Monday, November 24, 2014

Bloody Hell! It's British Horror Week! - Curse of the Crimson Altar (Vernon Sewell, 1968)

For the second part of my impromptu Boris Karloff's birthday celebrations last night, I decided to check out today's movie, which I'd never seen. It seemed appropriate as it was supposedly Boris's last British movie (yesterday's film, The Ghoul, being his first). And very strangely (i.e. I only discovered this a few hours ago) it also features someone he shares his birthday with, who is a horror movie fan favourite in his own right, Michael Gough! And that's Alfred from Burton's Batman for you young whippersnappers wondering who I'm talking about!

Also starring horror icons Christopher Lee and Barbara Steele (seen above, looking even scarier than usual), the film follows antiques dealer Robert Manning (Mark Eden), who is looking for his missing brother. His search leads him to the seemingly remote Craxted Lodge, where he wanders into a party full of swinging hippies and is soon escorted to meet the house's owner, Morley (Christopher Lee, plus moustache) by his lovely niece Eve (Virginia Wetherell). During a discussion regarding Manning's missing brother, he and Morley are soon joined by a Professor Marshe (Karloff!), who, when not rolling his eyes at Manning's lack of appreciation for his brandy, is generally helping twist the creepiness dial (located next to the lever opening the secret passage) up higher and higher.

Staying at the house overnight, Manning starts to experience seriously freaky dreams (featuring some great late 60s kaleidoscopic trippiness), involving a green skinned Barbara Steele (who we later learn, without giving anything away, is the witch Lavinia) and numerous folk, some clad in occult attire and others in S & M gear... for some reason.

I'll halt the synopsis right there, which should hopefully pique the interest of anyone unfamiliar with the film (S & M gear and Barbara Steele? Come on people! Even if she's not wearing it they're still in damn close proximity!). Personally, I found it a lot of fun. All the cast were on fine form and Boris, despite being very close to the end of his life by then, proves he still knew how to steal a scene or two here. I also really liked the leading dude for some reason, played by Mark Eden (that's him above this block of text). He had a long career, encompassing film, TV and theatre it seems and appeared in things as various as the Quatermass and the Pit serial (we'll be looking at the film later this month), The Prisoner (he played Number 100 in the episode titled "It's Your Funeral") and he was famously killed off in the UK soap (and national institution) Coronation Street by a Blackpool tram of all things. I never saw that when it aired but I remember seeing a clip when visiting Granada Studios as a kid and for some reason it freaked me out a bit.

Also fairly engaging was the female lead, played by Virginia Wetherell (the blonde seen above). Barbara Steele doesn't get loads to do, her role her being mainly to look striking and scary but still beautiful, which she does perhaps better than anyone I can think of, so her presence in the film is certainly perfectly placed. Christopher Lee gives a fine performance as always of course. And last but not least, good old Michael Gough goes all out, managing to invoke both suspicion and pathos at different times as Morley's servant, Elder.

I couldn't find a photo of him from the movie but stumbled across this gif and had to share it... just don't stare at it too long folks! 

Supposedly this was based somewhat on Lovecraft's "The Dream's in the Witch House" and while I've only read the start of that story, I did see all of Stuart Gordon's excellent adaptation for the Masters of Horror TV series, so can certainly see where it inspired this. Also of note is the excellent cinematography, by John Coquillon, whose other credits include Witchfinder General, The Changeling and a few films for Sam Peckinpah. Even for a late 60s movie this is delightfully colourful and worth watching for its visuals alone. Despite only one viewing, the recent UK Blu Ray release (by Odeon - I think - who seem to be putting out a lot of British horror movies these days, bless their souls) is looking mighty tempting already! Definitely worth a look for fans of the icons involved and/or those who like movies of this vintage. And a fitting British swansong for Karloff I'd say!

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