Acting legend Boris Karloff, whose career started in silent films, before becoming a worldwide superstar (aged 44, and certainly not an overnight success) with Universal Pictures’ Frankenstein (1931), had already appeared in The Sorcerers and returned to Tigon once again despite ill health and respiratory problems. Joining him was Christopher Lee, also a familiar face in horror films due to his work with Hammer and Amicus. Although not quite as well known, another two genre icons would also make appearances in the movie, Michael Gough and Barbara Steele.
Gough had built a solid reputation with work on TV and movies, but really found an audience with low budget horror and thrillers such as Horrors of the Black Museum (1959), Konga (1961), Black Zoo (1963), and They Came from Beyond Space (1967). Although he only plays a minor role in this film, his presence is certainly felt, and, as always, he leaves an indelible mark on the proceedings. Steele, on the other hand, was perhaps lesser known at the time, although the Cheshire-born actor had made an impact in Italian films such as Mario Bava’s The Mask of Satan (La maschera del demonio, 1960) - a film so shocking that the UK censors refused to grant a certificate until 1968, under the title Black Sunday, not long before the release of Crimson Altar - and Riccardo Freda’s The Terror of Dr Hichcock (L'orribile segreto del Dr. Hichcock, 1962). Here, she plays Lavinia Morley, a persecuted witch, who haunts the dreams of our hero.
Robert Manning (Mark Eden, who would become a familiar face on British TV several decades later when he played evil Alan Bradley in Coronation Street) is an antique dealer who is concerned for his brother Peter, who seems to have disappeared not long after sending him some interesting items. He heads to his last known whereabouts, Craxton Lodge, but the owner, J. D. Morley (Lee), informs him that Peter has never been there. However, being a decent sort, he invites Robert to stay; even though the locals are preparing for their annual memorial of the burning of the witch Morley - an ancestor of the lord of the house. Now, since Robert has already ingratiated himself with Morley’s daughter, Eve (Virginia Wetherell), who is the midst of a swinging party with her friends - complete with body painting, fighting girls, passed out blokes, and toffs spraying champers over each other in the most homoerotic manner possible, only to have a bored-looking lady pour the remains over her boobs - he snaps up the offer to stay. This party isn’t anything sinister or kinky, though. It’s more akin to an art school freak out than a satanic rite.
Eve shows Robert to his bedroom and he’s clearly impressed with the surroundings, “It’s a bit like one of those old houses in horror films”, he quips. “I expect Boris Karloff is going to pop up at any moment.” A cheeky in-joke of the type rarely done at the time.
Now, as we’ve already been privy to the fact that Peter (Denys Peak) has been involved somehow with a bizarre and erotic Black Mass ceremony involving half-naked men, a woman with nipple pasties, a whip, and a strange-coloured Barbara Steele, then it’s clear there’s more to the memorial than meets the eye. Robert is unnerved during the night by a dream of the ritual, too. But it was so vivid, almost real; it couldn’t have actually happened, could it? Well, yes, of course, it did. He also uncovers that his brother did, in fact, stay there, but under the alias that he used so as not to arouse suspicion among the wealthy whose antiques he wished to buy at knock-down prices.
The academic who lives next door comes to pay a visit, and Robert is invited to meet him. Professor March (Karloff) is an amiable chap, even bringing along some of his rarest vintage brandy; something that’s lost on Robert. He is an expert on the occult and clearly knows more about what’s going on than he lets on. He does invite Robert to view his extensive collection of instruments of torture. Not an offer you get every day, we’re sure.
As the celebrations for the memorial gets underway, Robert and Eve start to get closer - he’s a fast worker is our Bob, making a play for the poor girl almost straight away - and they head out to watch the ceremonial bonfire and some rather reckless use of fireworks (Karloff almost gets one in the face, which surely wasn’t in the script).
When Robert has another ‘dream’ of a ritual, in which he’s being made to sign a witch’s confession, he sees his brother, who has been made a slave of the Priestess Lavinia. He even ends up sleepwalking and is just saved from walking into a lake by a friendly neighbourhood policeman. He takes Robert back to the house and he goes knocking on Eve’s bedroom door, clearly a little distressed. Now, since Robert has already shown his ‘interest’, shall we say (essentially throwing himself at Eve), it might be a little naïve for her to answer her bedroom door to a potential sex pest in a short nightie. And even more so to let him lie in her single bed with him. Still, this was a different age, clearly. And lo and behold, the four-poster bed is soon a-rocking. When he finally makes it back to his own room, he comes across a secret door - one that leads to the room in his ‘dreams’.
Robert goes to see the Professor and learns that he is, in fact, the last descendant of the witch’s chief accuser - and she won’t rest until she is avenged.
We won’t spoil the rest of the plot, but there are twists and turns aplenty and it is certainly a bigger success as a movie than director Vernon Sewell’s previous Tigon picture, The Blood Beast Terror (1968), which is quite a struggle to re-watch these days (and star Peter Cushing wasn’t particularly enamoured with at the time).
Curse of the Crimson Altar is loosely based on the H. P. Lovecraft story The Dreams in the Witch House, and was retitled The Crimson Cult for its 1970 release in the US. The story is almost a predecessor to The Wicker Man with its basis of a missing person and rituals but has much more going for it than a lot of people give it credit for. Not least the stellar cast and vivid colour palette.
Although all the elements of the film work perfectly, it could have been much different. Karloff was originally cast as the villain, playing to type, but his ill health gave producers fears that he may not be able to finish filming. Before production began, the aging actor was dropped from the role and the search was on for an equally recognisable name. Attempts to sign Vincent Price would have meant delaying the start of the project, so Christopher Lee was contracted. It was just a week before the cameras were due to roll that Tigon changed their minds on Karloff, rather callously figuring that they’d have paid him whether he lived or died anyway. A smaller part was hastily written by associate producer Gerry Levy.
His new role in place, all the scenes involving Boris were shot first. It was by no means an easy shoot for the legend, however. Frail, ill, and confined to a wheelchair, the filming took place during several cold December nights. No matter how sad the image of the frail and actor is, he gave 100 percent and is as memorable and engaging as he ever was. Even opposite Christopher Lee (whom he’d worked with on Corridors of Blood in 1958), the star shone brightly, delivering his lines with his trademark beautiful lisping voice. A brilliant gag has his character raving about a vintage brandy, only for Mark Eden’s Robert Manning to down it as if it were water; leaving the academic scoffing at his young guest. Clearly a very proud man right to the end, Karloff actually insisted on walking in one scene (towards the end of the film), something that left him in intense pain and breathless. He was adamant that the audience didn’t only see him confined to his chair. The freezing shoot did get the better of him, however, and he was hospitalised for a while with a bad cold. He recovered, and returned to Hollywood, where he fulfilled his obligations of appearing in four low-budget Mexican horror films. He passed away in February 1969, a mere two months after Curse of the Crimson Altar’s UK release. The four Mexican movies were all released several years after the legend’s death and are a sorry way to remember the great man. As a more fitting swan song, Peter Bogdanovich’s superb Targets (1968) and Sewell’s Crimson Altar are better ways to remember the career of an actor who brought chills, thrills, and many smiles to the faces of his adoring public.
CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR is screening on HORROR CHANNEL.
Sky 319, Virgin 149, Freeview 70, Freesat 138.