Archive for the ‘Christopher Lee’ Tag

Freddie Francis: Reluctant Horror Icon   3 comments

Freddie Francis once said, “Horror films have liked me more than I have liked horror films.”

The director of more than forty films and television episodes, including twenty-five horrors and the cinematographer of nearly forty more, Freddie Francis may have been typecast as a horror director for good reason. He was good at it.

He started his film career as a camera operator. A friend and protégé of Oscar-winning cinematographer, Oswald Morris, Francis worked for and with Morris and Ronald Neame at Pinewood Studios until World War II broke out in 1939. Francis joined the Army Kinematographic Society, based at Wembley Studios, and spent the next seven years making training films. After leaving the military in 1946, Francis found work as a camera operator at Shepperton Studios, where he worked with Powell & Pressburger, John Huston, Tony Richardson, and a bunch of other incredibly talented directors. On the set of Huston’s Moby Dick, Francis asked if he could head up the second unit. Oswald Morris gave an enthusiastic yes, and Francis acted as director of photography for the first time.


“Call me irresponsible.”

From 1956 to 1964, Francis was director of photography on over a dozen films before beginning his directing career with the film, Two and Two Make Six in 1962. It didn’t fare well. After winning the Oscar for cinematography with Sons and Lovers in 1960, and acclaim with The Innocents, (Francis’ favorite film), his friends were surprised he made the leap to directing.


Don’t turn around.

His background in cinematography may explain why Francis directed some of the most visually stunning of the Hammer and Amicus films. In the early 1960s, Francis directed Paranoiac, Nightmare, Hysteria, and The Evil of Frankenstein for Hammer before making Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, The Skull, The Psychopath, The Deadly Bees, and The Torture Garden for Amicus. In 1968, another terrific Hammer director, Terence Fisher was hit by a motorbike and broke his leg during post-production work on The Devil Rides Out. Fisher was set to direct Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, starring Christopher Lee, but Hammer replaced him with Freddie Francis. Throughout the 1970s, Francis worked for both Hammer, Amicus, Tigon, and other, smaller companies, making The Creeping Flesh, Trog, Tales from the Crypt, and an odd little nugget made by Apple films and starring Harry Nilsson and Ringo Starr, called Son of Dracula. He also directed some episodic TV shows before returning to cinematography.


Ringo Starr is Merlin and Harry Nilsson is Count Downe. Yup.

In 1980, David Lynch hired Francis as director of photography on his disturbing and poignant film, The Elephant Man, and later his ill-fated, but gorgeously-photographed, Dune. Francis also served as DP on The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The Executioner’s Song, Glory, for which he won his second Oscar, The Man in the Moon, Cape Fear, School Ties, and the beautiful and simply shot film, The Straight Story, again, for David Lynch.


Mr. Bytes thinks up his next good deed.

One of the reasons I chose to write about Francis for this blogathon was my love for Amicus anthology films and Freddie Francis directed three of them. In Amicus’ first anthology, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965), six men meet on a train. Peter Cushing (Dr. Terror) pulls out a deck of tarot cards, claiming he can see what’s to come for each man in the car. Oddly, their futures don’t look bright. Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, Donald Sutherland, and Bernard Lee also star in the five segments.


“Got anyyyy eights?”

In Francis’ next anthology film, The Torture Garden (1967), Burgess Meredith stars as Dr. Diabolo, a carnival barker who lures four unsuspecting victims into his cave-like back room where they learn about their less than rosy fates. Peter Cushing, Michael Ripper, Niall MacGinnis, and Jack Palance join in the fun. Robert Bloch, of Psycho fame, wrote the stories in The Torture Garden and many of the other Amicus anthologies. They’re literate, full of black humor and twisty endings, and a lot of fun.


“Lemme tell ya about the rabbits, Jack.”

Francis ended his anthology run with a bang. Tales from the Crypt (1972) stars Ralph Richardson as The Crypt Keeper, who leads five people through their terrifying stories. Peter Cushing, Ian Hendry, Patrick Magee, Nigel Patrick, and the spectacular Joan Collins star in these dark tales, based on William Gaines’ EC Comics.


