Vernon Sewell, 1968
Starring: Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff, Barbara Steele, Mark Eden, Virginia Wetherill
Antiques dealer Robert Manning (Mark Eden) goes in search of his missing brother (Denys Peek) after receiving a strange phone call. He finds his way to a town called Greymarsh, where he is invited to stay at an ancestral lodge owned by Morley (Christopher Lee), which also happens to be home to a raucous party hosted by Morley's young niece Eve (Virginia Wetherell). Despite everyone's assertions that his brother was never there, he uncovers some strange clues and begins to have vivid hallucinations in the middle of the night. He learns that he has been dreaming of legendary figure Lavinia Morley (Barbara Steele), the evil witch of Greymarsh and Eve’s ancestor. A wheelchair bound local occult expert, Professor Marshe (Boris Karloff), gets involved, but Robert is unsure whether Marsh is trying to help or hurt his investigation and it becomes less and less clear who can really trust.
Tigon British Film Productions’ second horror film is also their first foray into satanic horror and, though it has something of a mixed reputation, is well worth tracking down. Based loosely — trust me, very loosely — on one of my favorite Lovecraft stories, “Dreams in the Witch House,” it's a little bit satanic (the general premise revolves around a witch cult), occasionally psychedelic, and has some of the best actors in the genre under one haunted roof: Boris Karloff in one of his final horror roles, and one in which he sadly contracted pneumonia and had to be hospitalized, Christopher Lee (somehow this is only Lee and Karloff’s second collaboration together after 1959’s Corridors of Blood roughly a decade earlier), Barbara Steele, and Michael Gough. It’s a shame that the film’s lead, Mark Eden (Séance on a Wet Afternoon) is not quite up to snuff. There’s nothing specifically wrong with him, but he can’t compete with the roster of greats he’s up against.
The film’s nebulous female lead, Eve, is played coquettishly by Virginia Wetherell (Demons of the Mind), who sports quite a bit of nudity. Unfortunately, Eden is absolutely no match for her and it actually feels like she’s not given enough to do (though Steele and Lee suffer from similar fates). Wetherell’s Eve becomes Manning’s partner in detective work — though her role in the events is left convincingly vague for awhile — and also in the sack, when they begin an affair. She’s involved in some of the obligatory shots of a scandalous ‘60s party, perhaps to further stress that the contemporary setting and mild sexual themes (including fetish wear and a disappointingly tame orgy) set Tigon apart from either Hammer or Amicus.
I’ve always loved the general premise of someone searching for a missing family member/loved one — which Hammer used well a number of times — but here it’s sort of scraping the very bottom of the barrel and the twists and reveals are all a bit obvious at best and awkwardly handled at worst. Admittedly though, there are some wonderful moments when Robert realizes that his nightly dreams might have some basis in reality, as exemplified by his discovery of a secret corridor and another scene where a cut he received in a dream appears in his waking hours. In general, the film makes pleasant use of a number of horror tropes: the folk festival that leaves behind a sense of vague unease, a Gothic manor house, rumors of a secret cult, and a creepy old occult expert. Steele’s Lavinia and the psychedelic visuals that accompany her are the film’s most unique aspect — she’s painted blue and seems to include S&M as a regular part of her satanic rituals (as she should). Really though, I wish she had been given a more robust presence — and Steele herself apparently complained that she was kept isolated from the other actors and not given enough interaction with them.
Though it was hard to get ahold of for awhile, Kino Lorber finally released The Curse of the Crimson Altar on Blu-ray, though under its American title of The Crimson Cult (which I actually really hate). To make things a little more confusing, you can also find it listed as The Reincarnation, Spirit of the Dead, and Witch House. Be aware of which edition you're purchasing; the earlier US releases under The Crimson Cult are the cut American prints, and while the Kino Blu-ray is uncut, it weirdly subs out the original soundtrack for something different. You might want to just play it safe and pick up the British Blu-ray instead. I definitely recommend the film despite its flaws — I actually have a huge soft spot for the film, even if it seems otherwise — though it stands mostly as a solid forerunner to the studio’s two future masterpieces, Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan’s Claw.