Monday 7 March 2011

The Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968)

The first proper British horror film I've yet written about, THE CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR was directed by Vernon Sewell and produced by Tigon, one of the three main horror production companies in the UK (the others being Hammer, of course, and Amicus).  Tigon has the reputation of being the sleaziest of the three, of chasing audiences with overt promises of sex and violence - thereby exploiting the horror genre rather than embracing it.

I'm not sure that reputation is entirely justified.  Yes there's BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW (1971) and VIRGIN WITCH  (1972) but there's also the aforementioned Michael Reeves' THE SORCERERS and WITCHFINDER GENERAL, two superb films.  Yes they made their fair share of crappers (e.g. THE BEAST IN THE CELLAR (1970)) but then so did Hammer (e.g. THE HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN (1970)) and Amicus (e.g. THE BEAST MUST DIE (1974)).  And neither were Tigon alone in the titillation stakes: Hammer made plenty of films about sexed up vampires and weren't particularly discreet about it - THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, anyone?

That said, I'm not sure THE CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR is the best example to use when presenting the case for Tigon's defence.  There are swinging parties, dolly birds galore, S&M blacksmiths and the stunt casting of three horror icons: Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff and Barbara Steele.  That all sounds pretty exploitative to me and, what's more, it's essentially used to dress up a run-of-the-mill plot about a chap looking for his missing brother who may have got himself mixed up with satanists.

Tradition ...

and modernity.
And yet.  And yet.  It's actually very watchable which I think is partly down to the performance of Mark Eden as the hero (this was in the days when he was still playing heroes, as opposed to his memorable turn as Alan Bradley on Corrie many years later) and partly down to the delightful Englishness of the whole thing.  And I think that's what Tigon had going for them: get past all the silly trappings and you'll find that underneath there's a reassuringly respectable British film waiting to get out.  Everyone is nice and polite (even the villains) and  everything is ever-so-slightly past its best, like an old seaside resort: a bit tatty but familiar and oddly comforting.

This man went on to try to kill Rita Fairclough

I love that he goes exploring the house in his pyjamas and slippers

Hammer very rarely ventured outside of Borehamwood when shooting their films with the result that they all look rather similar.  Useful in establishing a house style but not really connecting with England as we know it.  Not that they needed to because many of their films were set in Transylvania or Karlstadt or wherever Count Dracula or Baron Frankenstein happened to rock up that year.  With Tigon you got actual location shooting and so their films seem more English than Hammer's; WITCHFINDER GENERAL is justly renowned as using the English countryside to remarkable effect.

That film, like this one, was shot by noted cinematographer John Coquillon.  I'm in two minds about Coquillon's style: on the one hand his work on WITCHFINDER GENERAL and some of the films he made with Sam Peckinpah (notably PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID (1973)) are quite beautiful; on the other hand some other films he worked on are quite ugly, such as this one and STRAW DOGS (1971).  Maybe I need to see some more examples before I can make my mind up.

Another widescreen shot of Christopher Lee about to sacrifice someone

Boris Karloff looks very very old in this film and considerably more frightening than he did as Frankenstein's monster.  In a way it's sad to him him wheeled about in his chair but at the same time it's always a pleasure to see him on screen and I quite like the idea of the horror mantle being passed from one icon to another (however uncomfortably that might have sat with Lee, who has professed his disdain for a lot of his films).  Karloff only made two more features after this and died the following year.  Barbara Steele is sadly under-used although, as always, makes a terrific impression in some startling make up.

Boris Karloff

Barbara Steele

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