It’s Lovecraft Season!

Like many horror aficionados, I enjoy reading horror fiction as well as watching horror movies. And as summer makes way for autumn I’ve been indulging in a bit of both. Much like my fellow Morlock Richard Harland Smith, I eagerly await this time of year. It gives me an excuse to spend my free time focused on all things spooky and scary so that’s what I intend to do for the next few weeks. I thought I’d start the month off with a look at one of my favorite H.P. Lovecraft film adaptations, The Crimson Cult (aka Cult of the Crimson Alter; 1968).

This moody British horror movie has recently become available through the Netflix instant watch program that allows subscribers to view films online or stream them at home.

I hadn’t seen The Crimson Cult in over 20 years so you can imagine my surprise when I discovered that it was suddenly available at Netflix. The company seems to have acquired the rights to a small but impressive batch of 1960s and 70s era horror films recently that aren’t available on DVD in the US yet including the Hammer film Vampire Circus (1971), the zombie movie Sugar Hill (1974) and the made-for-TV thriller Night Drive (aka Night Terror; 1977).

The Crimson Cult was based on H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Dreams in the Witch House” which was first published in an issue of Weird Tales in 1933. It’s often considered to be a minor Lovecraft effort but I’ve always enjoyed it and I appreciate the way that the author played with the esoteric nature of mathematics in his story. Like most H.P. Lovecraft film adaptations, The Crimson Cult bears little resemblance to the author’s original tale but the movie does have its own kind of charm and has managed to cast a spell over me for many years but it isn’t easy being a fan. Many critics, scholars, and Lovecraft enthusiasts dismiss The Crimson Cult as a complete failure. The movie is far from perfect and its flaws were plainly apparent when I watched it again recently but I think it has some great qualities that are worthy of consideration.

The film was produced by Tigon (one of Hammer studio’s rivals along with Amicus), which was responsible for some of the best horror films released in Britain including Witchfinder General (1968) and Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971). The Crimson Cult isn’t as effective or impactful as those two genre classics but I think it’s one of the more interesting Lovecraft adaptations produced during the 1960s for numerous reasons. The movie was directed by the British film veteran Vernon Sewell (The Medium; 1934, Ghost Ship; 1952, House of Mystery; 1961, Blood Beast Terror; 1968, Burke & Hare; 1972, etc.) who by all accounts had a lot of creative control over the film. Unfortunately, the production was hampered by budget limitations and a poorly conceived script that passed through the hands of many writers (Jerry Sohl, Mervyn Haisman, Henry Lincoln and Gerry Levy).
The script is rather conventional and it never bothers to tackle the more fascinating and complex aspects of Lovecraft’s original tale. It begins with the disappearance of an antiques dealer named Peter Manning (Denys Peek) who was dabbling in the buying and selling of occult relics. After his sudden disappearance, his brother Robert (Mark Eden) decides to look for him in a secluded country village inhabited by an unusual cast of characters that includes a wealthy landowner named Morley (Christopher Lee), his stammering servant (Michael Gough) and a wheelchair-bound occult expert, Professor Marshe (Boris Karloff). Although Robert is desperate to find his brother he becomes distracted by Morley’s beautiful niece (Virginia Wetherell) while staying at his ancestral home known as Greymarsh Lodge. When night falls Robert is haunted by strange dreams involving a green-skinned witch (Barbara Steele), whip-wielding sadists and suspicious-looking goats. When his dreams begin to merge with reality, Robert discovers that his family’s history is deeply linked to the village and the peculiar esoteric activities taking place at Greymarsh Lodge.

What makes The Crimson Cult so watchable is the creative cinematography by John Coquillon and its cast of impressive horror film luminaries. John Coquillon is often remembered for his striking work with director Sam Peckinpah on such films as Straw Dogs (1971), Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973), Cross of Iron(1977) and The Osterman Weekend (1983). But Coquillon also photographed many notable horror films including Witchfinder General (1968), The Oblong Box (1969), Scream and Scream Again (1970), Cry of the Banshee (1970) and The Changeling (1980). Together with director Vernon Sewell, Coquillon was able to conjure up some creative dream sequences with psychedelic overtones that are really the highlight of The Crimson Cult.

In these colorful scenes the gorgeous horror icon Barbara Steele almost steals the movie with her brief and silent performance. Her green makeup and imaginative costume make her look utterly otherworldly and during these moments the film manages to capture some of the eerie and hallucinatory mood found in Lovecraft’s original tale. Unfortunately, the film rarely generates a sense of doom or deep foreboding that was also present in Lovecraft’s best work.

The movie was shot on location at the famous Grim’s Dyke house in England that was rumored to be haunted. It was once owned by dramatist W.S. Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame) but it currently functions as a hotel. This spectacular house was beautifully lit and photographed by John Coquillon, which couldn’t have been easy. Most working studios at the time were still using sets but Tigon’s decision to shoot on location really adds to the overall look and feel of the film. The dark Escher-like stairways, luxurious bedrooms and elegant libraries of the Grim’s Dyke estate seem perfectly suited for a horror film and director Vernon Sewell obviously agreed with me. He shot two films for Tigon at Grim’s Dyke. The Crimson Cult and Blood Beast Terror, which features Peter Cushing as a Scotland Yard detective trying to track down a moth-like creature on a killing spree.

It’s apparent that the actors in The Crimson Cult were given very little to do so their performances suffer. Christopher Lee seems uncommitted to his character and since making the film he’s expressed his disappointment with the production. Michael Gough’s limited role as Lee’s bumbling house servant is a waste of his talent but as always, the very ill Boris Karloff does manage to bring some genuine feeling to his role as Professor Marshe. The Crimson Cult was Karloff’s last British movie and the 80-year-old actor had to remain in a wheelchair for most of the shoot but there’s something very touching and maudlin in the way he delivers his lines. The script is undoubtedly the weakest element of The Crimson Cult but it did give Karloff some worthwhile dialogue.

All the best things in life are short-lived.” – Professor Marshe (Boris Karloff)

The Crimson Cult isn’t the best Lovecraft adaptation I’ve seen but it remains one of my favorites for many of the reasons that I’ve mentioned. It’s an unmistakable late 1960s production from the very groovy score by Peter Knight to the mind-bending imagery provided by Vernon Sewell and John Coquillon but that’s why I find it so entertaining. If you’re looking for a fun way to spend 87 minutes you could do a lot worse than The Crimson Cult. Unfortunately the only way to currently view the film is through Netflix and as you can see from the screengrabs I’ve shared, the picture isn’t presented in letterbox and appears to be rather distorted or squashed. The colors are rich and the film sounds great but I hope it will be released on DVD in its correct aspect ratio in the future.

Lovecraft fans might be interested to know that the Hollywood Theatre in Portland Oregon will be hosting The H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival this week, October 1-3. The film festival is part of the Cthulhu Con, which celebrates H.P. Lovecraft’s life and work. Some of the films being shown during this 3-day event include Stuart Gordon’s Dagon (2001) Jean-Paul Oullette’s The Unnamable (1988), Dan Ireland’s The Whole Wide World (1996) and Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar nominated Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). You can find more information about the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival including show times and ticket prices at the official website.

by Kimberly Lindbergs

Originally written for Turner Classic Movies and published September 30, 2010