The lame cult of Lovecraft: A critical review of “Curse of the Crimson Altar” (1968)

With H. P. Lovecraft’s birthday just passed, it’s a good time to reflect. Now that Cthulhu is a household name, it seems like if you want to say something is “Lovecraftian” all you have to do is slap some tentacles and a couple of consonants that should not be next to each other on it and call it a day. Heck, in the family-friendly “Minecraft” clone this blog finally got to download, there’s a Cthulhu reference on the second level.

There was a time when things weren’t that simple, but they were a bit weirder. In the 60s and 70s, movies and TV shows like “The Haunted Palace,” “Die Monster Die!” and “Night Gallery” weren’t just subtly Lovecraftian–they were at times uncertain of their own Lovecraftian nature.

One such movie is British film “The Curse of the Crimson Altar” (known as “The Crimson Cult” in the States). Cosmic horror aficionados have long tied it to the short story “The Dreams in a Witch House,” and there is reason for that, but it would be generous to call it an adaptation. I have a theory on that. So is it any good? Hold on there, octopus fans. I have a theory on that too. I have a theory on everything. I’ve got a blog.

Antiques dealer Robert Manning (Mark Eden) is looking for his missing brother. A fellow antiques dealer, he was up in remote Greymarsh, their ancestral hometown, looking for old vases and stuff. Manning arrives at Craxted Lodge, his brother’s last known location. There he encounters the stuffy lodge owner (Christopher Lee), an aging occult expert (Boris Karloff) and a crazy swinging’ party. The early-to-bed kind, Manning takes the lodge owner’s offer to spend the night. He starts having nightmares of a witch cult led by a horned goddess (Barbara Steele) that seem to have disturbingly more substance than mere dreams.

I wanted to say that “Crimson” shoots its cinematic load early–the film opens with a Satanic ritual, fully replete in chains, body paint and skimpy leather underwear, then transitions into an antiquing thriller–but the movie never stops trying. As soon as our hero starts investigating his missing brother, he runs into a flight of cars chasing a giggling woman who’s wearing a sheer unitard in what the film, with tongue firmly in cheek, calls a “sophisticated hide and seek.” When he gets directions from a strange after-hours gas station attendant, our hero arrives at the creepy lodge at the outskirts of town, which is hosting a Champagne-fueled swingers party with more body paint and underwear. To call this film a product of its time would be putting it mildly.

In case you weren’t paying attention, that’s a who’s who of 60s horror up there. Lee, Karloff, Steele. Michael Gough is lurking around as well, playing a stuttering butler who gets to Renfield it up around the Lodge. Every one of them does as well as you’d expect. Steele is in fine form, all stony menace, although surprisingly absent for much of the film. Lee does his best with a somewhat underwritten role, and Karloff is superb, bringing both warmth and sly malice to a stock absented minded professor character. “Crimson” was his last film released during his lifetime, and one would be a fool not to appreciate Karloff’s presence, even if the movie itself is much less solid.

The film’s conflicted nature is revealed in its soundtrack. The score–by Peter Knight, the guy who orchestrated the symphonic parts of the Moody Blues album “Days of Future Passed”–is lush and full and stirring, and consequently feels disconnected from a psychological horror film about witch cults.

Here is this blog’s theory. The story of “Crimson” is credited to Jerry Sohl, who wrote the aforementioned “Die Monster Die!” However, the screenplay is credited to Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln, BBC jobbers who wrote for shows like “Doctor Who” and “The Avengers.” My guess is they took Sohl’s concept, which was probably closer to Lovecraft, and swung it up. Notably, during pre-production, the project was called “Dreams in a Witch House,” only becoming the splashier “Crimson Altar” later.

Does it make a difference that Sohl is from Los Angeles and Haisman and Lincoln were from London? Naw. Not even worth mentioning.

What we’re left with is a film devoid of creepy atmosphere and an ending that seems aware of what genre its going for but uncertain of how to get there. Likewise, the hero is one of the least genre savvy I’ve seen in a horror film. The stuttering butler tells him to “get out,” so what does he do? He goes to the local cemetery. The same night no less.

This is not a film to watch for its restraint. There is some atmosphere, but it’s courtesy less of the creepy mansion and more of the psychedelic dreams. The nightmare sequences are a real trip, all multicolored lamps and surreal trial sequences, that seem to have as much to do with cosmic horror as they do with the British TV series “The Prisoner.” The production for those moments is fascinating. Have you ever seen a witch trippier than Steele’s Lavinia? Dig those commanding ram horns.

Unfortunately, the bulk of the film is a much more grounded affair. The direction, by Daniel Haller, is workmanlike. One does get to see plenty of nipples–both male and female–which probably confounded the UK’s film rating board. As far as Lovecraft goes, there are traces of whatever the original concept was (the Karloff character is called Marsh; the “great god Pan” is mentioned), but at best this movie acts as a bridge between the damp chill of “The Haunted Palace” and the dark woods of “The Wicker Man.”

In one scene, a witch’s horned henchman, wearing naught but a leather-and-chain bikini, plays cards while the hero is urged to sign away his soul to the green witch. The hero refuses, and the witch summons her henchman to take him away. The henchman scowls and throws down his hand. I feel for you, big guy.

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