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 Demon (1963) *****

I was riveted. Never mind the spider-walk, this is one of the most extraordinary films I have ever seen. Highly under-rated and largely dismissed for not conforming to audience expectation that horror pictures should involve full moons, castles, darkness, fog, costumes, nubile female victims, graveyards, a male leading character, shocks to make a viewer gasp, and the current trend for full-on gore. So if that’s what you’re looking for, give this a miss. Even arthouse critics, spoiled by striking pictures by the Italian triumvirate of Fellini, Visconti and Antonioni, were equally scornful. For the most part this takes place in broad daylight and is set in an impoverished town in the Italian mountains where primitive farmers till the soil with horse and plough and water is collected in buckets from the river.

One of the most striking aspects of the picture is that it creates its own unique universe. The townspeople are both highly religious and deeply superstitious, every traditional Catholic ceremony matched by age-old ritual. Even some of the formal traditions seem steeped in ancient belief, sinners marching up a steep hill with people being scourged or carrying a heavy rock, in a convent the tree of a suicide covered in barbed wire. At a wedding in a church, how low the candles flicker is deemed to indicate the length of the marriage. A wedding night rite involves shoving a scythe under the bed to cut short Death’s legs with the bedspread covered in grapes – to soak up evil and discord – arranged in the form of a cross to act as bait for bad thoughts and poison them before they can cause the couple harm. When the people run through the town brandishing torches it is not, as would be genre tradition, to set fire to a castle but to vanquish evil from the air.

French poster.

It is filmed in austere black-and-white. In the Hollywood Golden Era of black-and-white movies, lighting and make-up transformed heroines, rich costumes enhanced background. Here, if the heroine is wearing make-up it’s not obvious and the only clothes worth mentioning are a priest’s robes or a plain wedding dress. Otherwise the most arresting feature is the stark brightness against which the black-dressed figure of the heroine Puri (Daliah Lavi) scuttles about.

And although there are no jump-out-of-your-seat shocks, there are moments that will linger on in your mind, not least the heroine enduring a vicious extended beating from her father, an exorcism that turns into rape and (Exorcist-fans take note) a spider-walk, the young woman’s torso thrust up high on elongated arms and legs. Virtually the entire success of the picture relies on atmosphere and in places it is exquisitely subtle, the audience only realizing she is being raped by the look on her face.

The picture opens with a dialogue-free scene of stunning audacity, foreshadowing the idea from the start that image is everything. Puri pierces her chest with a needle, cuts off a chunk of her hair to mop up the blood, throws the hair into the oven and rams the crisp remains into a loaf of bread. Not to be consumed, as you might imagine, but as a tool of transport. Shortly after, having failed to seduce Antonio (Frank Wolff), she tricks him into drinking wine infused with the ashes of her bloodied hair, bewitching him, so she believes, to abandoning his betrothed. In an echo of a Catholic sacrament she shouts, “You have drunk my blood and now you will love me, whether you want to or not.”  

The next morning when collecting water at the river she has a conversation with a boy Salvatore, only to discover he has just died. His death is blamed on her because his last words were a request for water, which she is judged to have denied him. She is beaten by women. She is feared by everyone in the village, her family tainted with the same brush, wooden crosses nailed to their door. She is not a ghostly figure, flitting in and out of the townspeople’s lives, an apparition tending towards the invisible, but fully formed, highly visible in her black dress and anguished expression, doomed by her often vengeful actions and forceful words.

Much of the film involves Puri being beaten or chased or captured, at one point trussed up like a hog. Attempts to exorcise her, whether pagan or Catholic, focus on getting the demon to speak his name. The ritual performed by heathen priest Guiseppe involves blowing on a mirror before taking on sexual aspects which culminate in rape. The Catholic version in a church in front of her family is primarily, as it would be in The Exorcist, a duel between the priest and whatever possesses her.

Movie producers who took one look at the beauty of Palestinian-born Daliah Lavi (Blazing Sand, 1960) thought she would be put to better use in bigger-budgeted pictures made in color that took full advantage of her face and figure. So they stuck her in a series of hardly momentous movies such as The Silencers (1966) and Some Girls Do (1969). they should be ashamed of themselves for ignoring her astonishing acting ability. And much as I have enjoyed such films, I doubt if I could watch them again without thinking what a waste of a glorious talent. This is without doubt an acting tour de force, as she alternatively resists possession and adores the being who has taken hold of her mind. She dominates the screen.

The rest of the mostly male cast are dimmed in comparison, as if overawed by the power of her personality. Future spaghetti western veteran Frank Wolff (Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968) comes off best. Director Brunello Rondi (Run, Psycho, Run, 1968) is better known as a screenwriter for Federico Felllini. He made few films, none matching this in scope or imagination, perhaps as a result of the picture not receiving the praise it deserved. Even now it does not have a single critical review on Rotten Tomatoes.

One other point: you may have noticed that in general the proclivities of male horror characters are never in need of psychological explanation. Nobody considers that the Wolfman must have suffered from childhood trauma or that a vampire drinks blood because he was a rejected suitor. Strangely enough, as would be the case in The Exorcist and other instances of female possession, psychiatry is usually the first port of call and here all reviews I have read implicitly see Puri’s actions as based on sexual inhibition and rejection by Antonio.  

I saw this on an old DVD but you can catch it for free on Youtube.

What the Exhibitor Did

Movie studio publicity teams bombarded exhibitors with gimmicky promotions via the Pressbooks used to publicize movies. Some of the ideas were so outlandish it is easy to imagine that exhibitors’ eyes glazed over at the prospect.