“Want to hear a story?”

Francis dug Peter Cushing, by the way. He said of the actor, “I think Peter is absolutely wonderful. There is not an actor in the world who can speak rubbish like Peter and make it sound real.”


“I can’t believe it’s not butter!”

Amicus producers, Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg borrowed the template of individual tales connected by a linking story, from the portmanteau horror film, Dead of Night (1945). Dead of Night was not the first anthology film or even the first horror anthology, but it aligned well with Amicus’ association with Robert Bloch and suited the repertory company of actors working in horror films at the time. It also made money for Amicus, who made seven of these films.


“Once, I picked up a squirrel and squeezed it until it stopped moving.”

While I love the portmanteau horrors Freddie Francis directed, I love two of his films more. In 1965, Francis took the Robert Bloch story, “The Skull of the Marquis de Sade” and an all-star cast, including Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Patrick Wymark, Jill Bennett, Nigel Green, and Patrick Magee, and made The Skull. The Skull is awesome on so many levels, it’s hard for me to contain myself to write this. Cushing and Lee collect demonic art. They also play billiards holding brandy snifters and wearing smoking jackets while discussing pure evil. The oft-sniveling Patrick Wymark is a scuzzy seller of stolen devil memorabilia, who offers to sell Cushing the skull of the Marquis de Sade. He happens to have it lying around. Since Wymark already sold Cushing a book made of human skin, he figures it’s a cinch. Amazingly, the skull of the Marquis de Sade is no ray of sunshine. Let’s just say anyone associated with the skull in question better have his beneficiaries updated. Story aside, the effects in this film are killer. The evil skull floats all over Cushing’s well-appointed gentleman’s lair of evil stuff and the skull POV shots are fantastic. The Skull is so much fun.


“Have I mentioned I sell Amway?”

The second film worth highlighting is The Deadly Bees (1966). If you know me at all, you know I love skulls and movies with bees in them. The Deadly Bees is a movie with bees in it. Suzanna Leigh is a frazzled pop star recuperating from a nervous breakdown. Her doctor recommends that she rest on friendly, Seagull Island, where no one is getting killed by bees or anything. While Leigh relaxes, her hosts, who might have watched Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf too many times, fight about just about everything, including bees. Will bees attack Suzannah? What about Michael Ripper? The Deadly Bees also has a cool cameo. Ron Wood, guitarist for the Rolling Stones, appears on a Hullabaloo-like show, early in the film, as a member of The Birds. The bee effects lack sophistication, but it was the first killer bee film, after all, so back off.


Suzannah Leigh wears a bear before meeting the bees.

Freddie Francis may not have relished his career in horror, but I do and if you’re reading this, you probably do, too. Francis directed and filmed the biggest stars in Britain over a career spanning sixty years. He worked with Hammer, Peter Cushing, the Archers, Christopher Lee, Amicus, John Huston, and Captain Ahab. Not a bad record for this vicinity.

I wrote this article for The Great Hammer-Amicus Blogathon, hosted by Barry of Cinematic Catharsis and RealWeedgieMidget Reviews. They’re swell movie types and @Barry_Cinematic and @realweedgiemidge on Twitter.

 

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The Skull (1965)   2 comments

skull poster

Do you collect things? Stamps? Godzilla figurines? Commemorative spoons? In The Skull, Christopher Maitland (Peter Cushing) and Sir Matthew Phillips (Christopher Lee) collect all things Satan. They scour auction houses in search of devilish statues and books about torture for their macabre collections. They even buy hot tchotchkes from shady evil-stuff-seller, Marco (Patrick Wymark). Marco stocks an unusual variety of bizarre items, including a book he sells to Maitland. It’s a rare book. Well, one hopes it’s rare since it’s the memoirs of the Marquis de Sade covered in human skin. Nummy. Anyway, Maitland jumps at the chance to drop major ducats on the tome, which gives you some idea about his level of dedication to his hobby.

