Starting in 1960, American International Pictures (AIP) had been successfully associated with adapting the macabre writings of Edgar Allen Poe for an extended series of films which lasted over a decade. AIP had also dabbled in adapting the works of another influential writer of horror fiction, H.P. Lovecraft, with their releases of THE HAUNTED PALACE, DIE, MONSTER, DIE!, and later, THE DUNWICH HORROR. AIP’s United Kingdom liaison Lewis M. “Deke” Heyward was producer on Tony Tenser’s/Tigon’s THE CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR, which AIP distributed in the U.S as THE CRIMSON CULT; this “all star” modern gothic yarn now gets its first home video release in the digital age via a Blu-ray from Kino Lorber Studio Classics.
London antiques dealer Robert Manning (Mark Eden, SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON) is concerned about his missing brother who still hasn’t returned from a sales trip. A letter written on custom stationery leads Manning to give a call to the estate of Craxted Lodge in Greymarsh, where knowledge of his being there is denied. Manning takes it upon himself to drive to Greymarsh, arriving on a fireworks-charged celebratory night marking the burning of a witch known as Lavinia (complete with a reenactment on witch-garbed effigy), executed centuries earlier. He's greeted at the manor by young, blonde Eve (Virginia Wetherell, DEMONS OF THE MIND) and her wild party and its hip guests, where the ladies are body-painted, poured all over with champagne and have organized catfights! Manning is then greeted by Eve’s uncle and the head of the house, Mr. Morley (Christopher Lee, DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE) who reassures him that his missing brother was never there but offers him accommodations while he stays in town to take a look around. Later that night, Morley introduces Manning to the elderly Professor Marsh (Boris Karloff, THE SORCERERS) who happens to be an expert in witchcraft and a collector of “instruments of torture”. Manning quickly gathers clues that indicate his brother was there, takes time to romance Eve (who also helps in the investigation) and has recurring dreams of being in a strange room where Lavinia (Barbara Steele, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM) presides over satanic ceremonies where naked women are sacrificed and men are forced to sign a book with their own blood in order to surrender their souls.
THE CRIMSON CULT was loosely based on Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch House” and as anybody familiar with the film can tell you, it’s no British horror classic in a class with NIGHT OF THE DEMON, THE DEVIL RIDES OUT or THE WICKER MAN. But the film does hold a certain fascination on a number of levels and can be enjoyable for its exploitive fuse of homegrown English goth and psychedelic late 1960s hokum, as well as the undeniably significant team-up of genre superstars. Karloff was originally signed on to play the Lee role, and his bad health almost caused him to be removed from the project. But once it was learned he would contractually be paid whether he appeared in the film or not, he stayed on in the role of Marsh, confined to a wheelchair (and pushed around by a chauffeur played by Michael Warren, THE BODY STEALERS) for most of his screen time. Even though Karloff’s health was declining (he would pass away the year after this was filmed) he certainly gives his all to his character, displaying a rich sense of the sinister mixed with likeability and authority, and he delivers his lines with gusto. Even though this was not his final feature as advertised in U.S. (the four Mexican chillers made for Jack Hill followed) it’s fair to say this is a fitting, worthwhile entry in his horror credits in terms of the tail end of his career and what the actor was capable of doing in his advanced years. It’s also a real treat to see Lee and Karloff together on the big screen for the first and only time since CORRIDORS OF BLOOD, made ten years earlier. Lee also adds his usual touch of debonair class as well as his assured masterful menace in a role that which could otherwise be pedestrian.
British-born actress Steele had made her mark as an international horror star, mainly in Italian gothics starting with Mario Bava’s BLACK SUNDAY in 1960. THE CRIMSON CULT was actually her first British-made genre film, and the raven-haired siren proved ideal for this flamboyantly macabre role, one that is disjointed from the rest of the film (she shares no scenes with Karloff or Lee). As Lavinia, Steele is striking with her green bodypaint and exotic ram’s horns head-dress, and a ghostly sound effect added to her commanding voice. Steele’s scenes are limited to the nightmare witch room sequences, with its line of animal-masked jurors, hooded onlookers, and half-naked male and female torturers garbed in leathery S&M attire. These scenes are not only trippy, but they incorporate a kaleidoscope transition effect, very much of its era, representing the dreamer’s subconscious. Another horror legend of sorts, Michael Gough, is also seen as the dimwitted servant Elder, who is controlled by Lavinia (and seen sweeping the floors during her witch room ceremonies) and “guest star” Rupert Davies (THE BRIDES OF FU MANCHU) plays the local vicar. Eden and Wetherell are decent as the young leads, even though the youthful-looking Eden was pushing 40 at the time of shooting. Wetherell does display a bit of brief topless nudity, but when her character is seen naked from behind hopping out of bed, its actually a body double which the actress didn’t approve of.
