Thursday, 20 November 2014

Curse Of The Crimson Altar

Altar-ed States

Curse Of The Crimson Altar
1968 UK
Directed by Vernon Sewell
Odeon (originally Tigon) 
Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Very light spoilers in this one.

Curse Of The Crimson Altar is one of those movies I’ve been wanting to catch up with for a while now. I never quite got around to doing the research to find out which country had the best DVD edition but, thankfully, I recently came across a nice new blu ray transfer by Odeon which looks absolutely brilliant and which was relatively cheap in Fopp records (who somehow managed to be selling it for £8 as opposed to the £15.50 that Amazon seem to be charging for it at time of writing). It’s not the film I was expecting it to be but it was just the film I needed to be watching when I found myself with a day off work recently. That is to say... it’s not too taxing or challenging at any level and very much a film that you can get absorbed in without thinking about things too much.

Now, there were a lot of things that surprised me about this but one of them was the fact that, all the way through, I was uncertain if the movie was actually a horror film or not. The ending of the movie, literally the last few seconds, suggests that it may have been of the horror genre after all but, to be honest, I’m still not sure if that’s the case and the only way we, as an audience, would have known for sure would have been to get some reaction shots from other characters in the last scene but... alas, this doesn’t happen. So I’ve got no idea as to whether the reappearance of one of the little seen characters in this is a delusion of one specific character, as shown to the audience, or something which is actually happening within the context of the reality of the story... giving it a supernatural element which then shouts it out as a horror movie. And in the case of this one, just like the giallo All The Colours Of The Dark, the ending is what defines it genre... or not in this case. It’s left quite ambiguously, I have to say.

The uncredited story source, of course, H. P Lovecraft’s The Dreams In The Witch House, certainly is a horror piece... one of my favourite Lovecraft tales in fact, although I wasn’t aware of the similarities between the two and the intent of the writers pitch it in line with that little masterpiece until after I’d seen the film. That being said, it’s not the best adaptation, mostly just bearing a few similarities in terms of the dreams/trips of the main protagonist, so the iconic rat with a human face, Brown Jenkin, never makes an appearance, alas (and would have probably looked really silly too, if they’d tried to render him with special effects in 1968).

The film, however, is quick to point out all the alternatives to a supernatural element at work in the film, even from the opening quote about the hypnagogic states of the human mind. So I did feel, at the end of it, that the people making the film were probably changing their mind while shooting the movie and didn’t want to make a firm decision about these elements either way.

Personally, I don’t care because the cast are wonderful and the film is immensely enjoyable, especially since the “dream” sequences in the movie are all done with an eye for the most Bava-esque psychedelia they could throw at the camera. In fact those dream sequences all feature the iconic horror maiden Barbara Steele... painted blue and with a dodgy, echoey voice. It’s a shame that it’s pretty much, apart from a shot near the end, the only times you see her in this one, and that she’s never really seen on screen with the other two iconic co-stars of this movie, Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee.

While the film is very clean looking and pleasingly uncomplicated in its cinematography in general, the dream sequences are little masterpieces of style. Shot, as I said above, like a Mario Bava movie, matching his over the top colour schemes and even, in some cases, managing to light different parts of the shot - foreground and background - by using different colours to differentiate the two. It’s really nice stuff and makes you wonder if the director or cinematographer was in any way influenced by the Italian maestro and his work.

It’s been said by many on the documentary extras on this edition that this was the last film Boris Karloff shot. I’m not so sure because I think he may have worked on some Mexican productions, all of which were released after his death, shortly after he worked on Curse Of The Crimson Altar... although, that being said, he did die very soon after this one was shot.

It’s funny. He died in February 1969, which means I was a little over one year old when he passed away. Now I used to be a child model so I was up in Central and the West End of London a lot when I was a kid, even at that age... but I still have a memory of being carried by either my mum or my dad and coming out of a tube station one evening... it was dark, so February would be quite right... and seeing a front page of a newspaper with Karloff’s photo and headline of his death. I don’t know how it’s possible I could have remembered that... or even how I would have known who that was, to be fair, and you can doubt me if you like... but I do remember it and, for some reason, it’s stuck in my memory for years.

It goes without saying that Karloff and Lee are both utterly fascinating to watch in their roles. Truly hypnotic in some cases... but the two leads, played by Mark Eden as Robert Manning and Virginia Wetherell as Eve, are also quite easy to watch and I found myself slowly sinking into this film the more I watched it. Michael Gough pops up too but, while his performance as a raving and conflicted servant to Barbara Steele is fun to watch, it seems a little out of place when you pitch it against Eden and Wetherell, both of whom I would love to see in some other stuff when I get some time and access.

