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November 2012

Curse Of The Crimson Altar

cast: Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, Mark Eden, Barbara Steele, and Michael Gough

director: Vernon Sewell

87 minutes (15) 1969
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Simply Media DVD Region 2

RATING: 6/10
review by Andrew Darlington

Curse Of The Crimson Altar

"And drugs of this group can produce the most complex hallucinations, and under their influence it is possible by hypnosis to induce the subject to perform actions he would not normally commit" (extract from 'Medical Journal')

Of course, he was 'Alan Bradley'. Among the standout storylines from the long eventful history of Coronation Street is the 1989 one where devious bad guy Alan Bradley assaults Rita and pursues her to Blackpool, where he's hit and killed by a tram on the promenade. This villain, written into soap legend, is played by Mark Eden. He had many other roles during his acting career - he was number 100 in the It's Your Funeral episode of The Prisoner, and played Marco Polo in a 1964 Doctor Who tale opposite William Hartnell, but 'Corrie' provides probably his defining moment. Devotees of garish British horror flicks may prefer to think of him as the solid centre good guy of Curse Of The Crimson Altar (aka: The Crimson Cult), in which he does the required dogged heroics, and delivers at least one wry quip.

In a kind-of postmodern in-joke, as he's being led up the creaking staircase of the country mansion he gags: "it's a bit like one of those creepy old houses in the horror films. As though Boris Karloff is about to pop up at any moment." Yet, moments later, when Karloff himself trundles on-screen in a wheelchair there's no shock of recognition. In one of his final movies Karloff's big tombstone face is very much in character, even if that character happens to be Prof. Marsh, "one of the world's leading authorities on witchcraft," with an 'amusing little collection' of torture instruments.

Launched in 1966 by exploitation meister Tony Tenser, Tigon - along with Amicus Productions, came along just in time to inject a little energy into moribund British horror, just as Hammer was seriously losing momentum. Tigon often updated genre plots to more trendy contemporary settings, adding teasing cleavage and flashes of nudity, more liberal amounts of splatter-ketchup, and even druggy overtones. Curse Of The Crimson Altar opens with appropriately doomy organ, but a frieze of carved images leads into trippy kaleidoscopic effects blending a fetishistic collage of a sacrificial blonde on the altar, a green-faced priest, a man with antlers (Herne the hunter), and a goat (Pan). This is Dennis Wheatley fed through an LSD blender, the keeper of the black secret coming to terms with late 1960s drug culture. In the narcotic trance the character called Peter signs a demonic contract, kills the girl, and gets his chest branded from a blazing forge...

Wake up, back to reality. Antique dealer Robert Manning (Mark Eden) toys with a bodkin, a vintage witch-pricking blade. He's concerned about his brother Peter, who is overdue returning from a business trip to Craxted Lodge. Intent on seeking him out, he drives to the remote village of Greymarsh in his soft-top sports car. Naturally, by the time he gets there it's dark, and he's startled to see a girl in red skin-tight body-stocking chased by hunters in cars. When he leaps to her defence, she defuses the scenario - it's only a 'sophisticated hide and seek' game. Suitably pacified, she leads him into the house to find a swingers party in progress. A girl in a black bra having her breasts painted, another pouring two bottles of champagne over her own red bra, to a rather poor disco soundtrack. Upstairs he meets Squire Morley (Christopher Lee), immaculately civilised in moustache, check jacket and red tie. Lee could perform on autopilot if he chooses, his mere presence is enough. As it is, he delivers a convincing, if unexceptional performance. Yes, he admits his partying niece has "a large circle of somewhat peculiar friends," but while he denies ever meeting Peter, he invites Robert to stay overnight in the Grey Room. Robert is less than convinced when he matches a candleholder to one that Peter had sent him.

The house standing in as Craxted Lodge is Grim's Dyke House in Old Redding, Harrow Weald in Middlesex, the former residence of the Gilbert of Gilbert and Sullivan - which is appropriately haunted (and a location Christopher Lee would revisit to film The Devil Rides Out for Hammer Studios that same year). It has all the qualities required of the 'old dark house' genre. And when Boris Karloff - as Marsh, appears as Robert's earlier quip anticipates, his presence is entirely in keeping. "Good stuff?" he queries with eloquent derision at Robert's evaluation of his brandy, before he sets about detailing the film's historical thread. There's Lavinia (Barbara Steele), the 'Black Witch of Greymarsh' executed by villagers, and seeking vengeance across time even as chanting locals re-enact her burning with torches and fireworks. When Karloff sombrely warns him "you may find your scepticism a fragile shield," you tend to be persuaded.