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I’ll wait for the paperback.

The next night, Maitland lounges in his well-appointed study reading his skin book when Marco arrives with a new demonic accessory to clutter his bookshelves. Marco brings Maitland a skull. This is no ordinary, dime-store skull, mind you. This skull has provenance. Well, Marco says it has anyway. This skull is the bony part of the head of the Marquis de Sade! Why Marco didn’t sell the skin diary/skull as a set will forever remain a mystery. The two men haggle over skull prices, as one does, but Maitland won’t bite. Maitland mentions the exchange to his friend, Sir Matthew, who warns him not to buy it by saying, “All I can say is keep away from the skull of the Marquis de Sade.” Words to live by, Matthew. Words to live by.

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“That skull’s evil, right devil statue?”

Unfortunately, Maitland doesn’t listen to his friend and drops by Marco’s place to buy the skull. Marco is indisposed, being dead and all, so Maitland grabs his souvenir and hits the road. Back home in his library, Maitland relaxes after a hard day’s looting. He spends a lovely evening surrounded by statues of Beelzebub reading about sadism from a book made of skin.

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Cozy.

Almost immediately, weird stuff happens. The normally peaceful Maitland begins to feel a strange, homicidal urge.
Is it coincidence? Is it the skull? Is he not getting enough fruit? Only the skull knows for sure.

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“Honey? You up?”

The Skull is an absolute blast. The stellar cast of Amicus/Hammer regulars, including Patrick Magee, Michael Gough, and Jill Bennett, add to the general atmosphere of British horror wonderfulness. We even get a little George Coulouris for good measure.

pat
“You didn’t see my lips move, didja?”

Robert Bloch (Psycho) wrote the story, aptly named “The Skull of the Marquis de Sade”.  Milton Subotsky, half of the Amicus production team of Rosenberg/Subotsky wrote the screenplay and the script moves right along. Director, Freddie Francis, a veteran of Amicus films, knows how to pack a lot into 83 minutes. They also pack some cool special effects into The Skull. Ted Samuels, who created the special effects for a number of Amicus features including Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors and The Psychopath outdid himself here. The skull, you see, flies. When provoked, it floats gracefully toward the camera. It’s not a choppy, Tingleresque motion, rather a majestic glide. The skull also lights up. It even manages to look evil. I stopped the DVD three times to watch a lit skull soar across a gentleman’s study. Seriously, you need to see this. If I haven’t convinced you yet, think about this. One scene in The Skull shows Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing playing pool…in tuxes.  ‘Nuff said.

skull
Hiya!

Note to self: Check into the possibility of manufacturing skull nightlights. You know, for kids.

 

 

Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965)   6 comments

aaadoc

Ahhh Amicus. I love your sordid little anthology films. Just seeing the names Milton Subotsky, Max Rosenberg, and Freddie Francis makes me smile. The funny little touches, the simple linking story, and the superb casts combine to entertain me more than any other horror films of the period. Maybe it’s my short attention span, but I love these stories.

aaaaaaaa
“Read ’em and weep, gentlemen!”

In Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, six men meet in a train car. One of them, Dr. W.R. Schreck (Peter Cushing) has a set of tarot cards and claims he can tell the future of anyone who taps his deck three times. Schreck, which in German means terror, reads three cards for each man to tell his fortune, a fourth to determine his fate, then a fifth, which will divine whether or not the man can alter his future.

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“Tarot this, Dr. T!”

In the first story, “Werewolf”, architect, Jim Dawson (Neil McCallum) travels to a remote island in Scotland to renovate his old house. While exploring the basement, Dawson finds a coffin full of Count Cosmo Valdemar. One of Dawson’s ancestors killed Valdemar hundreds of years ago and the Count holds grudges…even after he’s dead. Apparently, Valdemar is coming back to life as a werewolf. Dawson knows his stuff so he melts down a silver cross to make anti-werewolf bullets.  Things don’t go as planned.

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“I’ll make a mint with this on Antiques Roadshow.”