There are some other elements about the film that are really worth mentioning as being rather special and one is the pre-preoccupation, almost obsession, with illusion and fake theatricality...

The plot is that Robert, who is in the antiques business, goes looking for his missing brother and ends up at a party in Christopher Lee’s manor house where he meets Eve and various clues which may or may not come in handy when it comes to wading through the local legend of the curse of a witch who was burnt at the stake hundreds of years before. Actually... about that party. I don’t know what drugs the writers were on but this is the kind of party you really never want to attend. It’s trying way hard to be decadent but, really, all it’s actually being is just really odd... what with women pouring champagne all over themselves and two half naked women riding blokes piggy back so they can joust with, um, paint brushes and paint intimidatingly and enthusiastically at each other. No, I’ve got no idea either.

Anyway, as I said, Robert is into antiques and one of the last things his brother sent him was a bodkin (which at the time was still being used as another name for a small knife, although I think that terminology has slipped out of usage of late... with everyone except me) and, along with a candle holder, it’s one of Mark's last links with where his brother might have last been seen. Thing is... it’s a prop bodkin with a retracting blade, one that extra enthusiastic witch hunters of earlier time periods could use to frame their victims by stabbing them without pain or blood... thus identifying them as a witch. So already the film is looking at the way fakes and illusions are created and, together with the opening quotation in the film, it leads you on to expect the use of this trickery at some point...

Later on in the film, when the story is well under way, Robert finds the secret room from his dreams but everything is covered with cobwebs and seems not to have been disturbed for centuries so, once again, doubt is put in the viewers mind as to the nature of the threat in the film... is it a supernatural menace we are dealing with here? Later on, when our hero returns to the room with Eve, he realises the cobwebs are fake, put on instantly like a theatrical set dressing. He even goes so far as to give us a demonstration of the gun he finds which sprays fake cobwebs onto objects... which I have to admit, I found absolutely fascinating. As is the amount of interest the film generates in demonstrating its own sense of the ersatz. It seems that nobody minded that it was also showing the audience how parts of the film they are watching was actually made, simultaneous to watching it. This, of course, feeds right into the plot being a supernatural or non-supernatural piece and helps blur the lines while showing you how easily the story might not be supernatural in intent.

Another really interesting thing about this one is that it has a postmodernistic, metatextual reference... used in the form of a line of dialogue. Eve says something about the house looking like it’s out of an old horror film, to which Robert then replies “It's like Boris Karloff is going to pop up at any moment.” And, of course, within 20 minutes of this scene, Boris Karloff does indeed pop up... playing a main character in the movie. This, from my own experience of such things, seems almost incredible for a film from 1968 to be making a critical content on its own text within itself. Quite amazing that the venue for this expression is in the form of a horror film... or pseudo-horror film, depending on how you decode the last few seconds of the movie.

The other thing which is really nice about Curse Of The Crimson Altar is that there is a blurring of the lines between who is a good guy and who is a villain. I don’t want to say too much here because I don’t want to spoil any potential surprises for you but two of the actors are painted quite obviously as the possible villain of the piece (or it could be both of them working together) but actually, the way one of these characters is written is a deliberate red herring and that person will rush in and help good conquer evil at the eleventh hour. I had my suspicions about this particular character all the way through, I must confess, but I was still surprised when he actually turned out to be one of the good guys... so that was pretty well done and a testament to how good that particular actor was at delivering his lines and making the dry words on the page come to life for the audience. Clever stuff and quite refreshing, it has to be said.

So there you have it, the new blu ray of Curse Of The Crimson Altar is a truly vibrant and good looking transfer and has a few nice extras along for the digital ride. This new version is supposed to be completely uncut but I did notice in the stills gallery there was a lot more nudity in certain parts of the dream sequences than there actually was in the print I saw. It could, of course, just have been alternate shots snapped between takes but, this and something one of the actors says in the documentary, leads me to believe that there may have been a more risqué international version for distribution in certain countries... a tactic that Hammer films also used to employ on some of their films. Alas, I just don’t know enough about the history of this movie to be able to make a judgement on whether this is fully uncut or not and, I suspect, it’s something that we’ll never know unless some alternate footage turns up out of the blue someday... it might happen. I’ve seen stranger things happening the last few years or so (can I hear you say Metropolis?).

All I do know is that I thoroughly enjoyed this new transfer of Curse Of The Crimson Altar and I would certainly recommend it to any of my readers who like the classic, not that scary, genre movies of yesteryear. Definitely one to check out.

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