Robert Manning (Mark Eden), Curse of the Crimson Altar
1968 would give Boris Karloff the opportunity to work alongside director Peter Bogdanovich in what many consider to be the greatest film of his career, Targets. It was Bogdanovich’s theatrical debut and the film is stunning. It is more thriller than horror as it is set in the modern day and deals with a Vietnam veteran who has snapped and goes on a killing spree. Karloff is essentially playing himself in the role of Byron Orlok, an aging horror film star. In fact, clips of The Terror (1963) are seen in the climatic drive-in scene.
Ultimately, it was the violence in Targets that made the movie hard to sell to the audience. With the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, there was a public outcry against guns. It eventually was released but without much fanfare at the time. While I do enjoy the film, I must admit it is not a personal favorite of mine. It just seems too gritty and realistic for Karloff and lacks the fun found in most of his films. I’m probably in the minority on this one but that’s the fun part of the horror community. Everyone has an opinion of most of us are accepting without passing judgment.
Following Targets, Karloff was hard at work again in England alongside Christopher Lee and Barbara Steel in The Curse of the Crimson Altar. This would be another ill-fated attempt to adapt an H.P. Lovecraft story, this one being Dreams in the Witch House. However, with no less than five writers involved in the screenplay, it ended up being a rather confusing mess.
Mark Eden (Séance on a Wet Afternoon) stars as Robert Manning, who is searching for his lost brother as our film begins. He travels to a countryside home known as Craxted Lodge at Greymarsh (just sounds foreboding doesn’t it?) and will soon regret being asked to stay by the niece of the homeowner, Mr. Morley (Christopher Lee). His dreams are restless, full of images of satanic worship and sacrifices. Enter Boris Karloff as the occult expert Professor Marshe. He warns of a cult for Morley’s ancestor Lavinia (Barbara Steele, Black Sunday). Along the way, we get some fun scenes with Michael Gough (Black Zoo) as Elder. Things go rapidly downhill for Robert leading to the obligatory burning mansion by the end of the flick.
Curse of the Crimson Altar, released in the United States as The Crimson Cult, is a rather forgettable effort due to the very confusing and lazy script. You certainly can’t blame its’ ultimate failure on horror legends Karloff, Lee and Steele as they do the best they can with what little is given them. As usual, Karloff gave the film his all, including filming several night scenes during a rainstorm. Lee recalled how painful it was to watch Karloff as everyone knew how bad his respiratory condition had become by this time. But Karloff was a professional and never said no. Unfortunately, he would contract a very bad case of bronchitis that many believe played a big part in his death less than a year later.
Curse of the Crimson Altar is enjoyable only because of the stars. It is a bit painful to watch as you know everyone did much better work. Nonetheless, I suggest Karloff fans seek it out. It is hard to find in the US so watch the trailer while you look through the usual dark corners of the video outlets.
The film would be released in the UK in December 1968 but it would not see wide distribution in the US until the spring of 1970. While it was the last major motion picture Karloff would work on, he still had another four films awaiting him down in Mexico. Halloween may be Day 31 but return tomorrow for Day 32 as we take a look at the final films of Boris Karloff!