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Curse Of The Crimson Altar (DVD)

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Actors: Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, Rupert Davies, Mark Eden, Barbara Steele / Directors: Vernon Sewell / Producers: Louis M. Heyward / Classification: 15 / Studio: Simply Media / DVD Release Date: 21 Mar 2005 / Run Time: 87 minutes

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      20.02.2014 10:53
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      A disappointing horror effort from people who should have known better

      A film-only review. There was a British DVD of this, but it's out of print and now sells for £40. A German DVD, under the name Die Hexe des Grafen Dracula (odd name, as Dracula doesn't appear) can be had for about £10 on UK amazon, but much cheaper if you buy from German amazon.

      This is a largely forgotten British horror movie from the era when British horror was reaching its zenith. It has a pretty decent pedigree, but is ultimately a rather drab affair livened up by a few moments of highly entertaining silliness.

      Year: 1968
      Director: Vernon Sewell
      Stars: Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee
      More information at: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0062833/
      IMDB user rating: 5.4

      Antique dealer Robert Manning is disturbed by his brother's disappearance. He goes to visit the mansion his brother was last seen at, but the owner, Morley, claims never to have heard of Manning's brother. Manning becomes involved with Morley's sexy niece, and meets the suspicious Professor Marsh. And his dreams are soon haunted by a green-skinned witch called Lavinia.

      This film has no right being as boring as it is, really. It was made by Tigon, the most varied and interesting of Hammer's rivals. And it has an amazing cast packed full of top horror talent: Boris Karloff (in his last British film), Christopher Lee, Barbara Steele and Michael Gough are all in it. Unfortunately, Steele doesn't even appear with the other stars. Most multi-star horrors tend to be disappointing, and this is no exception.

      The film's plot is confusing, not helped by the fact that an awful lot of crucial exposition is only introduced about a minute before the film ends. It was written by Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln, a writing partnership who were also working on Dr Who at about the same time (they invented the Great Intelligence). The flaws in this script suggest that they should perhaps have stuck to kids' science fiction. (Lincoln later went on to co-author The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail, and thus is responsible for an awful lot of conspiracy silliness).

      The director, Vernon Sewell, made dozens of B-movies, including a few poor horror films (The Blood Beast Terror and Burke and Hare stand out as particularly vexatious). His direction isn't terrible, and he at least manages to find interesting ways to frame what we're seeing sometimes. The problem is that so much of what we see is crushingly banal. The decadent, crazy-youth party that Manning stumbles across at the beginning is an embarrassment, and doesn't have any of the silly humour of similar scenes in Dracula AD 1972. A woman pouring champagne over herself and two other woman daubing each other with paint do not an orgy make, I'm afraid, and everyone remains clothed throughout.

      Where the film does briefly come alive is in the witchy dream sequences. Not because they're any good, but because they're so hilarious that they bring a certain amount of goodwill with them. Lavinia herself looks amazing - green skinned, with a golden ram's horn headdress (an image of her in this bizarre get-up was used as the basis of one of the old horror top trumps, although it toned down her cleavage). And her acolytes are wonderfully silly. There's the Guy in the Hood, the Guy with the Goat, the Woman with Big Boobs, Antler Guy, and the Woman with a Cock. (I meant poultry; get your mind out of the gutter.) Antler Guy is my favourite. He wears tiny leather pants and, well, antlers, like he's the world's silliest bondage enthusiast. I assume between them Lavinia's chums are supposed to be surreal and horrific, but they look like they'd be quite fun to have at a party.

      Someone who most emphatically would not be fun to have at a party is Christopher Lee (in this film, anyway. I'm sure he's more fun in real life). Here he deploys his standard 'grumpy boots' style of acting - the way he behaved in most of his late 60s/early 70s horrors, since he was sick of the genre and felt it rather beneath him. He wears the same tweed jacket throughout and has a very nasty little moustache. The problem really is that his character is dull.

      The same can be said for Professor Marsh, played with a bit more animation by Boris Karloff. The veteran star is confined to a wheelchair for most of the film (his mute attendant, Basil, is pretty funny). When he does stand up at one point it's obvious how frail he was. He caught pneumonia working on this film and didn't live much longer afterwards. It's always great to see him, but it feels a bit exploitative, wheeling him out to deliver some silly plot-heavy dialogue in a film so inferior to his best work.

      Barbara Steele, British star of some of the best Italian horror of the 1960s, looks terrific as Lavinia, but only has a handful of scenes. The best performance comes from Michael Gough as the stammering, simple-minded butler. Gough was a good actor who generally went so far over the top in his horror roles that he left the audience under no illusions about what he thought of the films. Here he gives the one much-needed hammy performance among a bunch of actors who are unaccountably all playing it straight. I wouldn't say he gives a good performance, but at least he brings a bit of energy to proceedings.

      Manning, the hero, is played by Mark Eden, a good actor but not a terribly compelling leading man. He doesn't have the kind of man-about-town handsomeness that the script needs - he looks like a spiv, and it's weird that he seems to be so irresistible to women. The niece is played by Virginia Wetherell, who is probably most famous now for being the topless woman Malcolm McDowell tries to grope after his conditioning in A Clockwork Orange. She gives the film it's only nude scene, and I guess isn't too bad an actor. The only other cast member I recognised was Rupert Davies, playing a vicar rather apathetically.

      The plot is a bit silly (it actually resembles the kind of plot Italian horror films used - the return of a witch who was executed in the middle ages to wreak vengeance on the descendants of her persecutors was a staple of Italian horror). The dialogue doesn't do it many favours - there's a lot of talk about bodkins, and I've still no idea why Gough kept telling Manning to go and look at the local graveyard.

      The worst thing about it is the music, which tries to chivvy up some interest in what's happening onscreen by being shriekingly unsubtle and occasionally completely inappropriate (one passage sounded like it belonged in a cheap Arabian Nights adventure movie). It's an object lesson in how to undermine a film with poor music.

      Not that the film itself is all that good, and it's probably right that it's so obscure. It was more enjoyable than it deserved to be, mainly because of the few scenes featuring Antler Guy and pals. Otherwise it just wastes a great cast.

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