Saturday, June 29, 2024

American Gothic Week: The dreams were meanwhile getting to be atrocious

aka The Crimson Cult

Directed by Vernon Sewell
Written by Jerry Sohl, Mervyn Haisman, and Henry Lincoln (based on "The Dreams In the Witch House" by H.P. Lovecraft)

Spoilers: moderate

In dribs and drabs across the 60s, the works of H.P. Lovecraft were very tentatively beginning to be adapted, and no adaptation has ever been more tentative than 1968's Curse of the Crimson Altar, produced by Tigon in Britain, and only released by AIP in the United States a year and a half later under the shortened name The Crimson Cult.  It's perhaps overly literal of me, but worth getting out of the way immediately, that neither title is lived up to: even amidst some garish solid color lighting, red is barely ever a presence in this film.  Its most forceful appearance, at least, is as part of the film's most hideous scenes; unfortunately, the most hideous scenes in this horror film are just witnessing what Boris Karloff's character's made of his living room, where red is perhaps the most predominant of the constituent hues of the most abominable-looking paisley interior decor you've ever seen in your life.  I assume "red" is therefore a metaphor, for the blood that's not really a big part of the movie, either.  The altar, anyway, isn't even close to crimson; it's red only in the sense that "brown" is comprised, mostly, of red wavelengths of light.

So Curse of the Crimson Altar arrived after a couple of ginger attempts at mainstreaming Lovecraft for cinemas, the first back in 1963, under the auspices of Roger Corman, by way of the then-more-famous dead author Edgar Allan Poe, so that "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" was transmuted into Corman's sixth Poe film, The Haunted Palace; somehow, this was a better adaptation than the next one, a rendition of "The Colour Out of Space" under Daniel Haller called Die, Monster, Die!, which reduced the titular alien color to comic book radioactivity.  Eventually, Haller directed The Dunwich Horror, which, as its embrace of the actual title of a Lovecraft story suggests, sort of cared about fidelity, but, more importantly, engaged with real Lovecraftian ideas.  Before that, however, Jerry Sohlwho'd written Die, Monster, Die!for some reason decided to try his hand at another Lovecraft, "The Dreams In the Witch House," the result being Crimson Altar, and I will refrain from throwing all the blame on Sohl, because he's only the story writer here, with two other men given screenplay credit, and of course any number of things can happen between a treatment and a finished motion picture.  But it's awfully hard, when Sohl's name is on what could be the two most wrong-headed Lovecraft adaptations ever made.  In Sohl's defense, it does look like a movie that might've started as a contemporized Lovecraft adaptation, and then someone called it off*, at which point enough pre-production had been completed that canceling the movie wasn't in the cards, so it was simply rewritten as yet another Satanist programmer.  However it happened, arguably the best thing about Crimson Altar is that it doesn't besmirch Lovecraft by actually crediting him, or "Dreams In the Witch House," as its source.

"Witch House" should be, perhaps, one of the easiest Lovecrafts to adapt: it's long-ish, for Lovecraft, but not too long (and in its mathematics student protagonist, it has a central figure amenable to any amount of collegiate padding you felt like putting in); though Lovecraft himself effectively explains everything that's going on in the first few paragraphs, it's not epistolary, and the plot of it is bound to a relatively classical "horror flick" kind of escalation; unlike many Lovecrafts, it doesn't serve principally as a vehicle for making portentous reference to Lovecraft's legendarium's cosmic history; as for the Lovecraftian concepts it still encompasses, there was probably never a year more perfect for them to find cinematic expression than 1968, when audiences had shown a real appetite for psychedelic kitsch, and psychedelic kitsch is as good a strategy as any to find a way into the story's iconically unvisualizable visuals; finally, at absolute bottom, though Crimson Altar manages to tunnel through that bottom, it's basically just a haunted house jam, about a young man whose poor choice of apartments near Miskatonic University runs him afoul of a witch's ghost, an immortal demon, and a freakish rat-man.  The argument against adapting "Witch House" is only that it's not especially good, frequently (if not universally) considered one of the worst main "Cthulhu Mythos" stories, and unlike fellow low-ranker "The Thing On the Doorstep," I actually tend to agree with this assessment.

