Peter, the brother of antiques dealer Robert Manning (Mark Eden), disappears while trawling the British countryside for merchandise. The last note and package Robert receives of him point to a small town in the middle of nowhere. Because Robert's a go-getter, he doesn't do boring stuff like going to the police with his problem but follows his best clue - the letter head of a J.D. Morley (Christopher Lee) Peter's last missive was written on. When confronted, Morley insists he hasn't ever heard or seen anything of Peter, but because the letter truly was written on his paper, he takes Robert on as a sort of house guest, giving the man ample time to romance his niece Eve (Virginia Wetherell), make the acquaintance of an eminent expert on witchcraft (Boris Karloff) and take in the local colour in form of a festival celebrating the death of the witch Lavinia Morley (Barbara Steele) in the 17th century.
The longer Robert stays at the house, the more peculiar things get. Soon, the antiques dealer has dreams of Lavinia in blue body paint wearing a fetching Bollywood Satanist costume and being served by the members of what must be the most peculiar gay S&M club. Lavinia's trying to convince our hero to sign his name in a big, black book. One can't help but assume that a) it wouldn't be a very good idea to sign and that b) these dreams have a base in a very real witch cult in town.
Will Robert discover the truth before he chokes on his own smugness? Who is better, Karloff or Lee? Karloff, obviously.
Curse of the Crimson Altar has something of a bad reputation as a film doing a special sort of violence to the works of H.P. Lovecraft, but since it doesn't even mention the author's name in the titles and sure as hell doesn't have more to do with his work than borrowing a few names and a very vague plot thread that has been changed so much as to become generic, I can't get all that riled up about it. I prefer to see the movie as yet another attempt of an old British geezer (in this case nearly seventy years old director Vernon Sewell working for Trigon) to get at some of that sweet psychedelic zeitgeist money by updating 30s horror movie ideas and concepts with pretty colours, a hilarious party scene and some of the more ridiculous Satanist rituals imaginable.
Needless to say, as a horror movie - old-style or not - Curse is an utter failure, and there's really no need for me to actually get into what's wrong with it in this regard at all; let's just say "everything" and leave it at that.
However, as it is often the case with movies as full of failure as this one, Curse possesses quite a few charms which make it impossible (well, for me at least) not to keep a small place in one's heart reserved for it. This is, after all, a movie that features Barbara Steele (alas, never interacting with Karloff or Lee) keeping her dignity and even some sort of allure in a get-up so silly it could star in its own comedy show; a movie that shows an elderly, ill, wheelchair-bound Boris Karloff stealing every scene he's in with charisma and style, relegating Christopher Lee to a mere stooge whenever they are on screen together; a movie that might have no clue how to be a modern (for 1969) or an old-fashioned horror film, but really tries hard to put all the most cheesy aspects of both on screen. In short, this is a movie you can only hate if you have no heart and no appreciation for the beauty of utter failure.