But that would be to misunderstand the character of the cinema manager/owner on the 1960s. They often referred to themselves as “showmen” (ignore the gender slip) because they saw themselves as hustlers of the old school, required to come up with all sorts of schemes to ensure moviegoers were aware of what was showing.

So they weren’t short of coming up with their own ideas.  To promote Billy Wilder comedy The Apartment (1960) with Jack Lemmon and Shirley Maclaine, Loews State in New Orleans set up a replica three-room apartment within the Hurwitz-Minze furniture store in the city. A female model was hired to live there for a week during opening hours. She cooked, washed dishes, watched television and listened to records. “Her daytime routine was complete even to changing her clothes – behind a screen, of course.” The store advertised her presence daily and explained why there was model in the window. The Monteleone Hotel joined in the promotion by providing the model with free accommodation.

Handcuffs were handed out to customers going in to see Psycho (1960) at Proctor’s Theatre in Schenectady, New York, on the basis that it would be advantageous for patrons to handcuff themselves to their seats in case nerves got the better of them and they tried to dash out before the end.

Of course, that was a long way from offering patrons a dead body, raffled off in the intermission between the movies on a midnight horror program, as carried out by the Super 422 Drive-In in Pittsburgh. A dead body was given away – it just turned out to be a turkey.

Exhibitors pushing a horror picture might plant a coffin in the lobby – more effective if there was a hand sticking out – or, as indicative of the terrors that lay ahead, have a white-coated nurse prominently positioned or park an ambulance outside. Certificates of bravery might be issued to attendees.

To promote Macumba Love (1960) – starring Ziva Rodann from The Giants of Thessaly – which featured cannibals and shrunken heads, Loews State in Cleveland put their own shrunken head on display in the lobby behind reducing glass which made it seem even smaller.   

Love takes people the strangest places. Two cycling enthusiasts planning to get married were persuaded by Twentieth Century Fox to travel from New York to Juneau, Alaska, a mere 4,776 miles to promote john Wayne picture North to Alaska (1960).They were paid, of course, and had the honor of being married by the Governor of the state, William Egan. They passed through a hundred towns and cities, stopping off to talk to interested media about their unusual adventure and, in case anyone missed the point, their bikes were plastered with publicity material for the film.

SOURCES: “The Midnight Show,” Box Office, Aug 1, 1960, p64-65; “Girl Keeps House in Window for a Week Prior to Opening of The Apartment,” Box Office, Aug 8, 1960, 118; “Handcuffs Go to Patrons in Advance of Psycho,” Box Office, Oct 3, 1960, 103; “Couple in Bicycle Trip North for To Alaska,” Box Office, Nov 14, 1960, 73.

Marketing: Black Stamps

You might be tempted to fork out for the range of James Bond Commemorative Stamps being brought out to celebrate No Time to Die when it eventually sees the light of day on movie screens.

But stamps either as collector’s items or for trading purposes have been around since the silent era.  A line of movie commemorative stamps issued in America in 1944 sold 1.1 million first day covers, the second highest-ever at the time, and in the late 1950s Movie Stamps Inc set up a business that worked in the same way as the Green Stamps given away in supermarkets and gas stations. In this system, if you collected enough you won a gift, usually, in regards to the movie business, a couple of free tickets.

So Columbia Pictures looking for a way to sell its Hammer double bill The Gorgon (1964) with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing and The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964) starring the lesser-known Terence Morgan revived the idea.

Horror specialist Hammer was one of the British film studios going through a production boom – over 100 movies were being made in that country in that year – with The Secret of Blood Island (1965) in the works for Universal and She for MGM. But horror was still a difficult sell and Hammer had ignored the advice of Variety that The Gorgon would work best if teamed with “a lively comedy.”

American International had expanded the horror market away from the Frankenstein/Dracula axis by exploiting the Edgar Allan Poe back catalog and William Castle had achieved some success in modern tales of terror such as Dementia 13 (1963) and The Night Stalker (1964). But Castle could call upon the likes of Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor, players with substantial marquee status despite their lately diminished careers, for radio and television interviews.

For Hammer the obvious exploitation options were limited to a spread in the quarterly Castle of Frankenstein magazine which could be purchased for 35 cents at newsstands.

So the marketing honchos dusted off the old movie stamps idea. In some advertisements, the studio offered free stamps to the first 10,000 ticket-buyers but in the advertisement shown above they appeared to be given away free to everyone. The faces of the various monsters and characters featured in both films were imprinted on the stamps. However, on the debit side, there was no sign of any redemption for the collected cards. You couldn’t, should you be so inclined, collect ten and get a guest ticket in return. You could probably trade them and build up a collection. I’m not sure they did much for the movie judging by the box office accounts that exist but if anyone remembers seeing them or collecting them let me know.

Sources: “Film Industry New 3c Stamps Sets Record,” Variety, Nov 15, 1944, 1; “Tease-In Kids with Movie Star Stamps,” Variety, Aug 21, 1957, 20; “Premium Stamp Set Up,” Variety, Aug 20, 1958, 7; Review of The Gorgon, Variety, Aug 26, 1964, 6;  advert, Box Office, Nov 16, 1964, 2; “Film Plugs and Pluggers,” Variety, December 30, 1964, 21; Mark Thomas McGee, Beyond Ballyhoo: Motion Picture Promotion and Gimmicks, p125-131.