I’ve always found watching British horror films to be strangely comforting. Unlike their American counterparts, British horror has a different vibe, a patina of politeness masking the terror lurking beneath the surface; that well-furnished study, with its fully stocked bar and adorned with many a first edition on its shelves, hides a musty, decrepit, sinister torture chamber. That revered old lord who lives on the English moors is really a fiendish occultist looking to unlock the secrets of Hell. The seemingly bucolic British countryside, replete with fog, damp, and sheep, evokes an ancient dread, looming for untold centuries, the impetus for the “folk horror” subgenre that spawned such homegrown classics as Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man. Folk horror’s influence can also be seen in two British horrors, Night of the Demon (AKA Curse of the Demon in the USA) and Curse of the Crimson Altar (AKA The Crimson Cult in the USA), very much alike and yet very different from one another, provide a refreshing counterpoint to the likes of Roger Corman and William Castle across the pond. Neither film was made by Britain’s two major horror film producers, Hammer Productions and Amicus Productions, though they are often mistaken as examples of their output. Shot a decade apart, they exemplify the inherent classicism of the United Kingdom and provide striking compositions, both in stark black and white and garish color, of a rural-flavored horror that invaded the cinemas.
Post-war Britain became a spectator in the new world order, standing on the sidelines as the Cold War began between the USA and the Soviet Union. It saw its colonies across the world advocate for sovereignty, no longer willing to be subjects of antiquated colonialism (not to mention the great expense. As a result of the loss of such prestige, many British creatives reflected inwardly at such a loss: Writer Ian Fleming created a super spy who maintained the illusion of a strong British presence in the Cold War with his celebrated James Bond novels and short stories.) Just as writers such as Doris Lessing, Anthony Burgess, and Kingsley Amis looked inwardly at the British identity, so too did the British film industry: The rise of the British film industry in the 1950s and 1960s can be seen in the rise of Hammer’s nearly two-decade-long supremacy of lurid, colorful horror and suspense pictures, no longer reliant on American imports, with such twin dynamos Christopher Lee (one of the stars of Curse of the Crimson Altar) and Peter Cushing (sadly best known to the average North American as “that other old guy” in Star Wars). Many of Hammer’s productions were set in rural European locales but shot outside London, the English countryside standing in as a foreboding land, dangerous to film protagonists and not just because of mad cow disease. If the Britain of the present was no longer powerful, then looking back to its colorful paganistic past, spurred on by the morbid machinations of British occultist Aleister Crowley, would have to suffice. Crowley’s influence on British horror cinema is evident in both Night of the Demon and Curse of the Crimson Altar.
Night of the Demon is an atypical British horror film, thanks mainly to its French director, Jacques Tourneur, who, along with noted film producer Val Lewton, created some of the most majestic and eerie horror films of the 1940s. Films like Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie were much more subtle than their brash Universal counterparts, delving into obscure mythology not related to vampires, werewolves, or a composite human brought back to life via electricity. Having made a number of memorable film noirs, Westerns, and dramas in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, Tourneur returned to the horror genre in 1957 and is responsible for Night of the Demon’s uneasy tone–it’s impossible to even contemplate the film in color. The film owes a great deal to Crowley and his posthumous celebrity—the film’s villain (besides the titular demon), Dr. Julian Karswell (a delightful Niall MacGinnis), is an obvious Crowley analog, right down to the well-fed frame, “satanic” goatee, and male pattern baldness. Karswell is a typical, upper-class Briton, borne from an old fortune, but one who uses it to exploit others in his occult practices, including resurrecting an ancient demon to eliminate his enemies, including professors who threaten to expose his nefarious schemes. While Karswell travels into London repeatedly, his home is a magnificent mansion in the countryside, surrounded by a dark forest ideal to conjure a demon. Much of the film’s horror elements occur in the country, including an early appearance of the demon (much to the dismay of Tourneur who fought against showing it so early in the film), and whether it’s a violent windstorm or an attack from the largely unseen demon, Tourneur uses the black and white photography to his advantage; he creates a terrifying battle between science and superstition that can only be illustrated through shadowy, dark landscapes and well-lit, clean urban buildings.
The film’s protagonist, Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews), an American psychologist, arrives in London to attend a conference in which he will expose Karswell’s practices. Holden is an outsider, the typical “loud American” unaccustomed to British culture, barging into hotel rooms, libraries, and people’s homes in pursuit of the truth; unlike his British colleagues, he doesn’t hold back his thoughts and feelings. He fumes during a séance, rolls his eyes at his colleagues’ theories, and irritates the only person who wants to help him, Joanna (Peggy Cummins), daughter of one of the murdered professors. Holden is a nod to the popular British character Professor Bernard Quatermass, a beloved scientist who debunked the occult and other otherworldly phenomena in a series of popular TV programs in the early ‘50s (and likely influenced the creation of the perplexing-yet-long-running British sci-fi serial, Dr. Who) before being resurrected in the ‘60s for a series of films. Both characters favor empiricism and science over supernatural explanations, even if Holden confronts the uncomfortable reality that Karswell’s powers are indeed very real. In one key scene, Holden is visiting Stonehenge, looking for clues to help fight Karswell. Visiting the site of one of Britain’s oldest sites, an iconic landmark associated with a plethora of British myths and legends, is important because it’s an avatar to the mysticism he opposes. Once he finally realizes the demon is indeed real and Karswell’s curse on his life is no joke, he resorts to the same occult tricks in order to save himself and defeat Karswell—even a man of science needs to be pragmatic to end a conflict.
