Okay. Say you've got a horror movie--and it is co-produced by two companies well versed in cinematic exploitation, Tigon and American-International. And say that this horror movie stars Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, Barbara Steele, and Michael Gough. This has got to be one of the best horror movies ever made, right??
The American title of this film is THE CRIMSON CULT, and the British title is CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR. For some reason, Kino Lorber's new Blu-ray of the film has THE CRIMSON CULT title on the disc cover, despite the fact that the actual movie on the disc has the British title. No matter what you call it, this picture is somewhat of a disappointment.
The movie's plot revolves around one of the oldest horror movie cliches--a leading character trying to find out what has happened to a relative/friend/significant other who has mysteriously disappeared. Here the leading character is Robert Manning (Mark Eden), who is searching for his brother. Robert's quest takes him to a small British village called Greymarsh, and a spooky old house called Craxted Lodge. The affable squire of the Lodge, Morley (Christopher Lee), tells Robert he has no idea where his brother may be, but he does allow Robert to stay at the house while he conducts his search. There Robert joins up with Morley's attractive niece Eve (Virginia Wetherell), and the duo learn that there may be more to the local legend of executed witch Lavinia Morley than just fable.
The Gothic Icon Barbara Steele plays Lavinia, and even though she looks morbidly splendid in her green makeup and outlandish costume (see picture below), she has very little screen time. The scenes in which Steele does appear are all somewhat removed from the main story, and we don't even get to see her interact with Christopher Lee or Boris Karloff whatsoever.
As for Karloff, he plays local Professor Marsh, an expert on witchcraft. Karloff's character is really just set up to be a red herring, but it's always a treat to see him, even though in this case the circumstances concerning his health were not good. This movie was filmed in early 1968, and Karloff unfortunately had to film a number of scenes outside on cold, wet nights (when one watches this Blu-ray it is easy to see the actors' breath while they are outdoors). Karloff actually did become sick during this production, and he passed away a year later. It's sad that the great man would jeopardize himself on such a lesser film, but he still gives it his all, despite for the most part being confined to a wheelchair.
Christopher Lee is rather understated as Morley, but without trying to give away the ending to this movie, there's a reason why he seems so low-key. Michael Gough plays Morley's dim-witted servant, and taking an actor like Gough, who had such a ripe way of delivering dialogue, and making him almost mute is one of the many mistakes committed by this film.
Mark Eden, who basically plays the "David Manners" role (ironically enough, his character's last name is Manning), has more screen time than the four horror legends put together. That alone should tell you what is wrong with this movie. He's not bad....but when you watch THE CRIMSON ALTAR, you don't want to spend most of your time looking at Mark Eden walking around (which he does a lot of). Virginia Wetherell doesn't have much to do--her best contribution to the story is spending most of her time wearing a mini-skirt. Wetherell would later appear in a few Hammer features and she even wound up marrying one-time Hammer leading man Ralph Bates.
The story of this picture is supposedly based on H. P Lovecraft's Dreams in the Witch House, but any resemblance between Lovecraft's work and this movie is purely coincidental. Director Vernon Sewell made other 1960s genre films, such as THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR, and his typical old-fashioned style doesn't do much to improve the final product. There's some supposed "naughty stuff" interjected in the film, such as a bizarre Witch's Coven and a drunken rave, but these scenes just stick out like a sore thumb.
What really makes this Blu-ray relevant are the extras features. There's a 47-minute program called "British Legends of Stage and Screen--Sir Christopher Lee", which is a 2012 look at Lee's career. The show has a extensive interview with Lee, and it is all the more poignant considering that Lee only passed away a couple weeks ago. I've watched (or read) many interviews with Lee, and on some of them he has come off as a bit austere, but here he's warm and reflective. This extra is a must-see for any hardcore Christopher Lee fan.
The Blu-ray contains an audio commentary with film historian David Del Valle and Barbara Steele. This is a great showcase for Steele, as she gets a chance to be articulate and perceptive about not just this film, but her career and movies in general. One wishes she had even more to say during the commentary.
One thing about this Blu-ray is that it does NOT feature the original music score for the film by Peter Knight. The score here is one by Kendall Schmidt. The reason for this is explained in a 13 minute interview with Schmidt. During the mid 1980s, Orion Pictures acquired the rights to the American-International film library, but they were not able to get the music rights for many of the films. Orion hired Schmidt to compose totally new scores for several famous horror, science-fiction, and exploitation films. For many years on home video releases, Schmidt's scores were still being used. You have to give credit to Kino for not trying to sweep this under the rug, and coming out and admitting that this release has a alternate music score. Some on the internet have expressed disapproval at Kino for releasing the Blu-ray without the original score, but in all honesty you could have Ennio Morricone do new music for THE CRIMSON CULT and it wouldn't make the movie any better.
THE CRIMSON CULT is another example of a horror-film team up that doesn't live up to expectations. This happened all the time in the 1960s and 1970s--check out titles like SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN, THE OBLONG BOX, and MADHOUSE. Apparently producers felt all you had to do was put the names on the posters and the movie would work. But if you don't give those names something to do, and you don't give those names a chance to successfully interact with one another....you get a movie like THE CRIMSON CULT, where what the movie could have been is more interesting than what it is.
Hardcore classic horror fans will certainly pick this title up, especially for the extras. Kino does a fine job on making these mediocre films a worthy buy. It's sad, however, that the only movie co-starring Karloff, Lee, Steele, and Gough isn't more worthy.
Barbara Steele, looking morbidly splendid as Lavinia