The Crimson Cult/The Crimson Altar/The Curse of the Crimson Altar/The Reincarnation/Spirit of the Dead/Witch House (1968) **½
Seeing this fascinating, but mostly forgotten, witchcraft flick from the Hammer wannabes at Tigon Studios really brought home a realization that had been working its way to the front of my brain for some time now. The English really need to come up with a new formula for horror movie titles! Seriously, how many times can you call a movie “The Curse of Whatever” before people get sick of it? The Curse of Frankenstein, The Curse of the Werewolf, The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb, Curse of the Demon, The Curse of the Fly, The Curse of the Crimson Altar— enough, already! We Americans saw this trend for creeping evil that it was, however, and when this movie played on this side of the Atlantic, it did so under the much snappier title The Crimson Cult.
I first encountered The Crimson Cult when I caught the opening credits on my way out the door from my parents’ house a couple of months ago. There were groceries to be bought, and thus I couldn’t stick around, but that twisted, psychedelic credits sequence told me I had to track this movie down. Then there was the cast: Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, Barbara Steele, and Michael Gough all in one movie! Holy fuck!!!! Unfortunately, as is so often the case, the movie didn’t quite live up to my fevered expectations, but it’s still pretty goddamned cool.
It’s just a pity the very best scene is the one that opens the film. The setting is a dark, dungeon-like chamber. Assembled therein are a beautiful, turquoise-skinned woman with an elaborate golden headdress (Barbara Steele, from Black Sunday and The Horrible Dr. Hichcock); a bearded man in a hooded black robe, who happens to be holding a small goat in his arms; a great big beefcake guy in a fetching leather apron-and-speedo ensemble, accessorized with a studded leather cap adorned with antlers, of all things; and another attractive girl in a costume that makes the bondage fetishist in me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. The odd man out in this motley crew is a pasty-faced Englishman (Denys Peek) in a conservative brown business suit; one suspects that the whole affair is being staged for his benefit, and that he will become more directly involved once Bondage Girl finishes flogging the naked chick strapped to the table in the middle of the room. And sure enough, the very moment she’s through, the turquoise-skinned woman asks the businessman if he is ready to sign. He is, and the hooded man with the goat produces a colossal leather-bound book and a quill pen, with which the would-be signatory makes good his professed intentions. “Welcome to our world of darkness,” Turquoise Skin says, and hands the businessman a golden dagger, which he then uses to stab the naked, bound girl in the heart. I don’t know about you, but that sure as hell got my attention!
It turns out the businessman is named Peter Manning, and he is an antiques dealer. We learn this from his brother, Robert (Mark Eden, from the original TV version of “Quatermass and the Pit”), who helps him run his shop, and who has just received word that Peter is coming home early from a buying expedition in the tiny country hamlet of Greymarshe. This is rather troubling to Robert, because the letter in which Peter expresses this intention was postmarked ten days ago, and there is still no sign of him. Fortunately, Peter’s letter mentions that he has been staying at the Craxley Lodge, and gives both the address and telephone number for the place. Then again, when Robert calls that number, the man he speaks to claims never to have heard of Peter Manning. With a real mystery thus on his hands, Robert decides to drive out to Greymarshe to have a look around.
You know the drill. It’s a creepy little place where the locals have strange customs and don’t quite trust outsiders. And of course, Craxley Lodge has a bad reputation in town. But at least the villagers here aren’t quite as rude or uncooperative as those in some other B-movie hamlets I could name (anyone else remember Die, Monster, Die!?), and they do at least tell Manning how to get to the lodge. What he finds there is surpassingly bizarre. A huge psychedelic party is going on in the main hall, full of half-naked dancing floozies, goofy late-60’s fuzztone rock, and lots and lots of champagne-fueled making out. Not exactly what one would expect from a place like Craxley Lodge. Robert eventually finds someone who’s still sober enough to clue him in on what’s up; it turns out the girl he talks to is Eve Morley (Virginia Wetherell, from A Clockwork Orange and Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde), niece of the J. D. Morley who owns Craxley Lodge (Christopher Lee, as we shall soon see). The big debauch in the hall is Eve’s party in celebration of the Greymarshe’s biggest local holiday, which commemorates the burning of a witch named Lavinia, who just happens to have been one of Eve’s distant ancestors. Eve then shows Robert to her uncle’s study, so that he can get on with the business that has brought him to Greymarshe.
