At Home, BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE CRIMSON CULT (aka THE CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR) (Kino Lorber)

By • Jun 28th, 2015 •

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Robert Manning (Mark Eden) is concerned when his brother, Peter, falls out of touch with him. We’ve had an inkling already, based on what could be a satanic ritual, or perhaps a hallucinatory dream, that Peter has signed his life away and been branded on top of it. Robert visits the house where his brother supposedly stayed before disappearing, and we’re nervous for him, innocently walking into danger like that. At the house he meets Morley, the proprietor (Christopher Lee, wearing a most underwhelming plaid jacket, apparently recommended by his real-life wife), who shows concern about his brother’s fate but is otherwise of no help whatsoever. Also staying at the inn is Morley’s niece, Eve (Virginia Wetherell), who we can’t help but suspect of being in on this mysterious plot. And a neighbor who we are also made to suspect, is Professor Marsh, the local witchcraft authority, played by a particularly effective Boris Karloff.

Remind you of THE WICKER MAN (with Christopher Lee)? Or HORROR HOTEL (also with Lee)? Or any number of other similar films? It is like them, but manages to have a slight life of its own just by embracing Lee, Karloff and Barbara Steele within it’s celluloid walls, the only time they appeared in the same film, though Steele has no scenes with the other two great horror stars.

The BluRay is a kind of perfect storm: a pleasant British witch cult flick, combined with an exhilarating commentary talk, an amazing 45-minute career recap by Christopher Lee, utterly charming in his 90s, and a briefer but also informative interview with the man who rescored the film for US release. I enjoyed watching the film twice in order to hear the commentary, and gleaned lots of info from Lee’s talk, and from the composer’s ambivalence about the necessity of obliterating other composers’ work.

The commentary evolves into of a tour of Barbara Steele’s career, veering way off the topic of the film at hand. At one point David Del Valle brings up Michael (THE WITCHFINDER GENERAL) Reeves, and Steele strenuously resists talking about him, asking to have this portion of the interview deleted, which it obviously wasn’t. But she is happy to discuss two of her other directors, Federico Fellini (8 ½) and Dan Curtis (DARK SHADOWS). She is also generous with her feelings about Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, and Elvis Presley (?) She has no idea who ALTAR co-star Virginia Wetherell is, and is not thrilled remembering the cold, rainy weather which sidelined Karloff with pneumonia. Going way off topic, she rails about the repressive Brits and rhapsodizes about the passionate Italians. She mentions going to Mexico & Guatamala to partake in Day of the Dead rituals (I was with her in Mexico for one of those events).

Steele’s scenes are the worst in the film. Not Barbara herself – she’s exquisite in her green facial make-up, red lips, and wild headdress. But the director’s attempt at staging a satanic ritual is feeble in the extreme. With color overlays more befitting a playful psychedelic orgy from the swinging 60s, we don’t buy a frame of it. But Barbara remains a dangerous, seductive image worthy of contemplation (without her dubbed voice, that is – a weak, foolish choice for such a dynamic face).

Since one of these faux rituals kicks off the narrative, the film has trouble gathering steam from there, but it does, slowly… and the mystery surrounding Mark Eden’s missing brother becomes steadily more compelling, as does our concern that he will be the next victim. Ms. Wetherell provides a brief glimpse of nudity, which has none of the potent punch of Britt Ekland‘s vaguely similar scene in THE WICKER MAN but, aside from being exploitative, it actually aids her performance by providing a sense of innocence.

The music is almost lovely, but after the main theme delivers a bar or two of evocative notes, it then wanders off track with the following two. Nonetheless it’s quite decent for this kind of film, if a bit thin, and composer Kendall Schmidt talks of re-scoring many of the films American International was picking up after the studio lawyers couldn’t obtain rights to the original soundtracks.

By itself, THE CRIMSON CULT wouldn’t be worth owning, With the excellent supplementals, it is absolutely a keeper.

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One Response »

  1. This sounds like a disc maybe worth getting but it is my understanding that the region 2 disc – Bluray- while not having the delicious extras mentioned (I could of course be wrong), it is the same cut but with the original score. Ahhhh… the torture of collecting!

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