Hollywood loves “team-ups.” You know, they take two big movie icons and put them together in a movie. I remember when I was a kid a big deal was made of having Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds “together at last” in the movie “City Heat.” It ended up bombing. But today’s movie brings together two big horror icons…Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee. It’s another film loosely based on an HP Lovecraft story. Known in the UK as “Curse of the Crimson Altar,” here in the US it’s 1968’s “The Crimson Cult.”
The film begins with a strange sequence in which a man (Denys Peek) is involved in a strange ceremony of sorts. There’s a naked woman (with strategically draped hair) chained to a table, goats, people in dark hooded cloaks, more people with a taste for leather and helmets with antlers, and to top it all off, a blue skinned woman with horns. These guys are anxious to have the man sign a book, which he does. He then kills the girl on the table and they brand him with a hot iron cowboy style.
Next we join antiques dealer Robert Manning (Mark Eden). He has recently gotten a letter from his brother, Peter, who was out on a trip to acquire some new goods. However, Peter is overdue to return from his trip. Oh, by the way, Peter is the dude who signed the blue lady’s book.
From the letter, Robert knows that Peter stayed at the Greymarsh Lodge, so he heads there to try and find him. As he approaches the lodge, he is greeted by what appears to be a group of guys trying to attack a young woman. But it turns out to be just a joke. They’re all on their way to a party being held at the lodge. Manning is quickly accepted into the party, particularly by the lovely hostess Eve (Virginia Wetherell). But Manning quickly makes his way upstairs to talk to Eve’s uncle, J.D. Morley (Christopher Lee). Though he isn’t able to help Manning find his brother, Morley does offer him accommodations for the night.
Later that night, Manning meets the wheelchair-bound Professor Marshe (Boris Karloff), and Morley’s bizarre butler Elder (Michael Gough). It turns out that this particular night is Witch’s Night, a local celebration commemorating the night the townsfolk burned the witch Lavinia (Barbara Steele). There is even a reenactment of the burning.
Things just get more and more bizarre during Manning’s stay. For one thing, Elder is telling him to “get out while there’s still time,” the Professor seems anxious to show him his collection of instruments of torture, and to top it all off, he’s having dreams where Lavinia wants him to sign her book. Still, Manning continues to investigate his brother’s disappearance, eventually learning that he stayed at the lodge under a different name and that, according to Elder, he is now dead. Through it all, the dreams keep getting more bizarre.
When Manning tells the Professor about the dreams, he learns that the Manning family were the chief accusers responsible for the burning of Lavinia so many years ago. This leads to Manning and Eve snooping around the lodge more and finding a room identical to the one he saw in his dream. As it turns out, Lavinia’s cult is still alive and well, with J.D. Morley leading it. When he catches Eve investigating, he decides that she has betrayed Lavinia and must be sacrificed. Now it’s up to Manning to stop the cult before it’s too late.
I gotta admit, expectations were high for a teaming of Lee and Karloff…and they live up to it big time. This is a very effective horror flick, spearheaded by the two greats turning in wonderful performances. Lee is creepy but cool the whole way through and Karloff turns in a wonderfully mysterious performance.
The film feels like a Hammer production. I mean, it’s British, it’s a horror flick, it’s got Christopher Lee. It turns out it’s not from Hammer, but the makers certainly took a page or two out of their playbook. And believe me, I’m not complaining about that. It’s got a an eery atmosphere, bizarre characters (take a bow there, Michael Gough), and the lovely leading ladies you’d expect from Hammer. The opening sequence sets the mood right off the bat that anything, no matter how terrible, can han happen in this film. This carries through all the way to the fiery ending that leaves you with a final image that could indicate that good doesn’t win the day after all.
If you’re a fan of Karloff or Lee, “The Crimson Cult” is not to be missed. And with the recent trend toward movies with blue-skinned people (“Avatar,” “Watchmen,” “The Smurfs”), this fits right in.