Friday, May 23, 2014



"HE will be PLEASED !"

    Excellent little creepy B & W British horror film that along NIGHT OF THE EAGLE (1962) and NIGHT OF THE DEMON (1957) help form a nifty lineage of that wonderful English affinity for producing serious and unsettling movies concerning witchcraft, wicca & sorcery which would continue thru the 60's and early 70's with THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (1968), BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW (1971) and THE WICKER MAN (1973). Sometimes refereed to as "folk horror" this tradition continues to this day with A FIELD IN ENGLAND and the very excellent LORD OF TEARS. Although produced in England THE CITY OF THE DEAD (U.S. title HORROR HOTEL) is set in America (which some might say puts it outside of this realm) but it does have a very "British" feel to it (even with forgoing the accents) and does fit into this lineage in terms of atmosphere and the seriousness of which it approaches the subject (probably the closest American cinema had come to these was the Val Lewton produced THE SEVENTH VICTIM from 1943).

    Starting out with the time honored prologue of a witch burning (this time in Puritan New England) where the center of attention is witch Elizabeth Selwyn (a wonderfully creepy performance by Patricia Jessel) along with a whole bunch of angry & vengeful townsfolk yelling "Burn !!", while her confederate Jethrow Keane ( British character actor Valentine Dyall) glares on from the crowd as Selwyn intones her curse upon future generations. THE CITY OF THE DEAD then jumps forward to contemporary times where we initially focus on student Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) who's taking a course on witchcraft being taught by the very enthusiastic Prof. Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee). Wanting to continue her studies more deeply Nan heads off to the remote & seemingly perpetually dark & fogbound New England village of Whitewood (scene of the prologue's witch burning) at the suggestion of Prof. Driscoll and much to the dismay of her cynical & disbelieving boyfriend Bill (Tom Naylor) and brother Richard (Dennis Lotis).

     Arriving at the small village (but not before picking up hitchhiker/resurrected warlock Jethrow Keane) she finds hostile villagers, a blind priest in a deserted church and a creepy inn (complete with commemorative plaque for the witch burning) which is presided over by the contemporary form of Elizabeth Selwyn. Also introduced is Betta St. John as Patricia Russell who serves as the one friendly face and later as a nominal love interest for brother Richard. Its at this point that there's a couple of plot points eerily similar to Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO (released the same year) as what you are led to believe is the main character disappears and a relative and significant other go to the town to investigate.
     Made about the same time that Hammer was kicking it into high gear (and branching out from horror) THE CITY OF THE DEAD is about as different from that look as you can get. Although they were still using B&W for some of their thrillers and film noirs the horror was all about blood drenched color at Hammer. In addition unlike the Hammer films which in spite their sometimes meager budgets always had a spacious richly designed look to the the them, THE CITY OF THE DEAD has a claustrophobic stifling feel to it - which works beautifully in its favor. Literally dripping with Gothic atmosphere it was shot entirely on a sound stage with just a few interior sets and with the village of Whitewood consisting and a of a few buildings (and of course a graveyard with skeletal tress and leaning tombstones) along with the ever present swirling fog and constant darkness, all of which lend to the feeling of total isolation and the village being totally cut off from the outside world.

    With not a large amount of screen time Lee is a magnificent presence here as he totally dominates whatever scenes he's in (even taking into account the compact cast) and along with Jessel and Dyall they all overshadow the rest of the cast. After 1959's THE MUMMY Lee began to branch out in his horror roles (in addition to non-horror) and began working quite a bit on the continent and probably found roles such as this a refreshing change without make-up (along with not getting killed by Peter Cushing at some point). The beautiful cinematography by Desmond Dickinson (who started out in the silents) is amazing to behold with almost every shot looking like a perfectly composed still. Besides directing this, Director John Moxey worked almost exclusively in TV and later directed the original made for TV movie of THE NIGHT STALKER. This production can also be looked on as a precursor to Amicus Productions as writer Milton Subotsky and producer Max Rosenberg would join forces and form this Hammer competitor in 1962.
   In a rather bizarre scene Venetia Stevenson (who was married to both Russ Tamblyn and Don Everly of The Everly Brothers) strips down to stockings and a corset (?) (which DOES seem like something out of a Hammer film) and strikes a few pin-up like poses- which were probably meant to create some eye catching promotional material. THE CITY OF THE DEAD is available on a spiffy DVD from VCI containing the British cut of the film and a commentary by Christopher Lee.




  1. Nice one!! Happy Mem Day Weekend my friend, T.

  2. Excellent review for an excellent film. I love the cinematography in this one, some great uses of camera angles. Also happy to see you recommend Lord of Tears, I've heard great things about it but just haven't got to it yet.

    1. I really enjoyed LORD OF TEARS - beautiful atmosphere and a really well made movie. Thanks for the comment !

  3. I haven't seen this one - so I skimmed the post - but if/when I check it out I'll come back and reply further!