Morley reiterates that he has never heard of Peter Manning. At the very least, he’s quite sure no one by that name ever came to stay at the lodge. Morely’s sorry he couldn’t be of more assistance, but if he’d like to look around town some more in the morning, Manning is welcome to stay the night at Craxley Lodge. Robert takes him up on the offer, and thus he is still around when one of Morley’s friends comes to visit. This is Professor John Marsh (Karloff, in the last remotely classy movie he ever made), a cranky, suspicious old man with a wealth of knowledge about local history— especially the history concerning Lavinia Morley. And he doesn’t seem to like Robert Manning very much. He seems particularly disapproving of Robert’s presence at the festival that midnight, where the villagers burn an effigy of the witch Lavinia.
Marsh may not be the only one who disapproves, either. That night, Robert dreams of the turquoise-skinned woman and her entourage. Do I really need to tell you that she looks just like the effigy of Lavinia Morley that the villagers tossed onto the bonfire just a few hours before? Lavinia wants Robert to sign the same book Peter did, but Robert isn’t going for it. (Personally, I think it’s ‘cause Bondage Girl isn’t there to put on a show this time. I know I’d be much more willing to sell my soul if I got to watch her do her stuff first.) When Robert remains obstinate in the face of repeated demands for his signature, Lavinia picks up a convenient dagger and makes to stab him. That’s when he wakes up.
Robert’s second day in Greymarshe is as fruitless as the first. Neither of the antique shops in town have any information to offer him, nor does anybody else. Morley’s butler, Elder (Michael Gough, from Horror of Dracula and The Skull), also starts sneaking into Manning’s room when he isn’t around. And on top of that, Robert almost gets his head shot off by Marsh’s sidekick, Basil (Michael Warren), when he stumbles upon the professor hunting in the woods. But the biggest shock to Robert’s system comes at night, when he again dreams of Lavinia, and wakes up on the very edge of a pond out past the woods around Craxley Lodge. He also finds that he’s been injured, in about the same place where Lavinia’s dagger would have hit him had she finished the stab before he awoke. The fact that he ends his night by going to bed with Eve is relatively small consolation for all the creepy, threatening shit he’s had to put up with in the last 24 hours.
Now, you might wonder why a witch— living, dead, or reincarnated, as the case may be— would have such a grudge against a lowly antique dealer. I mean, I’m sure the man’s sold some horrendous pieces of shit at some seriously inflated prices in his time, but that scarcely seems like the kind of thing that would merit such relentless pursuit. Well, what if I told you that there used to be a branch of the Manning family in Greymarshe, back around the time of Lavinia’s execution? Would that shed any light on the issue? Sure it would. And some more light is shed when Robert finds a secret passage in his room, leading up to the attic, where there is a chamber exactly like the one in his dreams. This chamber may look like it hasn’t been used in centuries, but closer examination reveals that all the cobwebs shrouding everything in it are false ones of the sort you might buy at a particularly high-class party supply store around Halloween, and in one of the closets hang several of the costumes in which the characters from Robert’s dreams are attired. You think maybe Robert hasn’t really been dreaming?
It’s unfortunate, but probably inevitable, that The Crimson Cult isn’t nearly as good as its cast. By framing the story primarily as a mystery, the filmmakers deprive themselves of most of their opportunities for action and excitement, and little use is made of the talents of the four big stars. It is entirely understandable that Karloff would be underutilized; after all, there’s only so much that an 81-year-old man in a wheelchair can do. But with the others, there isn’t nearly so good an excuse. Christopher Lee’s role as the main villain is confirmed too late for him to make much of the part, while Gough and Steele are completely squandered in roles that compartmentalize them outside of the main action. All of Steele’s scenes are real zingers, especially that first one, but there aren’t quite enough of them, and they’re too isolated from the rest of the plot.
The final frustration with The Crimson Cult is that it is now next to impossible to see the film as the Brits saw it back in 1968. The U.S. theatrical version (the basis for this review), which plays occasionally on cable TV, was shorn of most of its sleaze. The S&M-flavored torture scene at the beginning has been trimmed almost to the point of complete excision, and an especially jarring edit cuts the bulk of the sex scene with Robert and Eve. There may be more missing, but these two changes are the ones that really stand out. On the other hand, the currently available legitimate home video version, which goes by the original English title, The Curse of the Crimson Altar, features all the footage missing from the expurgated American version, but suffers from a different kind of defacement. The very effective orchestral score with which the movie played in theaters (preserved in the version you’ll see on cable in the States) has reputedly been replaced with unbelievably cheesy electronic keyboard music, which can’t possibly fail to undermine the movie’s impact. To the best of my knowledge, the only way to see the film uncut with the original soundtrack intact is to get your hands on a bootleg version I saw for sale on the internet once, in which somebody had dubbed the audio track from The Crimson Cult over the video elements from The Curse of the Crimson Altar. I don’t know about you, but I think this looks like a job for Anchor Bay.