When a man’s brother goes missing, he travels to the last place he was heard from in a remote country house in a small English village. After being welcomed with open arms by the house’s proprietor and his lascivious niece, he soon begins to feel that all may not be well with his missing sibling; as the legend of Lavinia Morley, Black Witch of Greymarsh starts to seem more and more real.
I’m not going to jerk your chain on this one, it’s quite the let down. With such horror icons as Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee and Barbara Steele involved, and based upon H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreams in the Witch House, one would think such a film would be at least notable if nothing short of spectacular yet Vernon Sewell’s (The Blood Beast Terror, Burke and Hare) penultimate film promises much and never manages to deliver. The premise is sound enough; Robert Manning, an antique dealer searching for his brother, ends up at this creepy old house where the owner’s niece, Eve (Virginia Wetherell; A Clockwork Orange, Demons of the Mind), is throwing some kind of debaucherous soiree. He smoothly inserts himself into the situation while Eve proceeds to be more of a cocktease than anything else. Once he’s inside he meets Morley (Christopher Lee; Horror of Dracula, Whip and the Body), the aforementioned uncle and man of the house who along with his aged companion and expert on witchcraft Professor Marsh (Boris Karloff; Frankenstein, The Mummy) invite Robert to stay as long as he needs to in order to get the affair sorted. Robert begins poking his nose about and soon learns about the annual local festival surrounding the legend of Lavinia Morley, the Black Witch of Greymarsh (Barbara Steele; Black Sunday, Piranha). Soon after, Robert begins to have strange dreams surrounding the legend, waking up in strange places and confused. Determined to get to the bottom of his brother’s disappearance, Robert starts snooping about and asking a lot of questions, finally slips the tube steak to Eve, and has awkward conversations with an increasingly irritable Morley. Any connection to the classic Lovecraft tale is completely lost on me; to call it loosely-based would be an understatement to say the least.
As one would assume, the acting in Curse of the Crimson Altar couldn’t be better, with everyone involved bringing the morose characters to life with astounding skill. The settings as well are wonderfully gloomy; creepy mist-veiled graveyards, a pagan witch-burning celebration set at a forgotten village crossroads at night, human sacrifice at the titular crimson altar with Witch Morley presiding over her blasphemous court; the film is rife with spooky atmosphere. Being made in the 60s there’s a fair bit of psychedelia woven into the film as well that serves as a contrast to all the dreariness; I lost count as to how many times I had a kaleidoscope shoved in my face while watching it. There are also many scenes involving bright flashing colors and the like; the party scene at the beginning as well as the “dream” sequences involving Lavinia’s vile blood ritual. It all ties together nicely, the film is very solid and well put together as a whole. Where it goes limp is in its execution, as it’s clearly more about the journey here; there’s a ton of build-up and suspense that keeps the plot somewhat interesting and then it fizzles out disappointingly. In fact the way the end plays out it would have made a far better episode of Scooby Doo than a horror film.
There’s no gore at all and a scant amount of T&A (courtesy of Ms. Wetherell); even the “racy” party is far too tame for what they were trying to achieve. That being said, the ritual scenes with Barbara Steele are exceptionally done; her makeup and attire is striking and very memorable, and if the film had gone more in that devil-worship direction it surely wouldn’t have turned out as dull and limp-wristed as it did.
I can’t in good conscience recommend this film to any but the most die-hard fans of British horror, and even those would probably only be interested based on the film’s obscurity.
Official COSDS Nunspank Rating:
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Duane co-founded The Church of Splatter-Day Saints in 2005. When not immersed in film he's enjoying good whiskey, smoking meat in the backyard or thinking about sluts. He makes a damn fine habanero fire sauce.