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July 03, 2015

The Crimson Cult

curse of crimson alter - lee.jpg

Vernon Sewell - 1968
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Talk about timing. What's best about this new blu-ray is that it comes with a 2012 documentary, taken from a television series, British Legends of the Stage and Screen, devoted to the career of Christopher Lee. We get to see Lee talk about the false starts to his acting career, how he almost became an opera singer, a bit about his parents and other relatives - Ian Fleming was his cousin, and his his thoughts on his iconic role as Dracula. There are clips from various films, including The Man with the Golden Gun, The Three Musketeers, and the film he was most proud of, Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Lee also talks about how he preferred to play Dracula as the character described by Bram Stoker, although no clips from the Jesus Franco film, that come a bit closer to the novel, are included here. There's only so much that can be stuffed in a forty-five minute documentary, but for the most part, this is a nice overview of Lee's life and films.

While the blu-ray is packaged as The Crimson Cult, what we see bears the original British release title of Curse of the Crimson Altar. Lee, along with Boris Karloff, Barbara Steele and Michael Gough, share top billing. Most of the screen time is given to Mark Eden and Virginia Wetherell, and if you are like me, you'll realize that you've seen them in other films after check the IMDb, but not recalled a single performance. I am also assuming that this is more complete than the version released in North America by American International Pictures.


Eden plays an antiques dealer, looking for his brother who disappeared in a small town. His search brings him to the estate of a country squire played by Lee, who lives with his niece, played by Wetherell. The squire most frequently socializes with an elderly historian, played by Karloff. Karloff is usually seen with his aide, a guy in a black chauffeur's uniform and sunglasses, who looks virtually like Elton John. Spending a couple of nights at the estate, his sleep is disturbed by nightmares involving Steele as a witch, demanding that Eden sign his name in blood. Meanwhile, Michael Gough creeps around as demented butler with a serious speech impediment.

This is a film in which a grab bag of parts are stuck together in the hopes that no one will notice how not all of it fits into a coherent whole. There is a partial quotation in the beginning, from an unnamed author, about drugs used for hypnotism, superimposed over some kaleidoscopic images. And while Eden's character is supposedly hypnotized, that really the last time there is a reference to drugs. The swinging party hosted by Wetherell and her hedonistic friends seems to have been included, along with the drug reference, to make what is essentially a gothic horror film relatable to those kids who flocked to Roger Corman's The Trip, released at about the same time as this film was produced. There's also a bit of nudity provided by Wetherell, thanks to the newly relaxed production code.

There is one moment, maybe too cute, maybe too meta, where our young couple takes a tour of Lee's mansion, and Wetherell states, "It's like a house from one of those old horror films.", and Eden replies, "It's like Boris Karloff is going to pop up at any moment." And pop up, Karloff does, in one scene, barely getting a grip on his chair, falling back. This was one of Karloff's last films, and as frail as he was during the filming, his way with words never failed him as he grins just enough while mentioning that his collection is of "instruments of torture".

The film takes place during a local holiday marking the celebration of the burning of a witch named Lavinia. We get to see Steele wearing some kind of hat shaped like ram's horns with long feathers. In her coven is a whip wielding woman with some kind of swirl design black pasties covering over her nipples, and a blacksmith in a black leather speedo. While the scenes fail to inspire dread, this might be campier than anything in Rocky Horror.

Alas, Christopher Lee doesn't do much here except look dapper.

The commentary track with film historian David Del Valle and Barbara Steele doesn't do much in terms of providing any insight into the making of The Crimson Cult, but does allow for Steele to tell stories about various high and low points in her own career.

A more curious inclusion is an interview with Kendall Schmidt. A music composer, Schmidt was hired to create new music scores for a number of A.I.P. films after the library had been bought by Orion Pictures. While it is explained that this was done for legal reasons, it doesn't explain why this was an issue for this particular studio. I can understand the rights issue regarding specific songs, which has caused some films to not get home video releases. There is something odd when finding out that Schmidt not only was hired to replace the original score by Peter Knight for this film, but also the music by Gino Marinuzzi for Mario Bava's Planet of the Vampires, and that of Paul Ferris for Witchfinder General, among titles mentioned.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at July 3, 2015 06:26 AM