Tea and Sadism: Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968)

curse-of-the-crimson-altar

A few years ago, I was planning a book on British horror cinema. I wanted to look (in part) at how certain British horror films juxtaposed shots of twee English domesticity with scenes of cruelty and kink. All set against a backdrop of the perpetually overcast British countryside.

The book was going to be called Tea and Sadism. Cool title, eh?

Perhaps my favourite example of the ‘Tea and Sadism’ trend was Jose Larraz’ Vampyres. Here’s the trailer for that one:

Anyhoos, I’ve already written about Vampyres, so we’ll turn to another, perhaps even more obscure ‘tea and sadism’ entry: 1968’s Curse of the Crimson Altar. Trailer time again:

I bought Curse on VHS at the gone (and dearly missed) Movie Reel in Melbourne, for a princely $1, moments after emailing my thesis to the printers. Moments before video stores went in the way of the dinosaurs:

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My purchase had a basic cover: crimson-coloured (of course), with candles and a skull. Spooky shit.

(As an aside: I’m thrilled to see that there’s a cult following surrounding —well, not around crimson altars—but certainly around VHS art. So superior to the coldly slick imagery that would adorn DVD covers.)

The film opens with our hero, Robert Manning (Mark Eden), heading off into Rural England in search of his brother, who was last spotted visiting a notorious manor. Notorious, you know, cos the locals talk about it in hushed tones. As if Something Bad has happened there.

And Something Bad has happened at said estate. It’s called ‘Craxley Lodge’. Hardly a charming name.’Oh, yeah, you know, I’m gonna go and unwind at Craxley Lodge.’ No, just doesn’t work.

Oh, and Craxley Lodge is being haunted by Lavinia (Barbara Steele), a witch who was burnt centuries ago. The locals are celebrating this burning at the very moment that Robert arrives. (Doubtless these vaguely misogynist festivities are boosting the local economy).

Robert gets no answers regarding his brother’s whereabouts from the owner of Craxley Lodge, J.D. Morley (Christopher Lee). Fortunately, an elderly academic with a research interest in the occult (Boris Karloff) is on hand to provide assistance.

The plot is trite, as is the dialogue. But never mind—this one’s got plenty going for it. I mean, look at the cast, a treasure-trove of vintage horror stars. As well as the actors mentioned above, you’ve got Michael Gough (Horror of Dracula) and Virginia Wetherell (Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde, Demons of the Mind).

What’s more, this film contains some seriously striking imagery. There’s a Swinging Sixties party filled half-naked guests who are spraying it around (champagne, that is—they’re spraying round champagne). There’s a young woman in a flesh-coloured jumpsuit running through a forest (this is how people amuse themselves in the British countryside, apparently …) . There are weird-arse nightmares.

And there’s Lavinia’s lair.

As played by Steele, Lavinia is a supernatural siren with green flesh, a gold ram’s-horn headdress, and a voice that seems to be projected by an unseen loudspeaker. Lavinia resides in some parallel universe with her henchmen, who are decked out in leather chaps, and who obey their dominatrix’ every command.

This devilish debauchery takes place alongside scenes of elegant, well-lit interiors and misty, murky exteriors. Oh, and shots of the three male leads —Lee, Karloff, and Gough —pacing up and down in suits, stiff upper lip clearly intact, trying to look dignified, and possibly forget that their careers had seen better days (and better scripts).

Look, I’ll be fair: Karloff is given a half-decent joke about ‘old Boris Karloff movies’ (or something such). And how cool was it that academics could once research on the occult?! Imagine trying to get funding for an occult-related project today, in the neoliberal academy?

As Lavinia, Steele gets to camp it up; no stiff upper lip here, no restraint. She’s like the Joan Collins of the afterlife. Wetherell has a thankless role as the token love interest.

So, yeah, what happened to my Tea and Sadism book? I ditched it. No research funding for the occult, remember? At some point, I also ditched my copy of Curse of the Crimson Altar. The latter move was a bad one. Cos, let’s face it, this retro curiousity is one that can only be totally appreciated when played on the humble VCR.

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