THE CRIMSON CULT was made totally on locations, without a studio, and this gives the film the proper English countryside look, as it was largely shot in and around Grim’s Dyke, the former (supposedly haunted) house of William S. Gilbert of “Gilbert and Sullivan” fame, and it would later serve likewise for AIP’s last Vincent Price period horror, CRY OF THE BANSHEE. Cinematographer John Coquillon (WITCHFINDER GENERAL) does a great job with the limited-spaced interiors of Grim’s Dyke, as well as the more spacious exteriors, and director Vernon Sewell’s execution is fairly ordinary, given the material at hand. The screenplay, which strays from the original literary source a great deal, is credited to Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln, as well as associate producer Gerry Levy who had a hand in the re-writes (producer Heyward is also believed to have contributed some material). In the U.S., AIP shelved THE CRIMSON CULT until 1970 (after Karloff’s death) on a double bill with Michael Armstrong’s HAUNTED HOUSE OF HORROR (here known as HORROR HOUSE), yet in some areas it was paired with COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE. The film did well on the drive-in theater circuit, and often played on all-night “dusk to dawn” bills of AIP horrors throughout the 1970s.
THE CRIMSON CULT was never available on DVD in the U.S. (and as of this writing, it still isn’t) so this Blu-ray from Kino represents its premiere in the digital age, at least in this country. Using MGM’s full restored HD master, the 1080p transfer presents the film in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio (the packaging mistakenly says 1.85:1) and it looks stunning. Colors are vibrant and dead-on, fleshtones look natural and detail is extremely sharp. Contrasts are also quite good and black levels are deep, and when grain is on display it’s under control and filmic in appearance. The DTS-HD mono English track presents the dialogue clearly alongside the music and sound effects. Unfortunately, due to rights issues having to do with De Wolfe Music, Peter Knight’s original (and most fitting) score has been replaced with Kendall Schmidt’s synth replacement score (which was also found on the U.S. VHS and laserdisc releases from the early 1990s). Mind you, Schmidt’s creation might come off as inappropriate for a period horror film, but it’s not as detrimental to the film as were the re-scores for THE CONQUEROR WORM and SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN, back when Orion couldn’t clear music rights for a number of AIP titles. Purists can also seek out Odeon Entertainment's Region Free British Blu-ray (which came out in 2014 under the CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR title) which has the original score and some different extras (including a new featurette with stars Eden and Wetherell). MGM’s HD print carries the original CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR title, and Schmidt’s name has seamlessly been inserted into the opening credits for this Blu-ray presentation, replacing Knight’s.
Picked up from the U.K. Odeon Blu-ray is David Del Valle’s commentary with Barbara Steele. Steele starts by stating how cold the weather was and how the Grim’s Dyke house was filled with space heaters and that she loved her character’s costume. She talks about her famous co-stars (saying “I loved Michael Gough” and greatly admiring Lee’s dapper appearance in the film), and that it was a shame she didn’t have any scenes with them. The conversation does go off topic at times (Steele’s 1960s career in Italy, working with Fellini, working with Elvis Presley, Steele’s stint on the 1990s “Dark Shadows” series, etc.) but Del Valle fills in the background stuff and other interesting facts, and since he and Steele are long-time friends, their exchanges are consistently engaging and a real treat for fans of the actress. “In Conversation with Christopher Lee” (47:12) is an excellent 2012 career interview with the late legend (complete with stills and film clips), as he discusses his early days under contract at the Rank Organization, getting the role in Hammer’s THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, how he tried to get the sympathy of the audience in his numerous bad guy performances, his association with playing Dracula, THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, THE THREE MUSKETEERS, THE WICKER MAN, as well as Lee’s more recent successes in the “Star Wars” and “Lord of the Rings” franchises.
Exclusive to this Blu-ray, appropriately enough, is the featurette “Music Macabre” which is an interview with composer Kendall Schmidt (13:07). Schmidt talks about being a young composer in Hollywood back in the 1980s and knowing a friend of a friend in the legal department of Orion Pictures who offered him the job of re-scoring music in the AIP library which wasn’t cleared, starting with SLAUGHTER’S BIG RIP-OFF. He doesn’t remember much about re-scoring CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR specifically since he was going through a divorce at the time, but he does talk about how he went about doing the music for these films and that he was happy to get the well-paying gig of re-scoring movies which were totally new to him, even if it meant feeling scared and intimidated by outcries from diehard fans. Some of the titles discussed include SCORCHY, THE CONQUEROR WORM, PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES, UNHOLY ROLLERS, CRIME AND PASSION, SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN, MADHOUSE and JOURNEY TO THE SEVENTH PLANET (the latter two where he did one cut for each rather than an entire score). Rounding out the extras are the American theatrical trailer (which uses some of Les Baxter’s music for THE DUNWICH HORROR) and the British theatrical trailer (where you can hear bits of Knight’s original score). (George R. Reis)
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