There’s something of a retro Golden Age of Brit horror kick to Iain Ross-McNamee’s second picture as director, Crucible of the Vampire. It’s not so much the flamboyant Gothic of Hammer’s period monster romps, but it’s more redolent of the gritty world of Tigon British, purveyors of such classic folk horror chillers as The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968), with a dab of The Wicker Man (1973) and the BBC’s MR James Ghost Stories for Christmas thrown in for good measure.
To get the mood running Crucible of the Vampire opens in 1647 at the height of the witchcraft panic that Tigon so marvellously celebrated in Witchfinder General (1968). One Ezekiel Fletcher (Brian Croucher), necromancer about town, gets hanged for attempting to bring his daughter Lydia back from the dead and his magic cauldron is cleaved in two by John Stearn, a real life associate of the Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins himself.
Fast forward to 2017 and assistant curator Isabelle (Katie Goldfinch) is sent to a Shropshire stately home to verify the provenance of half of a cauldron that has just been discovered buried in the cellar and determine whether it is the match for the half belonging at her museum. Naturally the stately pile’s owners want to know too, but not for the reasons Isabelle suspects. They are a creepy bunch too. Domineering patriarch Karl (Larry Rew), his theatre designer wife Evelyn (Babette Barat) and their ethereally beautiful daughter Scarlet (Florence Cady) welcome Isabelle to the house, but it isn’t long before the clearly deranged Scarlet sneaks into Isabelle’s room and steals her mobile and enjoys a good sniff of her slinky lingerie.
As Isabelle uncovers the secrets of the cauldron’s past the scene is set for an epic showdown. In between there’s a lot of things creeping about in the dark corridors of the house before going bump in the night, drug induced dreams, clues that serendipitously turn up in the library and a visit to the local pub that proves revelatory to both sides. We discover that Isabelle has had a strict catholic upbringing and as we all know there’s nothing that goes quite as well together as a creepy old house, ancient ritual and virgin’s blood.
There are some powerful performances in Crucible of the Vampire. Cady is magnificent as Scarlet running the gamut of deranged personalities from the initial spoilt brat, childishly aloof and snooty with her cut glass received pronunciation, before turning seductress and then finally psychopath. Neil Morrissey, who as he gets older seems to be becoming a far better dramatic actor than comedian, puts on a creditable show as Robert the gardener who is about the only rational ordinary member of the household, while Katie Goldfinch holds her own as Isabelle and even gets to throw some kicks and punches.
Crucible of the Vampire was something of joyous nostalgia trip for me. Having been a teenager in the early 1970s late night TV showings of Hammer or Tigon flicks were as much a formative part of my growing up as punk, goth and metal. However this movie is far more than just a misty eyed trip down memory lane. Yes we may be in familiar hokey territory, but the lighting, sound design and expertly delivered frights just overstep that thin line between the nostalgia of Tigon’s classics and the BBC’s suspenseful James adaptations and contemporary Japanese and Korean horror enough, in this well constructed slice of British folk horror complete with a strong frisson of lesbian vampire eroticism.