“Creeping Vine” tells the story of a robot that eats children. Actually, it tells the story of a creeping vine. I can’t put anything past you. This is no ordinary ivy plant. This vine is a killer. Even the marvelous Bernard Lee can’t stop it. All I can say is the British are too polite. A little well-place poison or a flamethrower would do wonders. This part has a cool ending.

aaamir
“Enough with the Miracle Grow already!”

“Voodoo” involves a trumpet player in a jazz quintet, Biff Bailey (Roy Castle) who hears a cool tune while visiting the West Indies. He decides to steal the song and call it his own. The people who actually wrote the song don’t like it.

aaahit
“A little auto-tune and this’ll be huge!”

Franklyn Marsh (Christopher Lee), who isn’t buying any of Dr. Terror’s tarot tales, stars in “The Disembodied Hand”.  In this segment, Lee plays a nasty art critic who insults the artwork of Eric Landor (Michael Gough). Landor makes a fool of Marsh and then taunts him relentlessly. Marsh has no sense of humor so he runs Landor over with his car. Hands go missing and soon Marsh is getting an unexpected back rub while driving. This almost never ends well.

aaafhand
Digits roasting on an open fire…

The last story, “Vampire”, stars Donald Sutherland as Dr. Bob Carroll. Dr. Carroll moves back to his New England hometown with his new wife, Nicole (Jennifer Jayne) to start a practice there. A series of mysterious illnesses and deaths convince Carroll to look for a vampire. After consulting with the other town doctor, Dr. Blake (Max Adrian), the men decide to take action. I love the twisty ending to this tale.

aasta
“I don’t think we covered this in medical school.”

As in most of the Amicus portmanteau films, we switch back to the linking story between segments and at the end. The template, laid out in Dead of Night (1945) works a treat. This was the first of the Amicus anthologies and it’s fun. The pace drags in parts, but the last two segments and the linking parts make up for it. Also, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing!

aaaayes
“Yes, it’s us.”

 

haunty

 

 

 

The Gorgon (1964)   5 comments

gorgonpost

Things look rocky in the small German village of Vandorf.  A slew of mysterious deaths in the woods surrounding Castle Borski have the villagers scared and the police baffled.

woods
It looks friendly enough.

When they discover a young woman dead in the woods and her fiancé conveniently hanging from a nearby tree, authorities have their scapegoat.  It beats the locals blaming Megaera (Medusa’s sister), after all.  Unsatisfied with the law’s conclusions, the young man’s father, Professor Jules Heitz (Michael Goodliffe) questions local physician, Dr. Namaroff (Peter Cushing).  Namaroff won’t let Heitz near the body of the young girl and Heitz knows something’s up.  Later, in the woods near the empty castle, he discovers what.  It doesn’t go well.

stoned
“Man, am I stoned.”

Heitz’s son, Paul (Richard Pasco) arrives in Vandorf to bury his father and brother and investigate their deaths.  Paul will have to contend with local resistance including Dr. Namaroff and his lovely nurse, Carla Hoffman (Barbara Shelley), and some pesky mythological creatures, if he wants the truth.

knows
“Do you think he knows I switched his coffee to decaf?”

Paul is sure the simple local folk have simply got the wrong end of the stick because there can’t possibly be a snake-haired killer lurking around an abandoned fortress.  I mean, it’s 1910!  Oh Paul, when will you ever learn?  Paul’s father left detailed notes on all he saw before fully Gorgonizing.  Is that like Martinizing?  Now his son knows how it feels to turn to stone years before ELO would sing about it.

lynne
“Don’t look at me, man.”

Anyway, Paul manages to get himself partially Gorgonized which leaves him a bit stiff and makes his hair go prematurely gray.  Carla digs the salt and pepper look and the two hit it off.  Then they all ride off into the sunset.  Not so fast, bub!  Things happen and Paul wants answers and Paul’s teacher, Professor Meister (Christopher Lee!) shows up and hassles the constabulary, but we still don’t know who’s killing everyone.

leecush
“I’m here now.  You can all relax.”

