Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968)

There have been quite a few movie adaptations of the works of H. P. Lovecraft, and the one thing they all have in common is that they have all left Lovecraft’s fans dissatisfied. Tigon’s 1968 Curse of the Crimson Altar is no exception to this rule.

Antiques dealer Robert Manning (Mark Eden) is looking for his missing brother, Peter Manning. He received a letter from Peter some days earlier. The letter is on the notepaper of Craxted Lodge in the village of Greymarsh so Robert sets off for Greymarsh to see what he can find out.

Craxted Lodge belongs to a man named Morley (Christopher Lee). Morley denies having ever set eyes on Peter Manning but he invites Robert to stay at the house. He explains that there’s no chance of getting a room at the pub because the villagers are celebrating the Witch’s Night. Back in the days when witch-burning was a popular spectator sport a witch named Lavinia was burnt in the village. This witch was an ancestress of Mr Morley. Before she died Lavinia cursed the villagers and all their descendants (that being the sort of thing that was expected of a witch in such circumstances and Lavinia being the sort who likes to play by the rules). Considering the curse you might wonder why the anniversary would be such a cause for celebration but I suppose people have commemorated stranger things.

While staying at Craxted Lodge Robert has strange dreams in which he sees his brother being tortured in an attempt to persuade him to sign a certain paper. The viewer already knows this because this is the scene that opened the movie. In charge of these torturings is Lavinia (played by Barbara Steele in spectacular makeup), now transformed into some kind of Queen of Hell. Later Robert will have dreams in which he is the one being tortured.

Morley’s decrepit butler Elder (Michael Gough) warns Robert to get away while he can. Robert has no intention of leaving, partly because he is convinced that he is now hot on brother Peter’s trail and partly because he thinks he has a pretty good chance of getting Morley’s bodacious blonde niece into bed.

Of course we know by now that Robert is in great danger and Robert has a pretty fair idea that something unpleasant is in the offing, especially when Professor Marsh’s chauffeur takes a potshot at him with a shotgun. Professor Marsh (Boris Karloff) is Morley’s houseguest and is an expert on witchcraft. The plot then follows a fairly predictable course, with Lavinia determined to recruit Robert into the ranks of the damned. There’s the obligatory Black Mass kind of ceremony with the obligatory naked young woman about to be sacrificed.

Superficially the plot is clearly going to put most viewers in mind of The Wicker Man, The Night of the Eagle and Eye of the Devil, all movies dealing with the survival of witchcraft in the modern world. The movie also has a certain amount in common with Hammer’s Dracula AD 1972, with the collision between evil supernatural forces and 1960s/early 1970s youth culture. It also resembles Dracula AD 1972 in obviously having been made by people of the previous generation who view the whole youth culture thing as presaging the end of civilisation as we know it, which it sort of was.

The biggest attraction here is the stellar cast. Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, Barbara Stele and Michael Gough! All in the one movie! With that sort of cast the movie has to be worth seeing, doesn’t it? Actually the movie is worth seeing, although possibly not for the reasons the film-makers had in mind.

Boris Karloff was incapable of a bad performance. Christopher Lee is pretty good as well, in a part very similar to the one he would play a few years later in the aforementioned The Wicker Man. It’s the sort of role he did well - amusingly pompous with a slightly obsessive and ever so slightly unhinged quality lurking just beneath the surface. Michael Gough gets insufficient screen time and is largely wasted although he does manage to convince us that he’s totally bonkers. Barbara Steele doesn’t get to do much acting but she does get to look wonderfully perverse in some very extravagant makeup and costumes.

There are some major problems with this movie. The script is more than a little on the incoherent side, the pacing gets a bit sluggish at times and the viewer can’t help forming the impression that no-one involved with this production was entirely certain what it was they were trying to achieve. These are all valid criticisms and they’ve contributed to this movie’s reputation as being a bit of a turkey. If you’re going to approach this as a serious horror film then this reputation is perhaps deserved but to view the movie that way is to miss all the fun.

This movie is very much a product of its time, with its puzzled and rather hostile view of youth culture, its confused attempt to be in tune with the times (with drug references and some gloriously silly psychedelic special effects), its embarrassed attempt to be daring by throwing in a bit of totally gratuitous nudity, and its generally shambolic air. That’s what makes it so much fun. Plus the stars were obviously not taking all this very seriously and were instead intent on having a bit of fun. Except for Christopher Lee who naturally takes it all very seriously, which makes it even more fun.

Apart from the fun angle it does have some real virtues. It looks absolutely splendid, in an outrageous late 60s way.

The German DVD release from e-m-s claims to be uncut, although I must say I’m somewhat dubious about that claim. It’s a reasonably good anamorphic transfer. It includes the original English soundtrack with German subtitles that are unfortunately non-removable (or if there is a way to remove them I couldn’t find it). It seems to be the only DVD release currently available at an affordable price.

Curse of the Crimson Altar manages to be entertaining in spite of itself and I couldn’t help enjoying myself. Recommended if you promise not to take it seriously.


Francisco Gonzalez said...

I'd love to check this one out, it looks as fun as The Dunwich Horror, another Lovecraft adaptation that is watchable because it's so silly and such a product of its time. Recommend that one if you haven't seen it, it stars Dean Stockwell in an extremely entertaining performance as this wacko guy obsessed with the Necronomicon for some reason.

Al Bruno III said...

A nice write up about a strange film...

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