Written by: Mervyn Haisman & Henry Lincoln (screenplay, Jerry Sohl (story)
Directed by: Vernon Sewell
Starring: Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee and Mark Eden
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Come face to face with naked fear on the altar of evil!
A couple of years ago, I received a book for Christmas titled 333 Movies to Scare You to Death, which I would definitely recommend, especially if youíre just getting into this sort of thing. It does dig a bit deeper into some obscure stuff, though; when I first cracked it open, I did so with the expectation that Iíd just be reading about a bunch of movies Iíd either seen or at least was overly familiar with. This was mostly the case, but I did manage to come across a handful of titles that Iíd never heard of. Most noteworthy among these was The Crimson Cult (aka Curse of the Crimson Altar), whose existence somehow escaped my knowledge despite its gathering of Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, and Barbara Steele. I immediately had to figure out how this hadnít landed in my collection yet and discovered there was a good reason for this: itís not available on Region 1 DVD, which was dismaying indeed since a cult-themed flick with this cast demands to be seen by me.
This story has a happy ending, though, as the film eventually popped up on Netflix, where I found it to be a pretty rote play on films Iíve seen a dozen times before. Stop me if youíve heard this one before: a man (Mark Eden) dashes off to a remote village in the English countryside in search of his brother who recently disappeared there. Upon his arrival, no one knows where his brother is, but he has conveniently arrived just in time for an annual celebration that commemorates the burning of infamous witch Lavinia Morley (Steele). He is greeted amicably by J.D. Morley (Lee), who even offers him a room in his large mansion, an overture that seems a little too inviting.
And indeed, even Eden himself is a little off-put by the huge, gothic mansion, which Morleyís niece (Virginia Wetherell) remarks as resembling a ďhouse from one of those old horror films.Ē Eden quickly shoots back that ďitís like Boris Karloff is going to pop up at any moment,Ē hinting that these characters may be a little bit more prescient than most--but then Karloff actually does get wheeled into the film (heís mostly wheelchair bound here, likely to do declining health) and The Crimson Cult becomes just another movie where youíre waiting for the main character to realize heís been plopped into a conspiracy. To its credit, The Crimson Cult does a good job of never quite revealing the depth of its conspiracy; anyone who has seen a movie like this knows that neither Lee nor Karloff can really be trusted, especially when the latter practically mugs for the camera and declares his love for ďimplements of tortureĒ (though, to be fair, he is an antiques collector). Wetherellís character is similarly hard to pin down as Edenís love interest, especially since sheís related to Leeís character.
While the backend of The Crimson Cult is a little clumsy with its reveals, it manages to subtly surprise, I suppose. I kind of wish it had kept its meta-tinged smarts a little more since it devolves so quickly into what can best be described as a B-side to The Devil Rides Out. Itís perhaps also a subtle precursor to The Wicker Man, though Edenís character isnít inhabited with nearly the amount of smarminess as Edward Woodward; in fact, heís probably the weak link thatís outshined by everyone surrounding him, especially since heís just reduced to a mere vessel to uncover plot twists and turns. He admittedly does skulk about a creepily-dressed mansion and a moonlit graveyard, and thereís a sense of pure, dreary isolation surrounding the events. When Eden isnít doing this, heís having vivid fever dreams that involve a Satanic ritual being overseen by Steele (who never actually shares the screen with her famous horror co-stars); decked out in blue body paint and some ridiculous head garb, she resembles something out of exotic antiquity rather than the witches weíre accustomed to. Her voice is also made to warble and echo to add to the dreamy, otherworldly quality of these sequences.
The Crimson Cultís pedigree is no doubt impressive--in addition to the aforementioned cast members, it can also boast Michael Gough creeping around as the shady butler. Its script is also vaguely based on Lovecraftís ďDreams of the Witch House,Ē which Stuart Gordon would later adapt for a Masters of Horror episode. Lovecraftís story is ultimately much more disturbing than this adaptation, which features very little on screen violence, though Wetherell does flash exactly one of her breasts and her entire bare ass, both of which likely felt scandalous in their day (coincidentally enough, she would feature in one of the schlockier Hammer films, Demons of the Mind). You can argue that The Crimson Cultís biggest failing is that it feels too familiar if you come into it after seeing similar films; itís not especially poorly-told, particularly since Lee and Karloff turn in solid performances (the latter seems downright sprightly, even).
With a more compelling lead at its center, Crimson Cult might have been that buried treasure I was hoping itíd be; instead, this just feels like the type of film for which instant streaming services were created. While its production values (and busty beauties) resemble those of contemporary AIP or Hammer Films, this was actually produced by the short-lived Tigon British company that managed to churn out better demonic and witchcraft movies in the form of Witchfinder General and Blood on Satanís Claw. I donít know that Iíd call The Crimson Cult a disappointment; it perhaps doesnít quite live up to its incredible pedigree, but itís no worse than any other middle-of-the-road Brit cult flick from the same era. Had it actually been released on DVD a few years ago, it would have been a blind buy, but itís kind of comforting to now live in an age where you can immediately sample it--in HD, no less. Rent it!
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