When his brother disappears, Robert Manning pays a visit to the remote country house he was last heard from. While his host is outwardly welcoming - and his niece more demonstrably so
"It's like Boris Karloff is going to pop up at any moment."
The horror genre works best when it's being used as an allegory. 'Halloween' tells us that just because you're living in the suburbs, that doesn't mean you're free from the monsters of the world. Some horror pictures play to similar notions, some don't even bother to try. If 'The Crimson Cult' has an allegory it serves as a reminder that if you have a sibling that goes missing and said sibling was caught up in witchcraft or a cult - it's probably a good idea to leave well enough alone and not go poking your nose into other people's business.
Robert Manning (Mark Eden) is a content, shrewd, and successful antiques dealer working in London. Items find their way to him and he turns around and sells them for a significant profit. One such item is a bit of a curiosity, a gold encrusted dagger from the late 17th century. Only this is no ordinary dagger, it features a spring loaded blade proving to be harmless. Daggers like this were used to hunt witches - if stabbed and the witch didn't bleed, it would prove her guilt, so of course a spring-loaded blade is a bit of a cheat. As it turns out the dagger was sent to Robert by his brother Peter (Denys Peek). After calling the place where Peter said he was staying, Robert learns that no one has even heard of his brother and the man is now in fact missing.
Seeking to uncover the truth of the matter, Robert travels to the small hamlet of Greymarsh and to the small country home where Peter was last heard from. When Robert gets to town, he's beset upon by a local "witch burning" celebration where revelers partake in mock witch huntings and burnings. All of this is to commemorate the burning of a local witch named Lavinia (Barbara Steele) who was killed centuries ago. At the center of the festivities is Eve (Virginia Wetherell). Eve is a direct descendant of the late Lavinia and lives with her uncle Morley (Christopher Lee).
When he finally reaches the country home, Robert is dismayed to learn that no one has seen Peter, not even the eccentric historian Professor Marsh (Boris Karloff). While no one seems to know of the man Robert is searching for, the house's man servant Elder (Michael Gough) seems to be a fountain of information, but can he be relied upon? Morley tells Robert that Elder is a confused individual who has never been the same after receiving a head injury. With no other clues to go on, Robert is forced to consider Elder's words while ignoring the deranged man's warning to get out of the house if he want's to live. As Robert pushes deeper into the local legends investigating strange occurrences, he begins to hallucinate ghastly images of being tied up and tortured by the witch Lavinia herself! Are these just terrible dreams, or has Robert uncovered a sadistic witchcraft cult that has been hiding out in the English countryside for the last 300 years?
When you have a movie starring Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff, Michael Gough, and Barbar Steele in the same picture, something magical happens. You get a movie that is ever so slightly self aware, with a ghoulish sense of humor, but at the same time maintains a creepy sense of mystery and danger throughout. While some of 'The Crimson Cult' A.K.A. 'Curse of the Crimson Altar' could easily be cast off as 60s Mod Camp, the majority of the picture is a nicely paced murder mystery featuring a detective-like Robert slowly uncovering clues and pieces of information until he's gathered together a complete picture of the situation. Director Vernon Sewell working from a screenplay by Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln churn out a halfway decent adaptation of the H.P. Lovecraft story "The Dreams In The Witch House." The film may rely a bit to heavily on a psychedelic 60s vibe at times, but for the most part this picture works because it never tips its hat. Is the evil witch Lavinia alive and well? Has Boris Karloff's Professor Marsh become obsessed with his research and started reenacting Lavinia's methods for torture? Or does Christopher Lee's Morley and Virginia Wetherell's Eve know more than they're telling? The films deliberate pacing keeps the audience just far enough behind to keep them guessing while throwing them just enough crumbs to keep their interests peaked throughout.
It's always a great day when you get to watch Christopher Lee in his prime and not playing Dracula. As much as I love his vampiric turns, I appreciate the fact that the guy could play any number of potentially villainous characters with a gentlemanly subtlety as to never quite tip the audience to which side of fence his character resides. While Karloff may be in the film as a form of pseudo comic relief, he at least maintains a sense of obtuseness that makes his character both chilling and a hell of a lot of fun. As our central character Robert, Mark Eden does a nice enough job playing an everyman who gets in way over his head.