Will Paul and Carla pair off?  Will Dr. Namaroff tell Paul the truth…ever?  Will the real Gorgon please stand up?

Hammer Film stalwart Terence Fisher (Horror of Dracula) directs THE GORGON as a horror/mystery.  He keeps the audience guessing and shows his creature sparingly.  Sydney Pearson and Ray Caple do a terrific job on Megaera and Fisher teases us with short glimpses of the mythical beast.  James Bernard’s score, played on an early synthesizer, the Novachord, is appropriately spooky and John Gilling’s adaptation is fun.

gorgonwild
Tonight on Gorgon wild…

THE GORGON is an entertaining film that blends an ancient myth with a quasi-modern setting.  The actors, all Hammer veterans, are talented and I love anything with Cushing and Lee.

haunty

 

Scream of Fear (1961)   3 comments

poster scream

When a film starts out with a crew of locals dredging a lake, you know you’re in for a treat.

Penny Appleby (yes, really) anyway, Penny Appleby (Susan Strasberg) arrives by chauffeured limousine to the home of her estranged father in Nice, but is disappointed to learn that he’s away on business.  Sure.  He hasn’t seen his daughter in ten years and he chooses this exact time to leave town.  Wheelchair-bound Penny immediately starts seeing her out-of-town dad sitting in chairs, slumped over in the pool house, and generally, dead.

dadclose
“Hi, honey.”

Oddly, these sightings prey on her mind.  Soon Penny’s stepmother, Jane (Ann Todd) begins to suggest that Penny might need psychological help.  This idea is approved by the omnipresent Dr. Pierre Gerrard (Christopher Lee with a French accent!).

lee
“Oui!  Oui!”

Penny’s not alone though.  Robert, the chauffeur (Ronald Lewis) is drawn to Penny.  At first, he feels sorry for the lonely girl, but as more suspicious things happen, Robert becomes Penny’s ally.  The two amateur sleuths launch a clandestine investigation into the possible disappearance and probable death of her father.  They also theorize on the reasons (money) that his death might work out well for certain people.

cutie
“I’m hot, therefore good.”

Director, Seth Holt (The Nanny) builds tension and the script by Jimmy Sangster (Horror of Dracula) is spare and intelligent.  Cinematographer, Douglas Slocombe (The Servant), makes good use of darkness and candlelight and also does one of my favorite things…he waits.  He and Holt let the actors do their thing and allow Sangster’s twisty story to unfurl.  My one critique is Susan Strasberg.  Yes, I know her dad is Hyman Roth and taught generations how to act.  I just think he forgot to teach her.  She’s shrill and you never really connect with her and that’s her fault.  She’s the weak link in an otherwise superb thriller.  Hammer Films made a number of thriller/mysteries along with the numerous horror films the studio is famous for.  They’re not as well known as the gothic horrors, but they’re worth checking out.  This is a good one.

acting
“Stand back!  I’m acting!”

The House That Dripped Blood (1971)   1 comment

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An English country house provides the setting for four Robert Bloch tales in the Amicus anthology film, THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD.  A.J. Stoker (John Bryans) explains to Detective Inspector Holloway (John Bennett) that the murders the detective wants to solve stem from an evil which dwells in the walls of the cottage.  To prove his theory to the incredulous police officer, he tells four stories.

images43KQ4JG6
“It’s move-in ready.”

“Method for Murder” stars Denholm Elliott as Charles Hillyer, an author of murder mysteries who needs the peace and quiet of a country house to write.  He and his wife, Alice (Joanna Dunham) move into the house so Charles can finish his book.  Charles loves the house from the beginning.  With bookshelves swollen with Edgar Allen Poe books and gothic bric-a-brac, he thinks the house will be the perfect cure for his writer’s block.  He’s right.  Soon, Charles’ creative juices flow and he creates a crazed killer to perform his literary evil deeds.  When Charles thinks he sees this madman around his house, things go off the rails a bit.  Elliott and Dunham play well together and the direction by Peter Duffell moves it along smartly.

