What would it have been like to have the Universal monsters meet Hammer Horror in Italy? I like to think that the outcome of that meeting would be glorious. Though their eventual meeting was less than what we've dreamed up, it was still an interesting glimpse into the possibilities that would soon cease to be. I'm talking of course about “The Curse of the Crimson altar.” Starring three horror icons and boasting a supporting cast of stars in their own right, this film will live on if only for that reason.
"Crimson altar" features the godfather of universal horror, Boris Karloff, in his final completed role as Prof. John Marsh, an expert in witchcraft and the occult, how fitting for one of the first true masters of horror. He is joined by his hammer films counterpart in many ways, the seemingly immortal Christopher Lee. Lee plays J.D. Morley, a sinister man if ever there was one. And then, of course, we have Barbara Steele as the ancient witch in green paint no less (or blue depending on your particular print).It sounds awesome right? It’s not really but it’s enjoyable for what it is.
Robert Manning (Mark Eden) is in search of his brother Peter, who disappeared while in the country looking for antiques. His search leads him to a small forgotten town and a man named Morely. Morley says he never heard of Peter but Robert is welcome to stay at Craxton Lodge. Having nothing else going on, he does so and thus meets Morley’s ridiculously hot daughter Eve (Virginia Wetherell) and ends up all brother Peter, who’s that? Maybe they weren’t very close. He also meets the witchcraft expert extraordinaire, Prof. John Marsh, now isn’t that handy? He’s gonna need all the help he can get because soon he begins having dreams about beautiful witch Barbara Steele, who asks him to sign his name in her big black book. Will he succumb to her wishes? How is J.D. Marsh involved? Whose side is Prof. Marsh really on?
This film has a bad reputation that I feel comes from high expectations. Sure, it by Tigon films, considered the low end of British horror in their day, but still, this film suffers from having a merely serviceable script and an exceptional cast. If the film was cast with lesser known actors instead of three horror heavyweights, I doubt it would have been so harshly criticized. Mark Eden actually stands his ground against the living legends and there is also good support from Michal Gough as the village idiot manservant Elder.
Besides the awesome cast, I did like the way the two worlds are presented very differently. The opening scenes take place in swinging London, filled with hot Mod girlies in all manner of undress and intoxication. But when Robert leaves in search of his brother, there is a shift and the film becomes very Gothic in intent and traditionally creepy. Not unlike The Wickerman, this movie has two distinct realities.
The film is based on H. P. Lovecraft’s "The Dreams in the Witch House" but buyers beware, there is little to nothing at all in common with Lovecraft. This film was made in 1968, long before we realized that we can’t make Lovecraft stories into films (Re-animator and From Beyond being exceptions). For a better crack at the story, check out “Dreams in the Witch House” from season 1 of Masters of Horror, directed by Stuart Gordon.
It’s a slow paced film with good atmosphere, creepy costumes and great actors. It’s kind of a town with a secret story, not too inventive but it sports some interesting moments. In the end, this is Karloff’s final film and the only one he does with fellow legends Lee and Steele. Though not what we would have liked, it stands as a reminder of all the things that could have been.
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