Curse Of The Crimson Altar (1968)

FEBRUARY 9, 2011


Early on in Curse Of The Crimson Altar (called The Crimson Cult in the US, though the Netflix print has the Altar title), our hero goes to a party filled with mod chicks, lots of drugs, awful dancing... in other words, it looked like something out of an Austin Powers movie. And I sighed, because I was afraid the whole movie was going to be like that, and I really wasn’t in the mood. Luckily, the “groovy” elements were kept to a minimum after that, and I was able to enjoy this slightly slow but charming and offbeat “guy stumbles upon a cult” movie.

The coolest thing is (spoiler for 43 year old movie ahead!) that more characters are heroic than you’d expect. I’m used to these sort of movies ending with pretty much everyone being in on the cult and turning on the hero, so I was pleasantly surprised when Christopher Lee (obviously a villain – no surprise there) attacked our hero’s love interest, as I assumed there would be a “twist” where she turned out to be part of (or even the leader of) the cult. Especially because she was so open to his rather forward advances, not once but twice he more or less ignores her protests and macks on her (and on the second time, they go all the way). Seemed to me she was just playing the part, or maybe WAS starting to fall for him and then would have to choose at the end.... nope, she’s just a nice girl who believes in “No means Oh might as well”.

Well she’s not in on it, but surely Boris Karloff must be, right? Nope! He turns out to be the movie’s real hero – he realizes what Lee is up to and thus springs into action, saving our protagonist (Mark Eden) and the girl with the help of his mute bodyguard. What kind of non-villain has a mute bodyguard? This movie’s all about circumventing the clich├ęs I have come to expect in these things. That or maybe the screenwriter just felt bad for his earlier, awful joke where Eden first walks around the big mansion where the cult has their HQ (in a secret room of course) and remarks that it looks like “something out of a horror movie” and also that he expects “Boris Karloff to walk out any minute”. Was that the first terrible meta joke in film history? Anyway, it was another groaner moment early on that momentarily convinced me that this movie would suck.

(Oh, and someone SHOULD feel bad – it was on this film, during a cold and rainy exterior shoot, that Karloff got pneumonia – he would only complete 2-3 more pictures before dying a year later.)

I do wish there was a little more, er, “horror” in the movie. Most of the action is confined to dream sequences (or ARE they?!?!) that the hero experiences, where he sees the cult doing their thing, led by Barbara Steele, who is painted up and dressed like a space alien you might see Captain Kirk trying (and succeeding) to nail. And Lee does most of his stuff off-screen; at one point he begins a scuffle with the hero and then there’s a fade to where he already has him tied to a chair. The rest of the movie is pretty much just Eden wandering around the house, finding clues that prove his brother WAS there despite Lee’s insistence that he wasn’t, and hitting on the girl. I was entertained, but even if I was a kid I wouldn’t find much to be scared about.

They also leave a few things unexplained, like: what the hell is with the fake cobwebs? Eden grabs at them, points out that they are fake, and then the matter is never mentioned again. Given the “Karloff” joke earlier in the movie, I wasn’t sure if it was supposed to be another meta-gag or what. It’s also unclear what Lee was actually trying to accomplish by kidnapping Eden (or the girl for that matter) – I assume it was some sort of sacrifice, but Eden was unconscious for a while, so why didn’t he just do it?

So I dunno, it’s nothing great, but kind of charming all the same. It’s nice to see a movie about a cult that apparently hasn’t been able to recruit the entire town, and Karloff, Lee, and Steele (not to mention a small turn by Michael Gough) are always welcome in my house. Final note - like every other 60s horror movie, it was loosely based on a Lovecraft tale (“Dreams In The Witch House”), but you’d never know it from watching it, as the similarities are incredibly thin (it’s one of the few HPL stories I’ve read!). Basically they both involve a guy in a house having dreams.

What say you?


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