British horror films of the 1960s and 1970s have a certain macabre look to them. The lighting is dim and Gothic architecture and misty moors abound. The films also look similar because they often cast a veritable repertory company of actors. Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Michael Gough, Barbara Steele, Ingrid Pitt, Patrick Magee, and American actors like Vincent Price, Burgess Meredith, and Jack Palance often appeared in low-budget films made by Hammer or Amicus Productions.
In Britain during that era, Hammer Productions was the largest and best known of the horror houses. Hammer Productions kept the legends of Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Mummy going long after Universal Studios had forgotten them. Hammer’s horror films often starred Lee and Cushing and that alone induced people to buy tickets. At the same time Hammer was running Van Helsing ragged, Amicus Productions was also making horror films. Though Amicus made full-length films like THE DEADLY BEES and THE SKULL, portmanteau horror movies like TALES FROM THE CRYPT gained that studio the most attention.
Competing with Hammer and Amicus and sharing office space at Hammer House in London, Tigon British Film Productions made fewer films, but often used the same actors, sets, and props as the other studios. That means you can see Lee and Cushing in Hammer’s SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA, Amicus’ VAULT OF HORROR, or Tigon’s THE CREEPING FLESH. Often directors like Freddie Francis, Peter Sasdy, Terence Fisher, and Roy Ward Baker shuttled back and forth between studios as well. All three studios showed a little gore and a little skin and all three were popular with audiences.
Tigon cast its actors for 1968’s THE CRIMSON CULT or CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR from the Hammer/Amicus horror repertory company. Most of the actors had worked together in earlier films. THE CRIMSON CULT leads Christopher Lee and Michael Gough appeared in films together including HORROR OF DRACULA for Hammer in 1958 and DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORROR for Amicus in 1965. Lee and Boris Karloff starred in CORRIDORS OF BLOOD for MGM in 1958. Familiarity breeds comfort. The fact that these seasoned actors had already worked together allowed them to converse naturally on camera. The best scenes in the film feature the leads sharing a drink and a few barbs before a fire.
After his brother goes missing, Robert Manning (Mark Eden), antiques dealer and bon vivant, travels to Craxted Lodge in fictional Greymarsh to find him. The lodge’s owner, Morley (Christopher Lee) and his niece, Eve (Virginia Wetherell) invite Manning to stay at the lodge while he searches for his brother. There he meets friendly torture-device expert, Professor Marsh (Boris Karloff) and crabby Elder (Michael Gough). Naturally, Manning’s arrival coincides with the annual bacchanal commemorating the burning of an infamous witch in the village. Manning gets on well with Morley and even better with Eve. Wink wink nudge nudge. He has fun while he’s awake, but at night Manning has hallucinogenic nightmares involving ritual sacrifice and document-signing. In his dreams, Lavinia Morley (Barbara Steele), an ancient witch sporting green makeup and horns, and her animal mask wearing cohorts try to force Manning to sign an ancient agreement. In his dreams, he fears signing the contract will mean losing his soul. Later Manning stumbles upon secret passageways and an altar room, both of which figure prominently in Hammer films and his frightening dreams. With all the talk of contract signing, I couldn’t help thinking of other films in which the characters are coerced to ‘just sign here’. Manning’s dreams remind me of a psychedelic version of GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, but with less coffee and more blood rituals.
The interplay between Morley, Marsh, and Manning is my favorite part of the film. The screenplay by Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln has enough witty banter for actors like Lee and Karloff to have fun with. As usual, Lee plays an erudite aristocrat who tells only enough to make you suspect him of something. The looks and asides between him and Karloff are priceless. What about Marsh? Is he the crazed occultist invading Manning’s dreams? He does have a mysterious air and a weird hobby.
Manning and Eve have real chemistry too and their mature love affair is a far cry from most of the American films released in 1968. Vernon Sewell directed THE CRIMSON CULT and it looks as if he had a blast. The party scene, the witch-burning festival, and even the costumes suggest the film-makers were enjoying themselves. Still, a few questions remain. Will Manning find his wayward brother? Will he be able to resist the beautifully verdant, but evil Lavinia Morley? Will Manning stop chugging Professor Marsh’s fifty-year-old cognac like a teenager at a keg party? And finally, who will win the mellifluous voice contest, Karloff or Lee?
THE CRIMSON CULT bears only a slight resemblance to H.P. Lovecraft’s story, THE DREAMS IN THE WITCH HOUSE. In that, a college student who studies math and folklore begins to have dreams of witches and child sacrifice while living in an accursed house in Lovecraft’s fictional Arkham, Massachusetts. The hero also dreams of traveling to other dimensions and meeting intelligent shapes. The filmmakers decided to stick with the more corporeal aspects of the story.
THE CRIMSON CULT’s distance from Miskatonic University matters less than the presence of Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff in one of his last roles, Barbara Steele with horns, and a weird party featuring guests drinking champagne off a woman’s body years before Salma Hayek did it in that Mexican vampire bar. Despite the absence of Cthulhu or even Yog-Sothoth, THE CRIMSON CULT has enough secret doorways, plot twists, and Christopher Lee to make it fun to watch.