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'The Crimson Cult' with Demented Dreams

When Boris Met Christopher, and Barbara Got Green.

Curse of the Crimson Altar

Director: Vernon Sewell
Cast: Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee
Distributor: Kino Lorber
Year: 1968
USDVD release date: 2015-07-07

The Crimson Cult (onscreen title: Curse of the Crimson Altar ) is a half-demented, half-plodding little British horror item, basically a botch with moments too fascinating to miss.

Robert Manning (Mark Eden) is an antiques dealer who traces his missing brother (who looks nothing like him, but never mind) to the hamlet of Graymarsh, where they have an annual celebration re-creating the burning of a witch named Lavinia a few centuries ago. The first thing that happens to him is running across the type of outlandish pseudo-orgy found in certain 1960s films where partiers engage in bizarre subsitutes for actual debauchery, such as chasing women with cars or painting each other. Supposedly hip and decadent without being able to prove that anyone is stoned, it just looks exhausting.

Squire Morley (Christopher Lee) professes ignorance about the missing brother while putting Robert up at his manor indefinitely, as the latter hits on the Squire's niece (Virginia Wetherell, with nude scene) and annoys a persnickety, wheelchair-bound authority on local history (Boris Karloff, deliciously game). Although tolerably picturesque, very little of this is non-obvious or even interesting, especially since Karloff and Lee are virtual cameos. Seen more frequently is the great, eyebrow-rich Michael Gough as a cowering, sneaking, near-mute butler. The funky mansion where he skulks is Grim's Dyke, former home of W.S. Gilbert (of Gilbert & Sullivan) and now a hotel.

Starting with the opening sequence, and erupting throughout whenever things get too dull, the movie launches into crazy, psychedelic dreams with color filters, kaleidoscopic lenses, and figures skimpily costumed for high camp. We get nude women, speedos, chickens, goats, whips, knives, and at the center of this malarkey is Lavinia herself, played by Barbara Steele in green skin and knockout ram's-horn headdress that could put several eyes out. If this amounted to more than five minutes of the running time, the picture would double its worth; imagine if Ken Russell had been let loose here. The status of these dreams is paradoxical, since Robert seems to be drugged and hypnotized, so they're somehow really happening even though they're also hallucinated. The movie never adequately explains itself nor what happened to the brother, who looks healthy in these visions.

Equally baffled are commentators David Del Valle and Barbara Steele, who have a friendly chat without focusing narrowly on the picture. Del Valle notes that it was released the same year as Rosemary's Baby, implying something in the water; they also point out similarities to Black Sunday, Dark Shadows and The Wicker Man, all of which are infinitely more successful. Another bonus is a fascinating, lengthy career interview with Lee. There are UK and US trailers, the latter spelling Wetherell as Wetherwill.

There's also a piece with composer Kendall Schmidt discussing how he was hired by Orion in the 1980s to rescore several AIP Productions for home video, including this one. So we're hearing his score, not the original British score by Peter Knight, and yet this print does have the British title on it as made by Tigon Films, not the AIP retitle The Crimson Cult. Yet more mysteries. (Apparently Knight's score can heard on a British Blu-ray from Odeon Entertainment, with the same commentary.)

There are several writers whom it's a mercy not to mention; one unmentioned in the credits is H.P. Lovecraft, as Del Valle explains that the story is loosely inspired by his "The Dreams in the Witch House", later made by Stuart Gordon for Masters of Horror. The often clumsy direction belongs to Vernon Sewell, veteran of British B-pictures, and his profile at BFI Screenonline has nice things to say about several of his movies, although not this one. His thrown-together effort for Tigon is a case study in that sad, teasing category, "what might have been".


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