It's not bad, but it settles at the nadir of that uncanny valley which Lovecraft's weird fiction could sometimes occupy: if there's a constant threat in his writing that the veneer's going to fall off, and "Cthulhu" (or, more appropriately here, "Nyarlathotep" or "Azathoth") is just going to become "Satan," that threat is definitely realized in "Witch House," which can swerve into the proximity of the same cult crap you could find anywhere else, with haggish witches sacrificing babies to demons, nominally "aliens" whose desire for worship and penchant for soul-dealing is indeed explicit, but ever a most dubious thing in context with Lovecraft cosmicism.  Hence why my own favorite Lovecrafts are when he's at his most rigorously science fictional ('The Shadow Out of Time") or committing to full-on melancholic fantasy dreamstuff ("The Strange High House In the Mist"), which are coherent within themselves despite apparently sharing a continuity.  On the other hand, "Witch House" does have a remarkably thick veneer, with its dreaming hero tumbling into what's arguably the most vivid treatment of the much-beloved "[adjective] angles" trope in Lovecraft's whole bibliography, given that the plot turns on the charming concept of witch Keziah Mason staring at a drawing of a hypercube or something long enough that she learned how to teleport.  Plus there's some astonishingly gory violence, and, if you're into it (as I am), a fair number of soothing descriptions of New England geography and architecture, though less than in many other Lovecrafts.

I belabor it to say that if you get rid of all that, you don't have much, just the most generic witch story imaginable, and lo, that's more of a positive review than Curse of the Crimson Altar deserves.  It is perhaps unfair to judge it as a Lovecraft adaptation, a thing it technically doesn't claim to be; but I think you'd notice, even without being primed, that it's patterned on "Dreams In the Witch House," to the extent that that "crimson" altar is in a secret attic, instead of in a more readily-accessible basement, presumably solely because the attic (in a gabled New England apartment building) is where the really dark stuff happens in "Witch House," than because this sunny attic here works best for this generic witch horror film.  And unfair or not, Lovecraft is very nearly why anybody watches this today, so that's almost the only metric by which to judge it; the alternative is to judge it as a Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, and Barbara Steele vehicle, and, horribly, on that metric it might do even worse, "starring" Karloff and Lee and featuring so little Steele I won't dignify her participation even with scare-quotes around the word.  She's seen only in fantasy sequences, slathered up in some Star Trek girl makeup, and that only for about an (aggregate) two minutes, where practically the only thing she does is yell the word "SIGN!" over and over.

So: in old England, in 1968 (I won't even bother), antiques man Bob Manning (Mark Eden) is wondering where his business partner and brother Peter (Denys Peek) has disappeared to, having managed to ship down to their London office a few specimens from a town up north, but otherwise having gone incommunicado for over a week.  Hypothetically, we've got a mystery on our hands, except we pretty much know what's become of Peter, he's fallen prey in some fashion to a witch cult, as the opening scene details in what director Vernon Sewell probably thought would be enough oblique dreaminess, between the colored gels and the bracing porniness (the first image of the movie proper is a woman in pasties and vinyl whipping some other woman), that it wouldn't read as the more-or-less literal, chronological scene it obviously is.  Here, the long-dead Lavinia Morley (Steele in the aforementioned blue Star Trek makeup, plus a headdress) has compelled him to sign her book (meaning the direct allusions to "Witch House" have kicked off already); however, all Bob has to go on is an address, so up he goes to Graymarsh, to interrogate Lord Morley (Lee), who is very hospitable to Bob despite being implicitly accused of disappearing his brother.  Likewise on hand is Prof. Marsh (Karloff), an expert on witchcraft, and this is the town for it, with its annual celebrations of the burning of Lavinia at the stake centuries earlier; though Bob's interest gravitates most naturally to Morley's nubile niece, Eve (Virginia Wetherell), whose main avocation is being groovy.  Bob stays at the Morley mansion for several nights; and in his sleep, he is visited by strange dreams of Lavinia and atavistic gods and an altar, where they demand he sign the book (not explicitly, "of Azathoth"), and he sleepwalks, and also some kaleidoscope effects get trotted out, but not many and only briefly.

There is very little use wondering what, for example, Roger Corman or Ken Russell would've done with this (or, hell, Freddie Francis), so I'll try not to go down that path, though Sewell makes such an exercise inviting because he's doing virtually nothing.  The dreams are the absolute maximum application of any "style" to Crimson Altar, solely on the basis of the unchanging vibrant green and the whiff of op-art effects overlaid on Eden as he lies in a bed.  The rest is just televisual or sub-televisual, with something of an unerring instinct for the least interesting angles and blocking, mostly of people sitting in chairs, captured by cinematography (courtesy John Coquillon, early in a career that at its best only exemplified somewhat-ugly naturalism) that feels like the brief was an absence of any atmosphere, opting instead for a constant keen awareness of where the off-screen lights are, despite so much fill for every one of these dull rooms that there's scarcely a nook or cranny that a Brown Jenkin could've been hiding in anyhow.  It is just a dire, dire looking film (even adjusting for the suboptimal presentation in its most easily-accessible format), and that's not even its real problem, though it exacerbates it.

