THE CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR – late sixties British horror that ultimately frustrates more than it satisfies. Made in 1968, it was part of the first wave of features that came from Tony Tenser’s short-lived yet vital Tigon label. Already in the bag was the superb WITCHFINDER GENERAL which fell under the directorial supervision of wunderkind Michael Reeves, and also the less successful THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR which found Vernon Sewell in the director’s chair. Disappointingly for some it was Sewell that was to take the reins of THE CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR, but with a cast that includes venerable horror icons such as Lee, Karloff, Steele and Gough, you expect a worthier feature.
Antique dealer Robert (Mark Eden) discovers that his brother Peter has gone missing while on a business trip, so decides to go looking for him. His search takes him to an old manor run by an aristocrat by the name of Morley (Christopher Lee), but initial investigations by Robert lead to precious little information as to the whereabouts of his brother. Shortly after his arrival he becomes aware of the Morley family’s obsession with the Black Witch of Greymarsh – the legend of an ancestral witch called Lavinia (Barbara Steele) who was burned at the stake, but whose influence is certainly very much alive.
Despite not being credited, H.P Lovecraft’s DREAMS IN THE WITCH-HOUSE formed a notable influence on Jerry Sohl’s story – a screenwriter fresh from such TV series as THE OUTER LIMITS and THE TWILIGHT ZONE. With this origin you’d be justified in expecting elements of Lovecraftian macabre, but instead the film meanders along with no real spark or intensity. That said, some redemption can be found in Johnny Coquillon’s cinematography. Fresh from WITCHFINDER GENERAL his talents are a worthy highlight to the feature, and exhibit a technician who would go on to be DP on STRAW DOGS, CROSS OF IRON and THE CHANGELING. Let’s not forget Karloff too, wracked with arthritis, in the last year of his life, yet dominating every scene he’s in with a dignified authority that nudges you to acknowledge just how much of a pro this beloved icon was.
After 35 years spent in the British film industry shooting a legion of solid b-movies, I’m not convinced that Sewell was the best candidate for this film. His other genre pictures – GHOST SHIP from 1952 and HOUSE OF MYSTERY from 1961 – were passable at best, but with Peter Cushing labelling BLOOD BEAST TERROR the worst movie he’s been in, it’s not unfair to allege that Sewell simply wasn’t up to the task of creating something memorable from the considerable resources that were available – both in personnel and materials. The same goes for Mark Eden, a fine television actor, but he’s not a leading man and his scenes alongside Lee and Karloff expose his frailties.
Deficiencies of the feature aside, this release from Odeon elevate a passable picture to must-have status. The print quality is staggering – a clean, crisp and lush image is almost bereft of imperfections, and with a bombastic score of aural perfection it’s an edition that demands you seek it out. Added to this there’s a brand new commentary with Barbara Steele, moderated by the excellent David Del Valle who’s so good at gleaning snippets of on-set intrigue from Ms. Steele. There’s a making of that features new interviews with Mark Eden and Virginia Wetherell who primarily wax lyrical about working with such horror icons, while we’re also treated to a 45 minute conversation with Christopher Lee that was originally part of the British Legends of Stage and Screen series.