Considering the output of Hammer productions during this time, I was actually pretty amazed at how restrained the film was. When numerous other features were going full tilt with their torture sequences featuring thick bright red cornstarch blood effects, this one actually plays it far more straight. There is a bit of placating towards audience expectations considering the deluge of Satanic Cult films that were released from the mid 60s through the early 70s, but it keeps its plot functions and mechanics more in line to a run-of-the-mill Agatha Christie murder mystery offering teh audience something different to chew on. At first when the film opened to half nude women whipping another half nude women as a demonic overlord looked on I was worried I was seeing a better budgeted version of Ed Wood's 'Orgy of the Dead.' Mercifully 'The Crimson Cult' is not that film all over again and offers a lot to appreciate beyond being a sordid tale of modern witchcraft. I'll just say this again because I believe it warrants repeating; Christopher Lee is in this movie! By association alone this movie is a horror classic. It may not be the best of the best, but it holds your attention and keeps you entertained.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Crimson Cult' arrives on Blu-ray thanks to Kino Lorber's Studio Classics distribution line. Pressed on a Region A Locked BD25 disc and housed in a Standard Blu-ray case, the disc opens directly to a simple static-image main menu.
This is another one of those classic catalogue titles I didn't expect much from the HD transfer, but Kino has a heck of fine looking disc on their hands with 'The Crimson Cult.' This 53 year old film's 1.85:1 1080p transfer looks like it's hardly aged a day in all that time. The print is immaculate, I could hardly detect a single nick or scratch, let alone any kind of dirt or debris. Film grain has been nicely retained and is subtly present throughout the film - all you have to do is look at the intricate costuming for the Lavinia character to see the impressive results that have been replicated for this Blu-ray. Being a 60s film, color is wild and crazy, but accurate to the movie. Much of the film is cast in a collage of colors ranging from hot pink and deep purple, to bright neon green. When things aren't being all psychedelic and trippy, the colors look normal and accurate leading to pleasing primaries and solid flesh tones. Black levels are also equally impressive offering plenty of shadow separation and depth. Some scenes appear a bit contrasty making the film look flatter than other scenes, but over all the only real problematic moments come during the few optical effects sequences as the results can look a bit soft for a moment or two, but those are inherent issues of the film process and not so much a problem with this transfer.
With a strong DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono track to work from, 'The Crimson Cult' offers a number of auditory thrills and horrors. Dialogue is front and center throughout much of this film so it's a great relief that it comes through with crystal clarity. You never have to struggle to hear what's being said - even when during the witchcraft sequences where the audio has been purposefully altered and tweaked. Levels are just fine as much of the film keeps to the midranges, but what I loved were the subtle low tones that gave my subwoofer a little exercise. It's not powerful enough to create any kind of distortion, it's present just enough to let you know it's there and helps create a welcome sense of dread. This track is also impressively free of any age related hiss, pops or other anomalies. A good horror movie deserves a solid audio track, and this one gets the job done in grand fashion.
Audio Commentary: Film Historian David Del Valle and Actress Barbara Steele discuss the history of the film, Steele's involvement in Bava's 'Black Sunday' and working with Karloff and Christopher Lee.
In Conversation With Christopher Lee: (HD 47:12) This is an absolutely wonderful extra for this disc considering the actor's recent passing.
Interview With Composer Kendall Schmidt: (HD 13:07) This is a pretty cool feature discusses the composer's history re-scoring the film for distribution. It'd be awesome to hear the original score, but this works too.
Original US Trailer: (HD 2:03) It's fun to see the different marketing techniques for the different distribution markets.
Original UK Trailer: (HD 2:44)
'The Crimson Cult' is one of those great horror films that offers the rare treat of three horror film icons in the same film and is actually pretty damn good. While not the most terrifying film of all time, it certainly offers enough chills and suspense to be entertaining and in the end proves to be worth the time. The video and audio quality is absolutely first rate and the healthy assortment of informative and meaningful extras makes this Blu-ray release from Kino an easy one to recommend for horror fans.