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“It slices AND dices?”

You know when you go into a rural wax museum and see a figure who looks like your ex?  Me neither.  Philip Grayson (Peter Cushing) has worked hard all his life and amassed enough to live out the rest of it comfortably.  He sees the house as a quiet spot where he can read and think.  While strolling through the nearby village, Grayson sees a sign for Jacquelin’s Museum of Horror.  Charmed by the thought of such a place out in the country, Grayson enters the shop.  Unfortunately, all is not as it seems in the quaint museum.  “Waxworks” also stars Joss Ackland as Neville, Grayson’s old friend, who also wanders into the shop.  The two men become fixated on what they find there.  They probably should have gone into the tea shop instead.

imagesXRGMWR9I
“I could’ve had a V-8.”

Christopher Lee looks sufficiently tweedy in “Sweets to the Sweet”.  He plays John Reid, a successful businessman who moves out to the country house with his daughter, Jane (Chloe Franks).  He doesn’t want to send the shy, troubled girl to school so he hires a private tutor, Ann Norton (Nyree Dawn Porter) to teach her at home.  The teacher and child develop a bond almost immediately and Ann begins to wonder why Reid wants to keep Jane so isolated.  The closer teacher and student get, the farther apart Reid and his daughter become.  What’s the secret causing such tension?  I’ll never tell.

imagesWF07UKR2
“You disgust me.”

In “The Cloak”, Jon Pertwee plays Paul Henderson, a conceited movie star on the decline.  Forced to appear in a low-budget vampire film, Henderson complains about everything from the script to the wardrobe.  To introduce some authenticity into his role, Henderson heads to a costume shop and buys an old cloak.  As soon as he puts it on, Henderson discovers the cloak is more than just a costume.  Ingrid Pitt also stars in this fun take on the horror film business.  There’s also a cool in-joke.  In an obvious reference to Christopher Lee, Henderson says he wants to play a vampire “…like Bela Lugosi, not this new fella.”  I smiled all through The Cloak.  The whole cast, including Geoffrey Bayldon and an uncredited Joanna Lumley, worked well together.

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“I’m telling you that director’s a Dalek.”

The writing, cast, and atmosphere in THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD keep you entertained and thinking.  Fun flick.

House-That-Dripped-Blood-1

haunty

 

The Crimson Cult or Barbara Steele Is Green with Envy (1968)   2 comments

cult poster

British horror films of the 1960s and 1970s have a certain macabre look to them. The lighting is dim and Gothic architecture and misty moors abound. The films also look similar because they often cast a veritable repertory company of actors. Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Michael Gough, Barbara Steele, Ingrid Pitt, Patrick Magee, and American actors like Vincent Price, Burgess Meredith, and Jack Palance often appeared in low-budget films made by Hammer or Amicus Productions.

hammer

In Britain during that era, Hammer Productions was the largest and best known of the horror houses. Hammer Productions kept the legends of Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Mummy going long after Universal Studios had forgotten them. Hammer’s horror films often starred Lee and Cushing and that alone induced people to buy tickets. At the same time Hammer was running Van Helsing ragged, Amicus Productions was also making horror films. Though Amicus made full-length films like THE DEADLY BEES and THE SKULL, portmanteau horror movies like TALES FROM THE CRYPT gained that studio the most attention.

amicus

Competing with Hammer and Amicus and sharing office space at Hammer House in London, Tigon British Film Productions made fewer films, but often used the same actors, sets, and props as the other studios. That means you can see Lee and Cushing in Hammer’s SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA, Amicus’ VAULT OF HORROR, or Tigon’s THE CREEPING FLESH. Often directors like Freddie Francis, Peter Sasdy, Terence Fisher, and Roy Ward Baker shuttled back and forth between studios as well. All three studios showed a little gore and a little skin and all three were popular with audiences.

tigon

Tigon cast its actors for 1968’s THE CRIMSON CULT or CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR from the Hammer/Amicus horror repertory company. Most of the actors had worked together in earlier films. THE CRIMSON CULT leads Christopher Lee and Michael Gough appeared in films together including HORROR OF DRACULA for Hammer in 1958 and DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORROR for Amicus in 1965. Lee and Boris Karloff starred in CORRIDORS OF BLOOD for MGM in 1958. Familiarity breeds comfort.   The fact that these seasoned actors had already worked together allowed them to converse naturally on camera. The best scenes in the film feature the leads sharing a drink and a few barbs before a fire.

lee brandy
“An then the Prime Minister said, Chris…he calls me Chris.”