Stumbling servant Elder (Michael Gough) stammers a warning for Robert to "go, while you can." And later, under pressure, he admits that the missing brother had stayed here - under an alias, and that "Denis Vosper is dead!" Robert flirts with party girl Eve (Virginia Wetherell). Their shared four-poster bed rocks. He leaves her room at dawn as she sleeps on, prostrate, all passion spent. She agrees to help him, driving her trendy grey mini. Sharp interior shots contrast the softer sequences of him strolling around the village. Rupert Davies (TV's Maigret), pleasingly cameos as the vicar, who uses church records to flesh out details. Lavinia Morley was executed 25 July 1652. 'Jonathan Manners' is listed among the names at her trial. Since his brother's presumed death, this leaves Robert as the only surviving linear descendent of the witch's accusers. Just as Morley is the last survivor of Lavinia's line.

He's tormented by hallucinatory dreams of his brother calling to him in circles of kaleidoscope fire, then finding himself in the fetishistic ceremony opening sequence that resembles "some kind of witch's sabbat," presided over by an enthroned green-faced Lavinia in elaborately-coiffed feathered headdress, the trial with bewigged judge, animal-headed jury, and the goat delivering the verdict. The vastly underused Steele only appears in these dream-fantasies, which - for a scream-queen who'd been strangled to death by Vincent Price in Roger Corman's The Pit And The Pendulum, and an actress who had graced Fellini's art-house classic , seems something of a waste. She urges him to sign in blood. He resists, so she stabs himů awake. "So vivid, almost as though it wasn't a dream at all," so real his wrist is still bleeding from a stab wound.

The subconscious mind, cautions Karloff sagely, is the "living bridge between this world and the unknown." Robert finds a more direct route. Following the spots of blood on the floor of his room, he springs a secret panel leading into a spiral staircase up to the cobwebbed room of his dream. Showing Eve the secret room, he discovers the cobwebs are fake. In a neat behind-the-scenes give-away he even locates the special-effects prop-gun used for spraying it! So his dreams were not only real, but deliberately staged. Eden is solidly reliably throughout, in trendy zip-up brown suede jacket over pale roll-neck sweater and casual brown slacks. In action sequences, when Karloff's mute chauffeur, Basil, shoots at him by the lake ('shooting birds' explains Boris reassuringly), or when he investigates the private graveyard at night - always night, he reacts well. Things accelerate. Eve finds the 'Book of the Damned' with Peter's signature within. And he finds Elder's corpse in a box, and Peter's monogrammed identity bracelet.

The hurried climax reveals the revolving lamp alternating flashing green-red-white hypnotising light, as used on Elder, which Lee now uses on Eve. Predictably, she's chained to the altar as he prepares to burn the witch-room around her - "blood of her blood." When Robert bursts in, Lee overpowers him too. A Manning and a Morley... Now the cycle is complete. Her clothes are carefully teased back sufficient to titillating glimpse her violet bra... then Boris intervenes in the nick of time. Once the protagonists are safely outside, the fire brigade arrives as Craxted Lodge burns, and cackling warlock Lee escapes across the blazing roof, only for it to collapse and him to plunge to his fiery death as a vision of Lavinia swallows him...

"All the best things in life are short-lived," ponders Karloff ruefully, a comment given extra gravity as he approaches the end of his career. In the scenes they share in this unassuming film, horror giants Lee and Karloff play easily off against each other, with little sense of momentous occasion. Karloff's dour humour is deflected by Lee's aloof cool. It wasn't the only time they'd appeared onscreen together. There had been the modest thriller Corridors Of Blood (1962). And Curse Of The Crimson Altar wasn't Karloff's final film, as some claim. It was his last movie to be released while he was alive. He was a working actor to the end, unwilling to turn away any offers, and during 1968 he turned in four low-budget films with director Jack Hill, making sci-fi quickie The Incredible Invasion (1971) his last. He died 2nd February 1969, aged 81, in Midhurst, Sussex. Eden, meanwhile, headed off for his grisly assignation with a Blackpool tram in Coronation Street...

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