The real problem is just that story, a streamlined and quotidian "Witch House" that isn't even as good "the generic version of 'Witch House'" would suggest, since that would still make a promise of some measure of meat-and-potatoes Satanist horror.  That's nearly just as absent as Lovecraft; it's spoiling nothing to say that they want to kill Bob (it's also, by what's obviously a complete accident, a prefiguration of The Wicker Man), but "they" implies too much.  The idea, you'd think, would be to put Bob in an idyllic country trap where your paranoia on his behalf, and his own dawning apprehension of the evil of his surroundings, would be the primary driver of the story and the scares.  There's nothing to be paranoid about in Crimson Altar, though: it's almost shockingor, rather, anti-shocking in some inarticulably sour waywhat completely straight lines this story refuses to depart from, with Bob's enemies and Bob's allies pretty much identified within twenty minutes.  (The film's only twist is that a guy who might be bad is a guy who's actually good, which is altogether not as interesting as it thinks it is.)

The mystery, likewise, is pretty nonexistent.  (Bob realizes about an hour into this 89 minute film he's plum forgotten to ask about the pseudonym he knows that his cagey antique-peddling brother often used, which makes Bob seem like a complete moron.)  It refuses to even engage in anything supernatural; there's a logical, or "logical," explanation waiting for anyone who manages to slog through till the end, up to and including an in-universe explanation for the crummy fake cobwebs in the set decoration, a reveal that does not, despite the movie's attempt at cleverness, actually make any sense.  Whatever modicum of thrills and chills Sewell might have managed to eke out of this, there's a giant gaping hole where personality should go: it is downright criminal how disengaged and robotic Lee is here in a role he obviously fits (again, Wicker Man); Karloff, despite literally dying before our eyes, is actually putting on a real performance, but he has very little function besides reciting some fluff about brandy and witch trials.  If things take a little while to fall apart, that's mainly owing to the prospect of some hippiesploitation by way of Wetherell's Eve, introduced as a brazenly sexual hostess who throws wild parties for pseudo-countercultural swingers, but by the half-hour mark the extras budget has been dissipated and even this possible avenue of fun has retrenched into repetitive scenes of unaccountable cockteasery, culminating in a no man's (or woman's) land of sexual fantasy, all rather badgering and pathetic.  It's ultimately just one more way that the movie wastes its time, but then, following Eden's uncharismatic and unfocused hero around is always a waste of time, no matter what he's up to.

This comes together for one of the most perfectly boring exercises in 60s horror conceivable, somehow becoming less potentially scary as it goes along, shedding everything imaginative or interesting from its source material and replacing it with a big glob of nothing, a plodding story about a guy wandering around an English mansion, nominally trying to find his brother and mostly trying to get laid, that in the end doesn't even have enough horror flick gutsiness to be satisfying in even the most braindead sort of way.  The one thing of value here turned out to not even be a real part of it: the version of Crimson Altar I watched credits its score to Kendall Schmidt, and I was floored by how futuristic it sounded, wall-to-wall synthesized spookshow music that's chintzy as hell, and has "action" cues that are just embarrassing, but which from time to time managed "otherworldly mystery" quite well; it sounds "futuristic" because Schmidt rescored the movie in the 1980s.  As for what its original Peter Knight score sounded like, who knows or cares.  It was for Lovecraft that I shoehorned Curse of the Crimson Altar into this American International Pictures horror film retrospective (or whatever it is this feature's become, as over the years I've always twisted it into whatever shape was most convenient to me at the time), but of course the movie is soup-to-nuts British, and the most useful thing about it is how it demonstrates the failure mode of the Hammer/Amicus/Tigon national style in the most abject way of any movie I've ever seen from this era of that country's horror filmmaking.  I mean, they all have ugly wallpaper, but the wallpaper here is just outrageously bad.

Score: 2/10

*It's possible that in the late 60s/early 70s there was some confusion over whether any Lovecraft was still copyrightedit seems that it's only a little later that it became apparent that the vast majority of his work, including "Witch House," had entered the public domain alreadybut I'm only speculating, and I have no idea if AIP paid August Derleth any money for their avowed Lovecraft films.


  1. What a sad waste of such a delightfully lurid title - and that’s just the alternate title THE CRIMSON CULT, the actual movie somehow manages to be outright shameful.

    1. I mean, it wouldn't make the movie remotely acceptable by itself, but asking for some effort to be put into an altar prop feels like a minimum request!

    2. On the other hand I’m reasonably sure that this film is a key reason a rather charming photograph of Sir Christopher, Mr Karloff and Ms. Steele chatting together when not on-set exists: I’ve always thought it looked rather as though Mr & Mrs Harker had dropped in for tea & sympathy with Professor Van Helsing (Something about Sir Christopher’s moustache).