After his brother goes missing, Robert Manning (Mark Eden), antiques dealer and bon vivant, travels to Craxted Lodge in fictional Greymarsh to find him. The lodge’s owner, Morley (Christopher Lee) and his niece, Eve (Virginia Wetherell) invite Manning to stay at the lodge while he searches for his brother. There he meets friendly torture-device expert, Professor Marsh (Boris Karloff) and crabby Elder (Michael Gough). Naturally, Manning’s arrival coincides with the annual bacchanal commemorating the burning of an infamous witch in the village. Manning gets on well with Morley and even better with Eve. Wink wink nudge nudge. He has fun while he’s awake, but at night Manning has hallucinogenic nightmares involving ritual sacrifice and document-signing. In his dreams, Lavinia Morley (Barbara Steele), an ancient witch sporting green makeup and horns, and her animal mask wearing cohorts try to force Manning to sign an ancient agreement. In his dreams, he fears signing the contract will mean losing his soul.

sign here
“You sure you don’t want that TrueCoat?”

Later Manning stumbles upon secret passageways and an altar room, both of which figure prominently in Hammer films and his frightening dreams. With all the talk of contract signing, I couldn’t help thinking of other films in which the characters are coerced to ‘just sign here’. Manning’s dreams remind me of a psychedelic version of GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, but with less coffee and more blood rituals.

moody
“Pentagrams are for closers.”

The interplay between Morley, Marsh, and Manning is my favorite part of the film. The screenplay by Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln has enough witty banter for actors like Lee and Karloff to have fun with.  As usual, Lee plays an erudite aristocrat who tells only enough to make you suspect him of something. The looks and asides between him and Karloff are priceless. What about Marsh? Is he the crazed occultist invading Manning’s dreams? He does have a mysterious air and a weird hobby.

karloff
“Cindy-Lou who?”

Manning and Eve have real chemistry too and their mature love affair is a far cry from most of the American films released in 1968. Vernon Sewell directed THE CRIMSON CULT and it looks as if he had a blast. The party scene, the witch-burning festival, and even the costumes suggest the film-makers were enjoying themselves. Still, a few questions remain. Will Manning find his wayward brother? Will he be able to resist the beautifully verdant, but evil Lavinia Morley? Will Manning stop chugging Professor Marsh’s fifty-year-old cognac like a teenager at a keg party? And finally, who will win the mellifluous voice contest, Karloff or Lee?

 

THE CRIMSON CULT bears only a slight resemblance to H.P. Lovecraft’s story, THE DREAMS IN THE WITCH HOUSE. In that, a college student who studies math and folklore begins to have dreams of witches and child sacrifice while living in an accursed house in Lovecraft’s fictional Arkham, Massachusetts.   The hero also dreams of traveling to other dimensions and meeting intelligent shapes. The filmmakers decided to stick with the more corporeal aspects of the story.

dear
“He’s too old for that hood.”

THE CRIMSON CULT’s distance from Miskatonic University matters less than the presence of Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff in one of his last roles, Barbara Steele with horns, and a weird party featuring guests drinking champagne off a woman’s body years before Salma Hayek did it in that Mexican vampire bar. Despite the absence of Cthulhu or even Yog-Sothoth, THE CRIMSON CULT has enough secret doorways, plot twists, and Christopher Lee to make it fun to watch.

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Understated.

A slightly different version of this piece appeared earlier in the Brattle Film Notes blog.  Here’s a link.  Brattle Theatre

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