The Crimson Cult/ Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968) ***

Horror is a small world and at any moment you are likely to bump into stars of the caliber of Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff and Barbara Steele – or in this picture all three. Investigating his missing brother Peter sends antiques dealer Robert Manning (Mark Eden) to a remote country mansion where he encounters owner Morley (Christopher Lee), his seductive niece Eve (Virginia Weatherall), the wheelchair-bound authority on witchcraft Professor Marsh (Boris Karloff), deaf mute Elder (Michael Gough) and a centuries-old mystery.

Morley can legitimately deny that Peter has ever set foot on the premises since it was common for the brother to adopt an alias when seeking out significant antiques. By the time Robert amasses sufficient clues to challenge Morley on this particular issue, it appears that further ideas of more sinister goings-on may be illusory. On his first night Robert observes an annual celebration of the Black Witch but although an effigy is burned this festival appears to have more to do with the innocent consumption of alcohol and heady bouts of sex than satanism.

Thanks to career reinvigoration after Peter Bogdanovich’s “Targets” (1967)
Boris Karloff gained top billing in the British release.

And after a while, Robert indulges in carnal delight with Eve. However, he is plagued by a nightmare that involves a grotesque trial by a jury wearing animal heads. Gradually, he learns that Morley, meanwhile, is such a congenial host, and his niece delightful and sybaritic company, that the finger of suspicion points at Elder, who does take a pot shot at Robert, and the professor who has a collection of instruments of torture.

Were it not for veteran director Vernon Sewell (Urge to Kill, 1960) beginning proceedings with some kind of black mass complete with floggings and female sacrificial victim, the audience might have been kept in greater suspense. As it is, the non-violent annual celebration throws us off the scent as does the seduction of Eve and the prospect that Robert’s nightmare is little more than psychedelic hallucination. The denouement is something of a surprise. The ritualistic aspects of the picture are well done and given this is a Tigon film rather than Hammer you can expect harsher treatment of the S&M element, flagellation delivered by women, especially for the period.  

In the U.S. – where it was shown both as “The Crimson Cult” and “The Crimson Altar” – Christopher Lee was accorded prime billing status.

The eerie atmosphere and well-staged witchcraft scenes are a plus, but, despite the involvement of a handful of horror gods, the movie’s reliance on lesser players to drive the narrative is a minus. Lee, Karloff and Steele (though in a more minor role) are all excellent as is the demented Michael Gough but Mark Eden (Attack on the Iron Coast, 1968) is too lightweight to carry the picture although Virginia Wetherall in her first big part suggests more promise.  More of Lee, Karloff and Steele would have definitely added to the picture but since this type of film often requires the young and the innocent to take center stage that was not to be.

The Gorgon (1964) ****

This impressive Hammer conspiracy-of-silence slow-burner, more thriller than horror, features the triumvirate of Christopher Lee (The Devil Ship Pirates, 1964), Peter Cushing (The Sword of Sherwood Forest, 1960) and Barbara Steele (Black Sunday, 1960) in untypical roles. Lee and Cushing, of course, had locked horns before, namely in Hammer’s reimagining of the classic Dracula, with the former the charismatic fiend and the latter his nemesis.

Here Cushing is a  doctor in a an unnamed European turn-of-the-twentieth-century police state who knows more than he is letting on about seven inexplicable deaths in five years and the possibility of a 2,000-year-old myth coming to life and taking on a human form. And with quite a human side, jealous when his assistant Steele falls for a younger man. Lee is a professor coming late in the day to investigate. Steele, a gentle beauty, initially introduced as merely the love interest, becomes central to the story but without sucking up all the available horror oxygen by over-acting.   

Director Terence Fisher, who had shepherded the studio’s Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and Dr Jekyll franchises through the starting gate, builds up the atmosphere with full moons, haunting voices, fog, sudden sounds, drifting leaves and an abandoned castle forever in shadow. The camera is often a weapon of stealth. Shock is kept to a minimum, fleeting ghostly apparitions and a finger falling off a corpse. Given the limitations of special effects in this era, that was a smart move. Far better to concentrate on fear of impending doom, a man knowing he is turning to stone, a woman living in terror of being taken over by the phantom. The title gives away the story somewhat – even if you didn’t know the Gorgon was a mythical monster with a headful of snakes and the ability to turn people to stone, that is soon explained. 

Death remains the trigger for action, the suicide of an artist after he has apparently murdered his pregnant girlfriend bringing his father onto the scene and then his brother accompanied by Lee. But all investigation hits a wall of silence after police chief (Patrick Troughton) refuses to instigate detection. At the heart of all the relationships is betrayal. The artist leading his girlfriend on, Cushing willing to endanger Steele, whom he professes to love, rather than revealing the truth. Even Steele spies on the brother, with whom she is falling in love, in order to gather information for Cushing. 

Forgive the pun, but Steele steals the picture. An amnesiac, a victim and finally the lure, she remains enigmatic, a whisper of a woman. It is a haunting portrayal far removed from Hammer’s traditional cleavage queens. This is a very human character who nonetheless must stand guard over herself. Cushing embroiders his character with little touches, smoking a cigarette in a holder, for example, but Steele’s character, her distrust of herself, shows in every move she makes.

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.