H.P. Lovecraftian horror: The Gothic supernatural thriller “Curse of the Crimson Altar” (1968)

By on October 10, 2017

British director Vernon Sewell’s Gothic supernatural thriller Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968) was originally shot as Dreams in a Witch House, but it was so loosely based on H.P. Lovecraft’s short story of the same name that Lovecraft received no actual story-by credit (the screenplay is credited to “Dr. Who” writers Mervyn Halsman and Henry Lincoln). Watch it now on Night Flight Plus.


Sewell’s film was later released theatrically as both The Crimson Cult — in the United States — and then again, with a shortened title, as The Crimson Altar.

Plotwise, this spooky, psychedelic-laced horrorshow follows antiques dealer Robert Manning (Mark Eden) as he travels to the remote country manor of Greymarsh, where his brother was last seen before he suddenly disappeared.

There, Manning — who arrives while the village in question is holding an anniversary witchcraft celebration, where we see men chasing a girl running through the woods — ends up staying with the charming J.D. Morley (Christopher Lee) and his beautiful niece, Eve (Virginia Wetherell).

However, we learn that the Morley family is descended from Lavinia Morley (Barbara Steele), the legendary Black Witch of Greymarsh, who was burnt at the stake centuries ago and has promised revenge on the ancestors of her persecutors, placing a sardonic hex on those who would come to the manor.


As Manning continues to investigate the disappearance of his brother, he is beset by horrible dreams about black masses and ritual sacrifices and ends up seeking the counsel of a sinister-sounding expert on the Occult, wheelchair-bound professor John Marshe (Boris Karloff), asking for his help, learning later that the man actually collects “instruments of torture.”

What Manning doesn’t know is that Morley is also a practitioner of black magick, who — after first throwing a crazy anything-goes late-Sixties party, complete with psychedelic hallucinations — plans on the ritual sacrifice of his visitor in order to atone for the evil misdeeds of his ancestors, who had burned the 17th-century witch Lavinia at the stake some two hundred years earlier.


This was 80-year old Boris Karloff’s last British-made film, and he became quite ill with pneumonia while shooting in the freezing rain (shooting began on January 22, 1968).

Karloff — who had just finished shooting Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets in the United States — would recover enough to shoot four Mexican feature films in May 1968, which turned out to be his final screen work.

He doesn’t appear until twenty-two minutes into the story in this one.


The UK-made film was no doubt inspired by interest in the drug culture at the time, and featured a great supporting cast of memorable British character actors, including Michael Gough (Horror Of Dracula), who plays a butler, and Rupert Davies (The Witchfinder General) (The Crimson Cult was produced by the same UK production company, Tigon Productions, who produced Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan’s Claw, among others).

The house used in the film is Grim’s Dyke House (now a hotel) in Harrow Weald, Middlesex, and formerly was the home of W.S. Gilbert of Gilbert & Sullivan fame.

There are some excellent dungeon and virgin sacrificing scenes, and you’ll various characters wearing weird S&M-style costumes, but honestly we couldn’t take our eyes off the lovely Barbara Steele as the green-faced, goat-horned crown wearing Lavinia.


Watch Curse of the Crimson Altar on Night Flight Plus!


About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.