If Night of the Demon is an early antecedent to folk horror, dealing with ancient curses, then Curse of the Crimson Altar is one of multiple examples in the late sixties when British cinema continued the tradition of looking to its past to frighten audiences, only now with color and nudity. Produced by Tigon, makers of Witchfinder General and The Blood on Satan’s Claw, the film employed many of the same Hammer actors, albeit for a lot less money. While Curse of the Crimson Altar is by no means an outstanding horror film, it’s demonstrative of the folk horror filmmakers were making in the late ‘60s, bridging a gap between the horror of the past, with the inclusion of Boris Karloff, and the horror of the present, as illustrated by Christopher Lee’s popular blood-soaked visage as Dracula in the numerous Hammer films. When Night of the Demon was released in 1957, British social attitudes could never have conceived of the more adult themes to come to the cinema by the mid-‘60s. Britain of the mid-‘60s was much different than its immediate post-war self: London was now no longer just an old city full of decrepit buildings and elderly academicians, but a vibrant focal point for fashion, acclaimed national cinema (thanks to the likes of Michael Caine, Oliver Reed, Julie Christie, Terence Stamp, and others), and daring TV shows like The Avengers and The Prisoner, which celebrated and mocked British idiosyncrasies. However, outside of London, labor strife and class conflict continued unabated, and folk horror was effective as a reflection of the anti-cosmopolitan attitudes many a Briton felt towards Swinging London and its hedonistic ilk.
Curse of the Crimson Altar is a serviceable folk horror film that is best known primarily for the use of Karloff, Lee, and the magnetic Barbara Steele as an alluring, green-skinned witch. While the film isn’t particularly scary, it makes up for it with atmosphere, set primarily in a small English town and its countryside. When antique dealer Robert Manning (Robert Eden) searches for his missing brother in the town of Greymarsh, home to their ancestors, he finds the townspeople mostly uncooperative, including local aristocrat, Morley (Christopher Lee) and occult scholar Professor Marsh (Karloff). There’s enough suspicious behavior for Manning to stick around, though I suspect that Morley’s niece, Eve (Virginia Wetherell), is his primary motivation for sticking around—she throws raucous, boozy parties at her uncle’s estate, Craxted Lodge! The audience wonders if proudly-mod Eve is in cahoots with the forces of evil–she’s an example of the youth culture of late ‘60s Britain opposing the quaint, quiet rural life of the older generations. Manning flirts shamelessly with Eve, even using a bit of magical sleepwalking and subsequent knife wound as an invite into her bed. As casual lovers, they work together to solve the mystery of manning’s brother’s disappearance and Morley’s invisible cult goings-on.
It’s lovely to see Lee not in his usual vampire costume, perfectly at home in his study (which has multiple hidden passageways leading to the aforementioned torture chamber), a genial host who offers his home to Manning and offers plenty of brandy, all while hiding his witchy ways. Karloff, in one of his final roles, is engaging as an occult specialist intended as a red herring to obfuscate the audience (somewhat successfully) in predicting the film’s dénouement. Though seldom seen in the film, Steele makes a considerable impression in her full witch regalia and makeup as Lavinia Morley, a supernatural force from the past seeking to curse and punish her tormentors’ descendants. Whenever she’s onscreen, it’s impossible to look away—even when she’s not onscreen, her presence is felt deeply as characters traipse about Craxted Lodge.
Some might find the film’s ending to be disappointing, but the connection of past and present Britain is thoroughly engaging, culminating in a fiery death for one of our characters. (The antiquated fire wagon, used by the local firefighters, demonstrates just how old-fashioned Greymarsh is compared to London.) Lee and Steele working together, ancestors from different time periods, is riveting, creating the film’s creepiest moments, and the use of an old estate in the country hiding occult practices points to Aleister Crowley once again. It’s not a terrifying film, but Curse of the Crimson Altar proves to be a satisfying diversion with its generational conflict and pulpy pagan flourishes. There are superior folk horror films, but few of them have a trio of iconic horror actors on display.
While British horror cinema began to wither away in the ‘70s (including Lee’s confused vampire brought to contemporary London in Dracula A.D. 1972), its contributions to the genre in the late ‘50s and ‘60s are memorable. While French students rioted and America tore itself apart over Civil Rights and Vietnam, the United Kingdom grappled with its relevance in a modern world. Thankfully, artists could be relied on for thoughtful commentary. Filmmakers sought the past to interpret an unknown future and the result gave cinephiles a collection of memorable folk horror pictures. While the genre was not unique to the UK, folk horror created a platform for British filmmakers to wrestle with post-war predicaments by using the supernatural origins of the country’s greatest myths to tell the British. And if commentary wasn’t high on the film studios’ mandates, the films made during this period, including Night of the Demon and Curse of the Crimson Altar, continue to entertain, thrill, intrigue, and inspire audiences today. ★