plenty of the overdone coloured gel lighting, psychedelic visual effects, pseudo-wild partying and '60s ambience that I love in horror movies of the era.

It also shares the broad generation gap subtext of most other '60s British horror movies, and refreshingly unlike most of these movies (particularly those of Hammer) it does not conclude that a youthful list for sex and drugs does not need to be punished by brutal death. In this respect is bears some similarity to the movies of Michael Reeves (The Sorcerers, Witchfinder General), also produced by Tigon.

The whole thing is wrapped up a bit too quickly for my liking, with some hasty exposition from Karloff to paste over some of the plot holes. Fortunately, this Scooby Doo ending where the supernatural elements are explained away is deliberately contradicted when something unquestionably supernatural happens moments later. Take that, Mark of the Vampire!

Curse of the Crimson Altar seems to have been Barbara Steele's last gothic horror movie - she was quoted as saying "I never want to climb out of another fucking coffin again!" She did appear in a couple of more contemporary horror movies in the 1970s, most notably David Cronenberg's debut feature Shivers, but as far as witches, vampires and banshees were concerned, she was done. The era of the great horror stars was almost over; Karloff died the following year, Lee & Peter Cushing creaked through a few more Hammer movies to mostly diminishing returns, and Vincent Price retired from the genre out of distaste for the more realistic and graphic movies he was being offered.

In a way it seems that something was lost, but the 1970s was to become one of the most vital and innovative decades for the horror movie all around the world so I'm not going to sit around crying over it. Sometimes you need to cut away the dead wood to get new growth, and sometimes it takes more than a figure as familiar as a favourite uncle to frighten people. I don't rate it as highly as many seem to, but Peter Bogdanovich's Targets makes a strong case that the news had become more frightening than anything Dr. Frankenstein could cook up. (Not that the world itself had necessarily become any more dangerous, but reportage of violence and death had become so prevalent and so vivid that people felt more at risk.)

Next time, we'll have even more Lovecraftian sex & drugs hippies. Look out for it.

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